Art, in its many forms, touches the soul in powerful ways. It helps people bring their bodies and emotions into worship, as well as their minds. As more and more people find that they are visual learners, the integration of the arts into worship becomes more and more important. This is something I am acutely aware of as an artist and something I struggle to put into practice. I would like to share with you a process that has helped me realize some of my dreams about worship and art.
In November 2002, Christine Jerrett, minister at Grace United Church in Sarnia, the church where I am a member, introduced me to Theology Through the Arts (a project within the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge; see www.theolarts.org) and the work of Dr. Jeremy Begbie. Begbie had brought together small groups of artists and theologians to interact with each other. They were to create works of art for a festival of music, drama, and visual art that would be held at the University of Cambridge in September 2000. He called the working groups “pods,” a term we borrowed for our project. His work is disseminated in his book Sounding the Depths (London: SCM Press, 2002).
Christine and I wondered if we could use the pod groups at Grace Church to create works of art to illuminate Scripture and enrich worship. We did some dreaming, praying, and discerning, and decided to try to bring our dreams into reality. We called our pod process GraceWorks (made possible through a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship with funds provided by Lilly Endowment, Inc.).
Forming the Pods
We began by inviting the congregation to participate in the project: artists and Bible study leaders and anyone else who was interested. Our first set of pods was organized around the season of Advent and five biblical characters: the returning Christ, John the Baptizer, the angel Gabriel, Mary, and the Christ child. Pods, however, could be organized around any Scripture passage, character, theme, or festival in the Christian calendar.
At the first meeting of interested people, the energy was electrifying. Pods were formed randomly. We told the groups that we didn’t really know where we were going, but invited them to come along on the adventure if they were willing to be led by the Holy Spirit. Artists began dreaming, ideas sparking. Each pod consisted of several artists and one person who was given primary responsibility to work theologically with the texts. We provided the theology person with resources—articles, sermons, and commentaries.
For the second set of pods, we held a “resource event” at the beginning of the process, inviting an artist, a worship leader, and a musician to share their gifts and spark creativity. This was a wonderful first step. The season that we chose for these pods was Lent/Easter, and the theme was “covenant.”
The pods met using a small group format. This meant that they intentionally developed relationships with one another by checking in with each other. They then had a time of prayer, a time to study Scripture related to the theme, and a time to create. Christine and I also met with all the pods together in larger meetings. This allowed the pods to connect with each other (and to realize that if they were fumbling around in the dark, so were others!). In reality, what they typically found was that God’s Spirit was at work creating all of the time.
Engaging the Scriptures
The pods found themselves struggling with the Scriptures but discovered that this struggle was a way to remain faithful to the Scripture. We encouraged participants to ask lots of honest questions about the meaning of the text. And we encouraged the lead theology person in each pod to put the emphasis on the nature and actions of God rather than on the nature and action of human beings. This communicated grace, and the artwork and the pod work remained God-centered. Pod groups asked, Who is this God? and then, Who, then, are we? They also asked, What do we need to do in our art so that people will hear this as good news?
The artwork created out of the pod process reflected ten or eleven months of deep communication between pod members and communion with God.
One of the Advent pod groups worked on the angel Gabriel. A stained glass artist in that pod created an angel so stunning that when you looked at him hanging in the window with the sun illuminating his head, body, and wings, you could almost hear the words “Fear not!”
The Lent/Easter pod working with God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah wanted to convey the message that God is our God and we are his people. They designed a hanging with Abraham and Sarah both in the form of trees. The hanging features 2,166 names from the biblical text and all the names of the members of Grace United Church, past and present, handwritten on it.
How GraceWorks Transformed Us
Participating in GraceWorks has taught us a number of things—things you may also learn if you decide to strike out on a similar adventure. First, we’ve learned that this process brings people into more intimate relationship with others in the congregation. Pod members discovered differences that began affecting they way they worked together. Christine and I thought the project was about art serving worship; we came to realize that this deepening of relationship was as important as the works of art. First Corinthians 13 took on new meaning. If we created beautiful art and ended up fighting with each other, the project would have failed. We also discovered that collaboration requires communication. Most artists are used to working alone; the pod process assumes that others will have a say in the final product. This created some friction in groups as they negotiated their way to a consensus. Further, we found that different people have different operating styles. Some like to have everything ready weeks in advance. Some have a “just in time” approach. Communication became more and more important as the process went along. Pod members who had spent time building relationships at the beginning of the process had developed enough trust to get through the rough spots. When communication was lacking, misunderstandings and hurt feelings threatened to derail the project. It also became apparent that artists had been just waiting to offer their gifts in the worship of the church. They were thrilled that we were providing a method of doing just that. We were regularly astonished by the energy and passion, beauty and creativity that were elicited in the pod process. Busy people gave incredible amounts of time and energy to participate in the pod process. They shared a prevailing sense that we were embarking on something significant. People who would never attend a Bible study were delving into the Scriptures more deeply than they ever had, and loving it. They were excited by what they were discovering within the Scriptures and by what the Scriptures were discovering within them. We have become a people who expect our liturgy and worship space to touch the senses at many different levels. People have heard the gospel in new and exciting ways and have found themselves responding more deeply than they ever had from a verbal sermon alone. For the whole congregation, the liturgy became much richer, touching people’s emotions as well as their minds. Grace Church has been transformed by using art to illuminate Scripture. We invite you to explore what the Holy Spirit can do in your congregation too! You can do it! And lives will be transformed.
“I Am Your God; You Are My People”
Here are three song resources that include the wonderful promise “I am your God; you are my people.”
- “You Are Our God; We Are Your People” by David A. Hoekema, 1978 (Psalter Hymnal 272; to hear the music, follow the link on our home page: www.reformedworship.org)
- “To Abraham and Sarah,” text by Judith Fetter, 1984 (Voices United 634); tune suggestions: thornbury, lancashire, or another 76 76 D tune. The text follows:
To Abraham and Sarah the call of God was clear:
“Go forth and I will show you a country rich
You need not fear the journey for I have pledged my word:
that you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
From Abraham and Sarah arose a pilgrim race,
dependent for their journey on God’s abundant grace;
and in their heart was written by God this
“that you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
We of this generation on whom God’s hand is laid,
can journey to the future secure and unafraid,
rejoicing in God’s goodness and trusting in this
that you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
—©1984, Judith A. Fetter, St. Catharines, Ont., Canada. Permission granted for churches to copy for use in worship.
- “You Are Our God,” text by Susan Woodhouse; music by Jeeva Sam and Glenn Parsons. The verses are intended for a soloist, the refrain for all. For a PDF copy, please contact Susan Woodhouse.
Resources from a Service Dedicating “The Family Tree”
Just as God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah, in baptism we are all given a new name when God identifies us as a child of God. This banner is dedicated as a baptism antependium to remind the members of Grace United Church of God’s everlasting covenant to be the God of Abraham and his descendants.
This hanging has Abraham as father and Sarah as mother and Isaac in the womb; their bodies form the trunk of the family tree. The position of their bodies represents the cross, a primary Christian symbol. The wood grain effect on the trunk and foliage is created by approximately 2,166 names hand-printed on the fabric. This list includes the names of all the descendants of Israel—both Old and New Testament. Also, our Grace names are included—members of the congregation and adherents, past and present, are represented on this family tree.
Call to Worship (based on 1 John 3:1, The Message)
What marvelous love God our Father has extended to us. By the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit we are called children of God. That’s who we really are. Let us join our praise with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, for great is God’s faithfulness.
Prayer of Adoration
Lord God Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
with all your children
present, past, and still to come,
we praise your holy name.
You have knit us together
in one communion and fellowship
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
You guide us with steadfast love and faithfulness.
By your grace, fill our minds with your love,
pour your Spirit upon us so we may reflect your glory
in the fabric of our lives, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Genesis 17:1-22; Matthew 3:13-17
(Children gather around the antependium.)
This hanging shows the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise our covenant God made with them. It shows Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and all the names of their family and nation, and it also includes all the names of people at Grace United Church! See if you can find . . .
The congregational prayer was structured in three sections, each ending as follows:
... so that the world may know that you are our God;
We are your people.
... so that we pass the light on to this generation and our lives proclaim that you are our God;
We are your people.
... so that others may join in our joyful cry: You are our God;
We are your people.