It depends.” That was the inconclusive response my wife gave when I wondered aloud about what kind of art is best in worship. I was trying to make a case for “real” art. You know, original paintings and inventive sculpture and glorious fabric art of epic scale. Certainly not the everyday photos everyone is posting online—and I do mean everyone. Last month, Google announced that it had indexed 10 billion images! Even if we have permission to use a tenth of those images, that’s a lot to choose from. No wonder the Internet is the first place many of us look for inspiration. Why bother with messy paint or metal or cloth?
But really . . . are these photos the best we can do?
“It depends” is, of course, the best answer to the question. Thinking about—and better yet, discussing with others—the pros and cons of different approaches is the best way to identify art that is appropriate for your setting and that people will connect with in worship. As an example, here are three very different interpretations of Psalm 136:26.
Which of these do you respond to most? What do you think would reflect the sentiment of Psalm 136 to your church members? Typography? Photography? Illustration? Something else?
I know, I know—it depends.
Good for large installations. Could be executed in many different media by people of a wide range of talent. Great for “word” people—less so for the 60 percent of us who are visual learners. Abstract quality allows the truth to be applied to many situations. Minimalist treatment could be a relief from an over-busy worship service or worship space.
Possible response: “It’s perfect. That’s the whole truth and nothing but.”
Quick and easy to put together (maybe too easy?). Some knowledge of hardware and software needed. Realism tends to makes images feel more contemporary. Could perpetuate a stereotype of what heaven is like. Brings to the worship space the same visual approach popular in websites and malls and television.
Possible response: “This reminds me of our vacation last year at the lake. I was overwhelmed by how big God is.”
Projected, it’s suitable for viewing by a large congregation. Treatment could bump us out of our preconceived notions—in a healthy way. Like this illustration by Ed Riojas (used by permission), it’s possible to build in lots of symbolism. Complexity warrants longer viewing time (as the only visual sermon illustration?).
Possible response: “I never pictured this parable quite this way. The image of the son walking from the smoke and darkness to the light and his father’s embrace is so rich.”