Make a Vision Statement: Basics for bringing new life to your worship visuals

In August I began a new job, teaching the history of art at a college in a city that is new to me. Every Sunday since I've been here I've visited a different church, looking for a new church home. The preaching and the service order tell me much about the life of the congregations I've worshiped with. Some churches also have informational brochures. Others have very friendly members who are happy to talk about their church. None of this is surprising. What has surprised me is how much I react to the look of the sanctuary and the objects in it! Regardless of how much verbal and printed information I am given as a visitor, the message sent by the space is just as loud, sometimes louder.

How often do we ask ourselves about the visual impact of our sanctuaries and of our worship? Not, I am guessing, as often as we think of the verbal dimensions. Pastors work hard to prepare good sermons that faithfully and passionately present God's Word. Worship leaders craft service orders that bring worshipers into dialogue with God and God's people. Musicians carefully choose the music that helps us voice our response to God's Word and people. But it isn't often that we take the time to consider the spaces and objects that form the context for this divine dialogue. Why is this? And why should we bother?

There are lots of reasons why we tend to overlook the visual arts as a worship resource. Perhaps we don't feel qualified. We are musicians, pastors, or dedicated laypeople, but we are not artists. Thinking of meaningful liturgical uses for color, shape, and form is simply not our gift, so we concentrate our efforts on aspects of worship where we feel comfortable and competent. Or perhaps our resources are limited. The time and materials that necessarily go into thoughtful visual enhancements for worship are precious commodities in our tight schedules and even tighter budgets. Making space in these schedules and budgets for such creative activity is a challenge. These are genuine obstacles, but they are not insurmountable for any church that really desires to add a visual dimension to its worship. People with the right qualifications can be found—even in our own congregations! And where there is interest and talent, some creative planning can usually help us come up with the necessary time and materials.

There are also some deeper historical reasons why we've underplayed the role of the visual arts in our worship. Any congregation that wants to work more creatively with the visual arts in worship should also be willing to explore how Scripture, church history, and art history have combined to shape our attitudes about the place of art in church. If we aren't prepared to address some of the reasons why, traditionally, many of us have been suspicious of the arts, our attempts to integrate those arts Into worship will not get very far.

Conversely, we should be able to give some reasons for why it is not only legitimate but also important to give thought to the visual dimension of our worship. Ideally, visual experimentation and mutual education can go hand in hand. In fact, encountering a new work of art in worship may provide a welcome opportunity to examine ideas about the arts in worship. It may also help us experience firsthand what we've been missing when we overlook the visual arts.

Texture, Tint, Space, and Shape

Images permeate our lives, whether we acknowledge them or not. We respond to images because it is part of our creaturely nature. At the most banal level, advertising experts estimate that we encounter upwards of ten thousand commercial images every day. At the most profound level, we believe that our basic identity is mysteriously rooted in God's image in us. We look to the image of God in Christ for our salvation and for a vision of God's intent for humankind. God reaches us in the colors, shapes, textures, and materials of creation and bids us be responsible, faithful workers with the stuff of that creation.

When we thoughtfully integrate visual elements into our worship, we are using God-given means to address God and one another, and we radically expand our vocabulary of praise and lament, remembrance and prophecy. In learning to use this vocabulary eloquently in worship, we also equip ourselves to be discerning and redemptive in our interactions with images outside of church. By nurturing the creative talents of our artists and worshipers, we give a more full-bodied witness to the world of the richness of life in God's kingdom. Worship, we affirm, transforms us. When we pay attention to the visual aspects of our service to God we aren't just adding some bells and whistles. Rather, we arc acknowledging one of the basic facts of our human experience and intentionally transforming our vision.

Visual Experimentation and Mutual Education

So what is stopping us? Let's challenge ourselves to pay attention to what we see in our sanctuaries, to use our God-given capacity to be informed and transformed by the vocabulary of vision more intentionally, more sensitively, and more adventurously. What follow are some very basic suggestions to help you and your church make a start.

  • Invite an artist to join the worship team or the liturgy committee so at least one visually oriented person will be on the lookout for opportunities to incorporate visual aspects into worship.
  • Ask worship leaders from other churches how they have used the arts. Often our own communities have amazing resources that we are unaware of until we ask.
  • Get out of the nit! Don't be content with tatty banners and hackneyed bulletin covers. Commission new banners. Commission a series of bulletin covers. Tie theme to a church season or a sermon series, and strive to connect the substance of the teaching to the ways in which the images communicate. (For an example, see the collaboration between Rev. James Dekker and artist Daniel DePeuter for an Advent series on the book of Hosea, outlined in RW 53.)
  • Go beyond banners and bulletin covers! What about the liturgical objects your congregation uses for the sacraments? What about the gifts your church gives to commemorate professions of faith, baptisms, or installations? How about commissioning an artist to make an image or object to mark such occasions, rather than resorting to the handy but predictable devotional book?
  • Think of the arts as ways to dramatize space and time. The space is your sanctuary as a whole—the walls, floor, and ceiling; the seating area; the aisles; the narthex; the chancel. In this space we celebrate God's everlasting covenant with us in and beyond all time—by marking the seasons of the church year, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, births and deaths, weddings and funerals. How can we make our spaces shout the promises of our faithful God? If this is hard to imagine, look at the photographs of Nancy Chinn's wonderful installations in Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church (Liturgy and Training Publications, 1998).
  • Plan in advance. Remember that an artistic project needs time and materials. Just as a choir director needs advance time to select and practice music, artists and their fellow art-workers need adequate time for the creative process.

An Invitation to Mutual Education

If you know that your congregation will be challenged by the presence of art in the sanctuary, you might want to consider using an educational venue, such as an adult education or enrichment class, as an opportunity to begin a conversation about art and worship. You might begin with some very basic reflection drawn from personal experiences with the arts. Are there religious pictures that have made an impression on us? Which ones? Why? Where did we encounter them? What attitudes about the arts have we learned from our families? How were these attitudes conveyed? Where do they come from? Answers to these questions will lead to further questions:

  • What does the Bible say about art? The second commandment is the obvious place to start. Jochem Douma's chapter on this commandment in his book The Ten Commandments: Manual for Christian Life (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1996) is an accessible and provocative place to begin. Calvin Seerveld's Rainbows for the Fallen World, {Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980) could follow this, with its well-argued, ringing endorsement of the fundamental place of the aesthetic realm in human experience. (Note: Seerveld's book is out of print but is available through inter-library loan.) Readers may also be interested in Art and Soul by Adrienne Chaplin, which picks up on the Seerveldian tradition and relates it to contemporary culture; available from the Institute for Christian Studies, (Ccuthill@icscanada.edu).
  • How has a sense of identity as "Reformed" shaped our response to liturgical art? Are we hanging on to inaccurate stereotypes of the sixteenth-century Reformation and applying them to our contemporary situation? Over the past twenty years, historians have done much to complicate our received notions about the role of the arts in the Reformation. One recent study, Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Caivinist Tradition, edited by Paul Corby Finney and Jane Dempsey Douglass (Eerdmans, 1999), demonstrates how historically Reformed congregations throughout Europe and the New World have expressed their religious convictions in art and architecture.
  • Do our coiiteiliporaiy stereotypes of "ad" ai id "artist' hilider us in thinking of how the arts could aid us in worship? Nicholas Wolterstorff's Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Eerdmans, 1980) provides a helpful context for this issue. You will also want to talk to the artists in your church. Ask them about their journeys as Christians and as artists. Ask them about the stereotypes they encounter as visually creative people. The first chapters of Nancy Chinn's Spaces for Spirit are also a good place to go for a thoughtful examination of an artist's experience designing liturgical art.

Experience as Education

We in the Reformed tradition have much to learn from the visual arts. We also have much to learn about the visual arts. The best learning, however, comes through doing. In the last century, it was the actual singing of hymns that taught many of our churches that God could be fittingly and properly worshiped though such music. 1 doubt there are any of us today who would insist that only the psalms can adequately express the movements of worship and the tenor of Christian life. I am confident that with time and experience, the visual arts, like hymnody, will find an invaluable place in Reformed worship.

Excerpt

This banner designed by Joanne Vander Mey for Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a simple but striking image for Pentecost, It uses bright reflective fabric in reds, oranges, and yellows for the flames and a soft matte material for the white dove. The design weaves these two ancient symbols of the Holy Spirit into one. It Is very large, approximately IT long and reads clearly from every point in the sanctuary. Images are integral to memory and community, I attended Calvin Church until I was seven years old and have vivid memories of the banners I saw in that church.

One of a series of banners for the entire church year created for Immanuel Lutheran Church, Valparaiso. Indiana, by artist Lois Prahlow. Her designs are visually complex, but use repetition and pattern to direct our viewing. Scale is also important—these circular banners are approximately 10' in diameter. Using repeated and reversed felt pieces, the white Phoenix at the center bursts out of a circle of flame. The hottest, blue flames are at the center, and the succeeding flames move through the spectrum of heat and light, through purple, red, and orange to the outermost ring of golden flames. The entire image is circled by a prophetic covenant promise from Zechariah 13:9.

The Christus Rex on the front cover is in the chancel of Valparaiso University's Chapel of the Resurrection. I worshiped regularly in this chapel when I was teaching at Valparaiso. I recall very clearly my initial "Reformed" ambivalence about this image, because ic bears some similarity to a crucifix, and because it was so obviously a focal point of the entire chapel. What I discovered, much to my surprise, was that I quickly learned to use the sculpture as an aid to worship, especially before the daily chapel services that are conducted there. This piece, with its simple lines, exuberant posture, and glittering surface, provided a focus that helped me set aside the busyness of my dally schedule in order to more fully participate in the worship service.