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

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Ready to get out your paintbrushes and collage materials?

In a previous post, we explored some basic questions to assess your congregation’s culture and readiness to engage the arts, as well as some broad concepts that might guide your arts engagement. This post will dive into some practical nitty-gritty ideas.

In the past two decades, the realm of education has increasingly taken students’ personalities and learning styles into account when teaching new materials. Teaching new ways of worship is, in many ways, no different. As we explored in the previous post, the visual arts can be an intimidating or even fearful terrain to explore for folks not acquainted with arts in worship. People may be concerned about whether or not they can understand a piece of art; feel uncomfortable engaging art materials; or even theologically disagree with the presence of visual arts in a worship setting. I have found that most concerns actually fall into one of those three categories. For this reason, I have often taken a “three-tiered” approach to engaging the visual arts in my congregation.

Aesthetic Catechesis: Cognitive Learning

Let’s begin with our theological disagreements. Because of the history of visual arts and Protestantism (remember Iconoclasm?), people in your congregation may have reservations about the presence of visual representations in worship. This fear is rooted most prominently in a fear of idolatry. Because this is a post on practical implications, I won’t offer an apologetic for the arts in worship here, but I will recommend that you explore this topic as a congregation. One of the first ways that my previous congregation and I engaged the visual arts was to start a summer small group to read a book about the arts in worship. Many people need to understand before they will participate.

Some books that might be a good start for a small group include:

  • For the Beauty of the Church, edited by W. David O. Taylor
  • It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, edited by Ned Bustard
  • Sanctifying Art, by Deborah Sokolove
  • The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, by Robin Jensen

Creating in Community: Experiential Learning

A second way to invite your community into engagement with the visual arts is to create safe spaces for them to make art together. Special church seasons offer opportune frameworks for artmaking in community. For example, my previous congregation met in weekly neighborhood groups, and one Advent, we created a group artwork called “Advent Reflections.” Each neighborhood group was given one lectionary passage from the season of Advent, one 12”x12” piece of artboard, and bags of small reflective materials such as mirrors, sequins, and glass beads. Each group was tasked with reflecting on the scripture passage in community and then making a piece of art with both the reflective materials common to all groups, as well as found or salvaged items specific to their groups. The pieces were then displayed in the sanctuary for our Christmas Eve service, illuminated by candles, creating beautiful flickering lights from the reflective materials on each panel. By providing guidelines such as themes from the Christian year, scripture, and common materials, people felt comfortable “getting their hands dirty” in the artmaking process, and felt ownership in the process of creating something with the people that they were “doing life” with each week.

Overwhelmed in Worship: Immersive Learning

Like Thomas, some of us just need to see, touch, taste, and smell to believe. Some of us need to experience the arts as a means of worship before we understand. Having an artist from your community create an interactive art installation can be a great way to provide an immersive art experience for your congregation. Art objects can be installed in your worship space, or in an alternative space, for the case of those of us who do not own our buildings.

In my previous congregation, I had the honor of creating an interactive installation on our spring church retreat. We hosted a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and raised money to purchase thousands of standard-sized wood children’s building blocks. In an exploration of childlike faith, I invited our congregants to build with blocks inside the beautiful, all-wood worship space at the abbey where we held our retreat (after received special permission from the monks of course!). This experience in worship-as-play was punctuated by youthful, instrumental xylophone music and written scripture prompts on notecards. After three hours of delight in building and in one another, we delivered the blocks to a homeless children’s play center in our city. Check the project out here.

Art installations can be temporary, like the above, or more permanent fixtures, such as the work of Nancy Chinn, Phaedra Taylor, or our very own WDC author Joel Mooneyhan. Using the church calendar and/or scriptures as a guide, we can create overwhelming, yet “safe” spaces for our congregations to see, feel, taste, and touch in worship.

The three areas, or “tiers” for engaging your congregation in worship through the visual arts can be utilized all at once, or one season at a time in your community. I have found that using all three typically provides at least one outlet for nearly every type of person in your community. Test these things out, add a dash of your own congregational personality and creativity, and explore a richer, more aesthetic worship experience.

And finally, be patient with yourself and your church family. Getting used to new ways to engage in worship can take time. Allow your pastoral sensibilities and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom to guide your creative pace.

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Shannon Sigler is a visual artist, theologian, and arts administrator. Her art and research center around a Wesleyan paradigm for the visual arts, as well as explorations in feminism, Christian vocation, and family life. Shannon served as the Associate Director for CIVA | Christians in the Visual Arts, and is currently the Director of Cascadia Worship & Arts for Fuller Seminary Northwest.

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