Do banners hang in your worship space?
During the last couple of decades, interest in banners has enjoyed a revival. As a result, many congregations have decided to add a banner or two to their sanctuary. But often they haven't really thought through the purpose and meaning of those banners. Do banners add to worship, inspiring worshipers to reflect on who they are as children of God and what kind of God we are called to serve? Or are they merely decorations to brighten up a dull or plain space?
Many people are surprised to discover that banners are not a twentieth-century invention; in fact, they are mentioned repeatedly in Scripture. A closer look at how God's Old and New Testament people used banners can help us understand how we can make them a meaningful part of our gathering and worshiping today.
Banners Identify Us
The earliest biblical mention of banners occurs in Numbers 1 and 2, where God tells the children of Israel to camp in tribal groups around the tabernacle and to erect banners or standards to identify their clans. Scholars who have studied Jewish tradition suggest that the colors of the tribal banners may have corresponded to the colors of the tribal stones represented in the priest's ephod (Ex. 28:15-21).
Banners Call Us to Gather and Proclaim the Truth
The Scriptures tell us in several places that banners were raised to gather or assemble the people. A raised banner served to announce that something significant was about to happen.
In Isaiah 11:10-12 we read, "The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the people; the nations will rally to him. . . . He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles in Israel. . . ." In Jeremiah 50:2 a banner is lifted to announce the downfall of Babylon; and in Isaiah 62:10-12 a banner is raised "for the nations. The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: . . . 'See, your Savior comes!'"
Banners can serve a similar purpose in worship today. Hung outside or in entryways, banners call us to gather. And banners that incorporate biblical symbols and /or texts in creative designs can help us proclaim God's truth.
Banners Guide Us in Our Spiritual Battles
God's people rallied for battle with the raising of banners: "Lift a banner in the land! Blow the trumpet among the nations! Prepare the nations for battle against her" (Jer. 51:27).
Throughout history banners have been used during battle to direct soldiers where to go, where to stand, and when to march. Jeremiah 4:6 is an example of such direction: "Raise a banner to go to Zion! Flee for safety without delay."
As Christians we are daily engaged in a spiritual battle. Perhaps the banners in our sanctuaries can encourage us to follow our captain in the battle against our enemy, Satan. Especially important in our visual culture today, banners can serve as visual statements that speak and stay with God's people even longer than the spoken word.
Banners Announce Our Victory
Psalm 20:5 says, "We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God." Throughout history, it has been the custom of armies to hoist flags of victory after conquering a town or territory in battle. And since according to Romans 8:37 "we are more than conquerors through him who loved us," we can hoist our banners in celebration of the victory Christ has already won.
Banners Keep the Truth Before Us
A primary function of Christian banners is to keep the truth before us. We, like the people of the Old Testament, need reminding. In Micah 6:5, God gives such a reminder: "My people, remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD." We too need to remember what God has done for us and for people throughout history.
God often directed the people of Israel to make visual aids to remind them of what was really important. Numbers 15:37-40 suggests such an aid: "You are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD." The people were also instructed to write the words of the law "on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your forefathers" (Deut. 11:20-21). These were two visual reminders of the law.
In a similar way the banners we hang in our churches can be reminders of God's presence, God's truth, God's ways, and God's promises. Liturgical banners often incorporate words from Scripture, helping us to focus on a particular theme or truth. Likewise, visual symbols, which find their source in God's Word, can be rich expressions of truth that appeal both to the mind and the imagination.
The church can grow in its worship by becoming reacquainted with the meaning and significance of traditional, historic Christian symbols as well as by exploring meaningful contemporary variations. Scripture is full of symbolism in visions, parables, and numbers. Such symbolism, when incorporated into artistic banners using symbols and/or words, can enrich our worship by focusing our attention on important truths.
Using Banners in Worship
When using banners or anything visual in worship, consider the following guidelines (suggested by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. in Stale of the Arts):
- Any visuals used in worship should help us focus on God and God's written revelation. Visual images must be connected to the Word. Veith uses Solomon's temple as an example: the two enormous bronze pillars at the portico were named Jakin (he establishes) and Boaz (in him is strength) (1 Kings 7:15-22). The pillars were not art for art's sake or mere decorations—they were a symbolic reminder of God's established strength for all worshipers as they arrived and departed. The names of the pillars added to their visual impact.
- Any banner or art used in the church should not draw attention to itself but point beyond itself to God and the trutti. Bad art draws negative attention to itself, so there must be standards for quality. We want to give our best to the glory of God.
- All parts of 'worship, visible and audible, should be opportunities for praising God—not for indulging our own need for aesthetic pleasure or seeking entertainment. Banners can help to focus our attention on a particular truth or significant aspect of worship.
Banners can function in a number of ways in our worship buildings. They can be part of the permanent decor or they can be rotated weekly or seasonally. Paraments, or ecclesiastical furniture coverings, can function in the same way as banners by including words or symbols that are meaningful for a season or for a special service, such as communion or baptism.
Banners hanging in entryways serve to welcome God's people and to prepare them for worship. Banners hanging on church exteriors (on or between columns, on walls, or from special mounts) serve as witnesses to the world.
Well-designed and crafted banners can help the church to celebrate the victories and special occasions unique to God's people. They direct our hearts to our Lord.
It Is Finished (John 19:30) 25" x 48" The figure of Christ in this banner is based on a German woodcut. The cut-through applique of black fabric allows the sharp coral background color to emerge. Intense colors and a pulsating border hint at Christ's suffering; metallic gold framing strips allude to Christ's divinity.
The Lord Reigns Forever and Ever
(Ps. 96:10) 36" x 36"
The central symbol of medieval origin suggests Ovists sovereignty over the "four corners of the earth." The comer arrows imply that the Lord's kingdom is both everlasting and expanding. African tie-dyed fabric was used to suggest the universality of the kingdom on this predominantly white, blue, and teal banner.
Amen, Amen (Rev. 7:12) 40" x 61"
This banner, designed with a stained glass window motif hangs in the Lookout Mountain Reformed Presbyterian Church in Georgia. The wonderful truths in the central panel are framed with "Amens" as they are in Revelation 7:12. Textiles with a variety of sheen, including marbleized, were combined for a rich effect.