Striving for Beauty in Worship

When considering this topic of beauty for Reformed Worship, Diane Dykgraaf asked people in a variety of churches to share how they strive for beauty in their worship. The pictures and responses you see here come from large and small congregations, urban and small-town churches, and people from various ethnic backgrounds. Each has a unique take on how beauty reflects who God is. —JB

How do you portray or communicate the majesty and beauty of God in your worship?

Pastor Gary Bomhof, Red Deer, Alta.: I do it mostly homiletically. I think it is important to emphasize Ecclesiastes 3: “God made everything beautiful in its time.” I happen to have grown up on Vancouver Island, arguably one of the most beautiful areas in Canada, if not the world. Yet, having spent many years on the prairies, which are often dry, desolate and barren, I’ve learned that there is beauty all around: crops, the sky, snow-laden trees, and tiny plants. We must learn to recognize not only obvious but also subtle beauty. Even in difficult circumstances (like the death of a loved one) there is beauty to be found: in reconciliation, a hug, flowers, cards, and many tokens of support! Regarding the majesty of God, I usually emphasize God’s sovereignty; he is the one who deserves our obedience and loyalty.

Pastor Sandra Van Opstal, Chicago, Ill.: We have an environment that includes all forms of beautiful worship. We worship with the communicated understanding that the Holy Spirit will guide our worship so that it isn’t about entertainment or “feeling spiritual,” but about focusing on God’s presence. Beauty is understood as God’s presence, not really a particular thing or ideal that is just one way or identity.

What role does beauty play in your worshiping community?

Pastor David Vroege and fellow parishioners, Halifax, NB: Our sanctuary is beautiful. The building is 113 years old, and the architecture and space capture both majesty and community. Our sanctuary space, with its high wooden ceilings (p. 32, top left), is a very beautiful space. To me it communicates “the majesty and beauty of God,” although I am aware that is largely a result of my background. The building’s beauty includes its location in a busy neighborhood with lots of interaction with neighbors. I also find that some of the worship dances we have in worship are very visually beautiful.

Bomhof: In our church worship services, our PowerPoint presentations always have beautiful backgrounds. When flowers are in season, we have a gentleman who takes flowers from his garden and provides absolutely gorgeous arrangements for every worship service. We regularly sing songs reflecting the beauty of creation.

Van Opstal: Beauty is extremely significant in a place where concrete and bricks make up the majority of what we see and noise pollution reigns (cars, trains, etc). Taking great care with the way a space and experience feels and looks is important. How that beauty is expressed is dependent on culture, generation, gender, and many other factors. Congregations that are diverse should consider who the “eye of the beholder” is.

Pastor Elly Boersma, St. Catherines, Ont.: Usually when we think of beauty, we go straight to visual beauty. While that is one facet of beauty, we also experience beauty in all the arts, in community and relationships, in giving our gifts, and in the beauty of Scripture.

What innovative ways have you found to enhance the beauty of your worship?

Bomhof: This question can be answered in a couple of ways. Lately we have been placing announcements on PowerPoint and not giving them from the pulpit. We also try to have rehearsals during the week so that the worship service goes forward in a seamless manner, i.e., no announcements of numbers and songs. We have had a Maundy Thursday service in the Fellowship Hall with people sitting around round tables each with a plate of bread and a carafe of grape juice—very meaningful and beautiful. We hold annual Christmas Eve services that usually draw rave reviews. For Advent, Lent, VBS, and Thanksgiving the pulpit area is decorated in a beautifully appropriate manner.

Van Opstal: In collaboration with Vanessa Ogaldez, our creative ministry director, we have sought to utilize the existing gifts of children and adults via visual arts, dance, and decor of sanctuary.

Boersma: Much thought and care are involved in incorporating beauty in the sanctuary space throughout the year. Quite often, we will have a sermon series over the different seasons (Advent series, Lent series, etc.), and so a sub-committee from the Worship Ministry Team will work with the pastors in designing appropriate visuals to enhance the beauty of the season. Some of the images on this page show our Pentecost display from 2014, which included painted flames hanging above the pews in the sanctuary. These flames were painted by several children. Whenever possible, we strive to engage the children and youth to participate in worship, and visuals are a great way for them to contribute. You don’t always know what you’ll get with children—maybe they’ll use unexpected colors, or just see things in a different way—and I think that’s awesome. There is so much beauty in seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

In your context, are there any fears or roadblocks that keep you from discussing the beauty of God and expressions of that beauty in worship and space?

Bomhof: I don’t think we really have specific roadblocks, but we do have the gatekeepers who warn us not to make our services into productions that elicit no more than the Facebook “like” or dislike,” and that is a legitimate concern.

For a particular Easter service the pulpit area was adorned by a sea of Easter lilies; as a matter of fact members could buy them and place them in memory of a loved one. Unbeknownst to us, our choir director is VERY allergic to the pollen of this flower. Needless to say, the beauty of the lily is now conveyed through pictures!

Van Opstal: Congregating in an urban church has provided two significant roadblocks. First, space. The fellowship hall we use for Sunday services is also used for after-school programs, food pantry, etc., and the decor must be moveable. Second, budget. There is no money for additional or replacement equipment, paying extra musicians, or decorating space. We must create from resources that exist. This does make us creative! It’s like making a scrumptious feast from what you have in your fridge and pantry. We create beauty around space and budget.

Boersma: One thing I struggle with is understanding the role of visuals in the church in relation to a reformed understanding of the 2nd Commandment, as outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 35). People interpret things in different ways, so how do we practically respond to this in the church? Does this mean we can portray all things visually except Christ? What constitutes a visual portrayal of God?

Another struggle is that people view beauty differently. What one person interprets as beautiful may not be seen as beauty by another.

I also find that we successfully visually portray seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, but we struggle during Ordinary Time. How do we keep ordinary time from being too ordinary?

In your setting, how does the congregation experience beauty in worship? Is beauty important to them? In what way?

Ms. Darlene Silversmith, Crownpoint, NM: One of the ways I express beauty in worship is to reference the beauty all around us. Having come from an urban setting I now find myself nestled in the high desert of northern New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation. Living among the untouched beauty of scenic buttes, mesas, canyons, mountains, and cliffs, I can’t help but marvel at the grandeur before me. I’m overwhelmed to tears sometimes to be able to gaze for miles on drifting or rolling clouds to view at my leisure. Whenever I can, I mention this vista, which we often take for granted, that is at our doorstep. A giant reminder not to take our gaze from the One who creates beauty and demonstrates it in creation.

Van Opstal: One of the primary ways we experience beauty is in the presence of community. When people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic status gather before the Lord unified in prayer and song, we catch a glimpse of heaven. We see the beauty of our creator in God’s creation. When youth usher and gather our tithes, when children sing, when the worship includes those with disabilities, we see God’s beautiful creation.

Visually, the foyer is designed by our Creative Ministry, with art pieces made throughout the week in worship to God to prepare all who walk through the doors to connect and consume the message that day through visuals (see above). The artists prepare by reading the Scriptures for that sermon series and then in prayer and worship the artist is led to create art. The stage and sanctuary are also designed this way; sometimes artists create during worship on Sunday morning with the congregation.

Vroege: We find beauty in the paraments and banners (according to church season) and flags and dancing. To experience God’s beauty, we need to worship beautifully—and we work toward that. For instance the fact that the worship-leading is self-effacing and inviting. That the music is singable. The music is beautiful; the liturgy is beautiful. The liturgy holds people up, moves them through praise and confession and assurance, and sends them out.

We find beauty in community—that we’re not worshiping alone. We find beauty when we have communion (Lord’s Supper) “in the round” (as we do each time). We find beauty in the fact that children are very comfortable in our worship, that teens lead us in music and reading and praying.

Boersma: Here in Niagara, Canada, we are surrounded by greenhouses and vineyards, so floral displays abound in worship. There are poinsettias at Christmas, red plants at Pentecost, brilliant colors for Easter. Typically, the flowers chosen either reflect the liturgical colour of the season (ie. reds at Pentecost) or a seasonal plant (ie. pot-mums at Thanksgiving, poinsettias at Christmas).

At Covenant, we use projection in worship, and this too is an opportunity to add beauty to a worship space. Backgrounds matter. If they are too busy, they can distract from worship, but if they invoke images that enhance a service theme or song, they can add so much to our worship.

No matter how much we plan visuals, or plan beauty into our worship, God still surprises us. One Sunday morning. I was alone, coming into the sanctuary before a worship rehearsal, and the way the light was shining into the sanctuary was amazing. I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared. The silver dishes were shining in the sunlight that seemed to only hit them. Sometimes beauty is carefully planned and neatly mapped out, and sometimes it jumps out at us when we least expect it.

If we are aware of the presence of God in our lives and in our worship, I think beauty can be found amid all our brokenness. We just need to open our eyes and see it.

Reformed Worship 120 © June 2016, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.