Twenty years ago I adopted my daughter from Russia. While I was there I had the opportunity to visit several Russian churches with their golden onion-shaped domes and altars covered in icons. Icons are paintings of biblical characters, and the artists over the centuries were careful to keep the style and form of each character as consistent as possible. I asked our tour guide a question that betrayed my ignorance. “Why icons?” She quickly reminded me that most of the peasants in those days were illiterate, and the icons were there to help them “read” the Bible. Consistency in the icons was kept so that from church to church congregations would be able to recognize who was who.
That lesson has stayed with me over the years. Though most of my fellow congregants are literate, the power of visuals to reinforce a spoken message still exists today, and with all of the technology now available to us, there are many exciting and creative ways to help our congregations use their eyes to take in the truths of the gospel and to be inspired to worship our Creator God.
Crestview Church was built in Boulder, Colorado, about fifty years ago but updated fairly recently. Our platform, with no backstage space or wings, is very small and limits what can be done visually. When I first started attending Crestview and later when I joined the staff, I was always bothered by the blank side walls and the short, curtained back wall that overemphasized the smallness of the stage. I thought these walls were a missed opportunity, spaces that could be used for visual presentations to help reinforce the message of the sermons or series themes.
I did a lot of digging around on the internet to get some ideas, keeping in mind my limited budget. My first attempt at dressing up the side walls was to hang Christmas lights behind sheer curtains for the Advent season. That was nice, but it wasn’t something that I could leave up over time. Then I discovered the magic of Coroplast corrugated plastic, and LED strip/ribbon RGB lights. Coroplast’s natural-colored panels can be found in smaller sizes at Home Depot and at sign companies in larger sizes. The panels allow lights mounted at least twelve inches behind to have an even, semi-opaque glow.
I designed two light boxes, each 98 x 98 x 12 in., made of aluminum frames and Coroplast fronts. We convinced a local sign-making company to give us a good deal on the construction, and when the boxes were delivered we added ribbon lights to the back braces inside. The boxes are not very heavy and come in two sections each. They are bolted together, and they rest on a few simple brackets installed in the wall. I can have them removed fairly easily, taken apart, and stored if needed. The lights are linked in with our lighting system and can be changed to almost any color we want. There are four light strips per box, mounted vertically. Each strip has independent control and can be its own color if desired. The total cost of the boxes and lights, paid for by a special donation, was a little over $1,000. I believe that the investment was worthwhile.
The beauty of the walls now is that they add light and make the platform seem more complete, updated, and wider. They can be left undecorated, or visual effects or images can be made on their surfaces or insides or just in front of them. For their debut at Easter this year, we hung faux stained glass windows that match the stained glass windows in the sides of the sanctuary in front of the light boxes with a pale yellow light behind. This installment stayed up until May.
For Mother’s Day I had moms and their kids help me make tissue paper flowers, which we then glued to cellophane and taped to the light boxes.
Another beauty of the light boxes is that the cost of decorating the fronts and changing the theme can be very minimal. For our series on Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, we used black posterboard and butcher paper to make a crossword of words the pastor wanted to emphasize for one side; we put up large tool shapes on the other.
Our latest decor is based on four panels that all support the current series on Foundations of Our Faith: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and New Life.
These panels were made by cutting large sections of black butcher paper to the size of the panel desired, drawing stained glass window designs on the front, then using a rotary cutter to cut out the design. Next we covered the back of each panel with plastic film, and where we wanted to have more color, we added colored tissue paper. These windows were then mounted onto the front of the boxes with black masking tape. Although time-consuming, these panels cost no more than $30 in materials. You can find a lot of inspiration by doing an internet search for stained glass relating to each theme.
For Advent this year, I tried a design that put things on the inside as well as the outside of the light boxes.
Our congregation’s response to the light boxes has been overwhelmingly positive. The visual images have supported the preached word, helping to focus attention and provide memorable images that our congregants can carry with them long after a sermon series is over. I look forward to the Lord’s inspiration for more ways to use imagery to help people take in all that He has for us!