The Wild Olive Tree

An Interactive Visual Metaphor for Lent/Easter

Every time our worship planning team faces another major season of the church year, the same nagging worry creeps into the back of our minds: Can we come up with any new creative ideas for this season? You’ve probably been there too (which is why you’re cruising this periodical for ideas, right?).

Every year I stick to my guns and assure the team that all we need to do is open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, listen with curiosity to the pastor’s ideas for the next sermon or series, and be faithful in collaboration.

The Meeting

Here’s how our Lent/Easter brainstorming and planning meeting unfolds.

After a time of prayer, the pastor introduces the concept of the service, in this case a series called “Living the Resurrection.” He explains the scriptural context and offers his own personal narrative and other stories. The ideas for this Lent/Easter series center on Jesus as the way to new life; only in Jesus is our life fulfilled and complete. The rest of us begin to think of ways we can relate to what is being shared. We think of stories and images that support or refine or even challenge the conversation. And as is true of any gathering of creative people, that conversation may or may not always be on topic (which is why every group of artists needs a good coach)!

In this case, one of those seemingly “loose” topics is an analogy for one of the points in the sermon series that pertains to a tree. Specifically, Romans 11:17 mentions the wild olive. From there, one of the big dreamers in our group suggests that we get dozens of olive tree saplings to “place strategically around the church.” Another chimes in, “We should have a master gardener come and demonstrate grafting!”

In the meantime, one of the research-lovers on the team looks up the olive tree in a book of common Christian symbols. She begins to read about all the symbolism related to the olive, the olive branch, and the olive tree. This engaging and representative visual and metaphoric symbol for the series captures our imagination, and we leave the meeting with various research, networking, and shopping assignments.

When we reconvene a few days later, it’s clear that transporting a full-grown olive tree from Jerusalem to be our focal point is not a realistic option. (Artists do need to dream, but that’s another conversation!) We decide instead to create our own interpretation of an authentic olive tree. So we came up with the following plan.

The Plan

For the sake of accessibility, balance, and impact, we chose to create two halves of a tree in the following manner:

  • For each half, we cut twelve sections of bendable copper tubing into lengths of 8 to 12 feet (2.5 to 4 meters) each.
  • Next we tightly wrapped each tube with brown rolled craft paper, securing it with medium-gauge wire.
  • We clumped these paper-wrapped copper tubes together, secured them with a little more medium-gauge wire and then, for lack of a better word, man-handled the tubes into a twisted column.
  • The bendable copper tubing nicely held its shape and also allowed us to adjust the twisted lengths into “branches” at the top and “roots” at the bottom.
  • For ease of display and support, we mounted each tree half onto a 4 x 8 foot (1.25 x 2.5 meter) sheet of 3/8-inch Plexiglas by drilling holes in the Plexiglas and then securing the tree to it with more wire. Drilling holes in the top of the Plexiglas sheet enabled us to hang the two halves with some cable. The clear Plexiglas also enabled us to achieve some great backlighting.
  • On Easter Sunday the two halves of the tree were bound together to create one “360-degree” tree.

The Lighting

Meanwhile, during the weeks when the two tree halves were being prepared, another team member researched the many choices available through theater lighting supply companies for inexpensive, laser-cut metal discs (called GOBOs) that could be placed into our lighting fixtures to “throw” silhouette images of trees on the walls surrounding the worship space. In addition, our lighting fixtures also accept color discs. So we were able to achieve several tree representations, from barren to full of life.

The “Interactives”

With the lighting designed and the tree halves in place, we were ready for the congregation to look, wonder, touch, and interact with the central metaphor of the series. We really try to employ all of the senses in our planning so as to deepen people’s memory of the message. Often we like to create opportunities for people to actually get out of their seat during worship and participate in some tactile or communal action, which we call “interactives.” The main interactives each person could experience with the tree are listed on the chart above; among them were grafting stems of copper leaves onto the branches (during the sermon using Romans 11:17) and then decoupaging torn paper tissue to the back side of the Plexiglas (during the sermon on Christ’s love for us motivating us to love others “into” the big picture of God’s kingdom).


Sermon Series: Living the Resurrection

Title/Scripture: “Drawing Life from Jesus” Romans 11:17-25
Metaphor: Grafting
Visual: Possible demonstration
Interactive: “Grafting” a copper leaf onto the tree

Title/Scripture: “Forgiven and Forgiving” Luke 7:36-50
Metaphor: Being an impression (copy) of Christ
Visual: Leaves on trees from last week
Interactive: Simple crayon (copper-colored) rubbing using paper over veined copper leaf

Title/Scripture: “Loved and Loving” 1 John 4:11-20
Metaphor: Multiplying pieces, cells of an organism
Visual: Mosaics, stained glass art simulated on walls with lights
Interactive: Decoupaging torn paper tissue to back of Plexiglas

Title/Scripture: “Given Peace, Being Peace (makers)” John 14:27; Matthew 5:9
Metaphor: We are the branches (olive branches of peace)
Visual: Olive branches, seeing mosaic we created last week behind the olive tree
Interactive: Carrying an olive branch with us as we leave reminds us of our role (florist supply)

Title/Scripture: “Pressed to Give” 2 Corinthians 4:1-12
Metaphor: Olives release their best, most potent properties when pressed. We’re called to be pressed as Christ was.
Visual: Dripping oil, olive oil, Google images of authentic olive presses
Interactive: Turning crank on an olive press or similar press

Title/Scripture: “Struck Down but Not Destroyed” 2 Corinthians 4:1-12
Metaphor: New shoot from the stump of Jesse
Visual: New shoots, emerging life
Interactive: [Unplanned as this service was dropped when an earlier service was cancelled.]

Title/Scripture: Easter: “The Tree of Life” Various passages
Metaphor: Christ is the Tree, the source of life
Visual: The two halves of the tree are brought into one 360-degree tree
Interactive: None, review of our participation into final product

Steve Caton ( currently directs all the team efforts in the areas of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Mich.

Reformed Worship 90 © December 2008, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.