How to Incorporate the Visual Arts into Worship Life, Part I

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I am thankful to have a job in which my primary task is to bridge the gap between the Church and the artists in our communities. I am deeply convicted that our creatives help us tell the Story of God more fully than we could articulate without their presence among us. But the most frequent question I am asked is typically not Why? but How? Although the question is complex, and there is very often a need for reconciliation between individual artists and church leaders before you begin, this post will address some basic guidelines from the worship pastor’s side.

The basic plan for engaging the visual arts that follows seems to flex well between congregational personalities. This plan gives us some practical starting points by considering the “Three C’s.” We will discuss the importance of knowing your local congregational context, entering the Story of God through the Church Calendar; and finally, we will explore options and resources for collaboration.

Context

As any good pastor knows, so much of ministry is about context – knowing your people, your location, and the congregation’s outlook on life. In his book, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes: “I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls—immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions—place and time—that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

The arts can provide windows into the Holy Mysteries that Peterson talks about. Creativity can and should usher in the affective, emotive and abstract into your worship life. But before we invite something new into our congregation’s worship life, we must know and assess congregational readiness. We must remember to “count the cost” before adding this new dimension. In this way, incorporation of the visual arts is no different than any other pastoral undertaking.

Primary challenge: In my experience, challenges fall primarily into two categories: Personal Space, Physical Space

  1. Personal Space: Is your congregation ready mentally and emotionally? What is their current relationship with the visual arts? What demographics make up your community and what is their primary aesthetic? What are theological understandings of the relationship of art and faith? We won’t go into all of these here, but it is obviously wise to learn these things before you begin.
  2. Physical Space: Does your community own its worship space? Is it a temporary space? Is the space too small/too large? What are the “usable” areas for art? Chancel, Table, Narthex, Wall space, prayer stations…

The Calendar

Many pastors often struggle with fear as they seek to bring in more creative expression in worship. What if my parishioners misunderstand the work? What if the message is not clear?

The second important guide in bringing visual arts into your worship life is the Church Calendar. Constance Cherry writes: “Time is a most important entity for the Christian. Perhaps the whole basis of Christianity is founded not only on the reality that God created time as his first creative act…but also on the fact that God lived in time, beginning with the incarnation of Jesus.”

The Calendar is our circadian rhythm, played out week to week in the liturgy. The Calendar is the guide that helps us live out the Story of God in our worship and in our lives. Our incorporation of the visual arts should typically follow this rhythm as well. Beginning with the Incarnation, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday… and so on. The beauty of incorporating the arts into worship that follows the Christian year is that the liturgy is always present to balance and bolster our emotive experiences, thus drawing our congregation into an holistic encounter with our God.

Primary challenge: Finding a creative balance. Following the calendar does not mean that you are bound to use green, blue, purple, gold banners and paraments – end of story. The work can be as abstract as a color-field painting, or as explicit as a painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Again, know your context. When I was given the task of designing worship spaces, my pastor encouraged me, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules.” In my opinion, both are equally important. Use the calendar as a sort-of rule book, but then allow the creativity of your congregation kick in. Find the appropriate balance for your context.

Collaboration

Finally, take a step back, look at your space, consider the church season, and then the sky is the limit. Create a team of worship space designers. Do you have artists in your congregation? Create a collaborative series of paintings of the Stations of the Cross during Lent. Have your quilting group design hangings for Advent. Appoint the youth to create an edgy installation for Pentecost.

Primary challenge: Art costs time, energy and money. Do you have the resources?
What if your church doesn’t have any money? Create “found object” projects with discarded materials or natural objects such as leaves, sticks, or pine cones. Make art a church service project. Create a mural together, take a series of photographs around your community to use as prayer prompts. There are lots of creative ways to make art as a congregation.

What if your church doesn’t have any artists? Outsource: invite an “artist-in-residence” to be a part of your community, to collaborate on a project with studio talks and forums on the visual arts; start a church gallery and rent an exhibition. Educating your community through the presence of art is just as powerful. Allow the art to become a welcome and expected part of your space.

And if you aren’t ready to bring the art in, go out to the art. Start a museum group, visit museums and hold discussions. Develop your congregation’s visual language first, and then bring the art inside.

Once you have considered these broad elements in your own congregation, you can begin to think more practically about the kinds of initiatives that your church family might want to undertake with your artists. In my next post, I’ll move into practical applications.

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