On Art with Words, Lectionary Logic, and "The Heart of Worship"

Q. In our last worship committee, we had a long discussion about whether banners should or shouldn’t feature words. What are the issues here?

A. At the Worship Institute, we have worked with professional artists who are terrifically frustrated with communities that require that all artwork feature words to clearly convey meaning. These artists want to create evocative works that reward repeated viewing over a long period of time. Like instrumental musicians, they feel appropriately frustrated with the idea that only art with words can convey meaning. They point out that the furniture of the ancient tabernacle and temple didn’t need words to explain their meaning.

We have also worked with professional artists who are frustrated with communities that forbid words on banners. These artists may take delight in the design of the words themselves to communicate meaning. The calligraphy of Timothy Botts is a good example of this.

Churches should be looking for artistic expressions that are both accessible and that reward repeated use. Even in the same congregation, some works will be more evocative, others more transparent. Some may feature words, others not. Sometimes a bulletin note may be appropriate to help the congregation “read” what is intended in a piece of visual art. Other times, perhaps, it would be better to let the congregation gradually discover the potentially rich and even multiple meanings that might be revealed through time.

Q. We are now using the Revised Common Lectionary. I had thought that all four assigned Scripture readings went together, but that doesn’t seem to be true. Am I right?

A. Yes. While the readings may correspond, this is not necessarily so. In some earlier lectionaries, Old Testament lessons were chosen if they were the promise that the New Testament lesson fulfilled. The problem was that this left out vast portions of the Old Testament. So the designers of the lectionary have chosen some seasons, especially ordinary time, when the Old Testament readings follow a given narrative book, regardless of the New Testament reading. The goal of the designers was to balance historic text choices for key dates in the liturgical year with the desire to have a balanced diet of Scripture readings overall throughout the three-year cycle of the lectionary. Although the result is not perfect, congregations who don’t use the lectionary rarely do as well in covering a full range of scriptural themes.

Q. What do you think of the text of the currently popular song “The Heart of Worship” by Matt Redman?

A. Here is part of the text:

“When the music fades
and all is stripped away
and I simply come
a longing just to bring
something that’s of worth,
that will bless Your heart
I’ll bring you more than a song
for a song in itself
is not what you have required.
You search much deeper within
through the ways things appear
You’re looking into my heart.”

This is very good. It challenges the false assumption that energetic music is all you need for good worship. Like the ancient prophets, it exposes the sin of hypocrisy—one of the biggest liturgical sins in any worship style.

Occasionally, in the history of the church, this sentiment has been wrongly used to suggest that the externals don’t matter because all God wants is our good intentions. Rather, we should seek worship “in spirit and truth,” both with respect to our intentions and our observable practices.

This song, like many recent examples, is written as an intimate personal expression. For a corporate expression of similar themes, consider a musical setting of Psalm 50.

 

Excerpt

Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SEGrand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.