Not many people see everything around them, and few are acute observers of their environment. In fact, most of us see just enough to prevent us from falling. That kind of seeing is a safety device. Real seeing requires the use of your mind’s eye and making connections with a world that is beyond the physical. You could call it “seeing with your soul.”
In his book The Christian Imagination, Leland Ryken writes: “Visual art is a revelation. It aims to rescue us from inattentiveness and half awareness—the normal state of most of us—and to reveal things as they really are” (p. 357). This kind of spiritual seeing requires training and knowledge of how art works and how art comes about. It also requires time: time to look and let the image speak to us.
Images that are placed in a worship environment are intended to make the congregation think and make connections. These images are often symbols, meaning that when you see the image you think of something else. An image of an evergreen tree, for example, could remind people of God’s everlasting faithfulness. In addition, more and more churches in the Reformed tradition are reclaiming the liturgical year and introducing worshipers to the liturgical colors, which in turn can help them celebrate the church’s special holy days. Many artists and consultants have become what I call “worship environmentalists” in their own churches, helping their congregations to see and enjoy images in meaningful ways.
For the past twenty-five years, Reformed Worship has been part of that process. We’ve come a long way from the early felt banners of the late 1960s. Other fibers and materials and installations have replaced the two-dimensional banners so typical of that era, and artists are working with felt in completely new ways, often collaborating with others in the congregation.
At Grace Christian Reformed Church, we used the design for an old felt banner to create a quilt for the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. I created the actual-size drawing and bought the materials. Ellie Van Harn, a member of the congregation, did the construction and quilting for this new work. The idea of Christian growth is expressed through the colors and the idea that we blossom and grow in Christ. The color changes in the materials give the image a transparent quality. The quilting is an essential part of the concept in that it echoes the radiating power of the cross.
Many churches have done more than enliven the worship space with visual art. They have displayed artwork done by their artist members and other local artists in the narthex and hallways. These exhibitions are often accompanied by receptions and talks by the artists (see RW99 for some examples of this). This approach establishes an important dialogue between artists and the congregation. Other congregations have begun collecting art for the rest of the building, placing art on permanent display in entryways, hallways, and meeting rooms. One church I know of purchased an entire exhibition for its permanent collection! For many years some churches have held annual art competitions (see RW90). And modern technology allows for the projection of images to enhance a concept or illustrate an idea. Indeed, in many churches we are surrounded by visual images. I am very much encouraged by all of these developments.
It is also true, however, that some congregations have done little to include visual images in their churches or to build relationships with artists. There are several possible reasons for this, including lack of understanding and education, and lack of interest in—even suspicion of—the arts. Perhaps the following perspective can help us to see the artists among us in a new way.
Most of our conversations about art include a discussion of talent, because artists are known as especially talented in some way. Like the craftsman Bezalel in the story of the tabernacle (Ex. 35:30-35), we recognize artists’ special gifts and abilities. But we sometimes fail to recognize that each of us is endowed with a different set of gifts and talents. These gifts and talents set us apart from each other, for none of us have received identical gifts. In 1 Peter 4:10-11 we discover the reason why we have different gifts:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
This text states that we have received gifts “to serve others.” So being different from each other is not some grand mistake on God’s part; it is part of God’s plan. He intended each of us to be different. What applies to each of us individually also applies to different groups, tribes, cultures, and nations. In Christ we are one, and we may recognize and rejoice in our differences as long as we use our differences to “serve others.” When we do, we celebrate our oneness in Christ.
For the artists among us, that means two things. First, artists should be humble about the gifts they have received from God. There is no need to develop a superior attitude, acting as though they have some special insight. Second, it means that the artists among us ought to be accepted as fellow believers and recognized as people who can serve and enrich all of us in our lives as Christians. That should be the model for our Christian community.
Thank you, Reformed Worship,for continuing the dialogue between artists and congregations. Congratulations on twenty-five years of faithful service to the church.