The Cross Meets the Video Projector: Turning a visual challenge into an opportunity

As the fall of 1998 came around, the worship planning team at Cascade Fellowship was confronted with two problems. We had determined to enhance the versatility of our worship space with the installation of a computer and video projection system. However, this new technology came into conflict with one of our most treasured symbols—the cross. A screen was erected on the front wall of the worship center that made it impossible for the cross to remain. There was not room enough for the two of them.

We were discovering what many other congregations have also discovered—that the challenge to provide relevant, fresh, and meaningful worship opportunities never ends in our fast-paced culture. And that this challenge extends beyond the activities of worship to the worship space itself.

Because of the culture of creative problem-solving that has been nurtured at Cascade Fellowship, this conflict turned into an opportunity. At first we tried to capture ideas from the congregation for solutions to the problem. We even tried putting our cross on a stand and moving it around in order to see how it might look in various positions. However, nothing was completely satisfying. The screen dominated the front of the worship space. No matter where we placed the cross, it could not take the focus away from the decidedly unsacred-looking screen.

We eventually realized that the problem was more difficult than we first imagined. We would need to come at this from a larger perspective. We would need to ask very basic questions about the cross—its purpose for being there, how it fits into the entire worship space. This would eventually lead us to consider other changes to the worship space that could better enhance the communication of God’s grace.

Exciting Possibilities

At the same time that we were struggling with the cross problem, the worship planning team was beginning to think about the Advent season. The growing popularity of angels among believers and unbelievers alike provided an opportunity to intersect the message of salvation with popular culture. The image of angels on television, in books, and in gift shops could be contrasted with biblical angels and their connection to the coming of Christ. Ken Koeman’s article in RW 37 (September 1995) would be our guide. As we discussed the visual dimension of the preaching series, we felt that some advice would be helpful.

We asked Christoffel Overvoorde, art professor emeritus from Calvin College and RW consultant, for advice. He pointed us in the direction of thinking holistically about the worship environment and suggested a return to a tradition from long ago. We could bring the symbolic colors of the liturgical year into our worship center. We could honor tradition in ways that fit our particular time and place. Panels of color could frame the screen, taking attention away from the screen while reminding us of the liturgical season.

Overvoorde’s ideas became the basis for our team’s discussions and brainstorming. The wheels were turning. Architect James Vander Molen, a good artist friend of mine, was then brought into the discussion to help us turn ideas into reality. We wanted to fill the worship space with angels so that as they heralded Christ’s birth on Christmas morning, the effect would hint at the overwhelming announcement to the shepherds.

I had done some sketches of fabric panels hanging on each side of the chancel wall, flanking the screen, and these seemed to make the screen fade into the white of the wall. I showed these to Jim, and we agreed that the panels helped. They also could be replaced with panels of different colors to reflect the changing seasons of the church year. We were on to something!

Standing in the worship space, we began to visualize the impact of the panels and discussed how they could be the foundation for the Advent installation. We talked about Advent being a season of anticipation, and about our intent to base the services on the theme of angels. The preaching series would progress through five types of angels—holy angels, messenger angels, warring angels, guiding angels, and triumphant angels. We could introduce a new pair of angels each week. Overvoorde had suggested beginning in the rear of the sanctuary and advancing to the front to culminate, finally, on the chancel wall on Christmas morning. As they worked their way to the front, the angels would grow in size to envelop the congregation. The final pair of angels would reach to the rafters, silhouetted against the rich purple panels, announcing Christ’s birth. We were getting excited by the possibilities.

Throughout the process, we continued to add and refine ideas. As we discussed the weekly implementation of the Advent series, we felt that we needed something to focus our attention on the particular theme of each Sunday. In order to identify the nature of each pair of angels as they appeared from week to week, and to communicate the theme of the service to the congregation, Jim designed symbols to hang from the angels’ belts—for the holy angels, a flame; for the messenger angels, a scroll; for the warring angels, a sword; for the guiding angels, a hand; and for the triumphant angels, a trumpet.

Design sketches

These studies convey the intent that the figures be evocative of angels rather than literal representations.

This idea was a gift to our worship planning. We imagined a procession at the beginning of each service, asking a member of the congregation to carry the day’s symbol to the front, while the congregation sang an appropriate song. One of our members is skilled in metal work. We would ask him to cut those shapes from copper so that we could carry them in each week and place them on the communion table.

A “holy angel”

Each of the angels in the series carries a symbol of its characteristic nature. On this angel, the flame represents holiness. Note the Greek, cross-inspired halo.

Copper flame

These copper symbols match those carried by each angel, and were themselves carried forward in procession by members of the congregation.

Fabricating the symbols

A member of the congregation who had once worked in metals offered to execute the symbols in copper. Enlargements were made from the designer’s sketches to

The Presence of Angels

We had a concept. Now we needed a plan to execute the concept—a plan that met a number of criteria:

  • The installation had to be affordable; it was, after all, an experiment.
  • It had to involve the worship team and any members of the congregation who wished to take part; it could not be too complicated.
  • It had to install quickly; we were committed by the concept to return each week to add the next elements.
  • The angels had to be recognizable as angels without being overtly sentimental; the congregation would inevitably project its own ideas and interpretations on the figures and symbols.

Jim began sketching figures that flowed in sheer fabric. Two outstretched wings draped and joined together in the center to fall to the floor in loose folds. The “waist” would be bound by gold cording trimmed with purple, green, and gold ribbons. Above the “shoulders”—no face! Just a gold halo floating in mid-air. These were angels who managed to avoid stereotypes of race or gender, allowing the viewer to imagine any face whatsoever. The halos would be in the shape of a Greek cross inscribed within a circle. This same halo/cross, full-scale, would appear in the center of the chancel wall, between the purple panels and above the screen.

A triumphant angel takes flight

The final pair of angels towered over the chancel, holding aloft their trumpets. Note the new cross in the upper left-hand corner and the screen barely visible in the center

A host of angels

Each week a new pair of angels would join the others on each side of the congregation, growing in size as they progressed to the front.

Christmas morning

The screen—once an eyesore—is now all but invisible between the triumphant angels and beneath the gold cross.

Excerpt
CASCADE FELLOWSHIP:

A BLEND OF TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY

Cascade Fellowship is located in an upwardly mobile, fast-growing community. Though we began as a congregation of families who made their living mainly in agriculture and the trades, today the congregation has grown to include successful small business owners, managers, and professionals. Over the past seven or eight years we have also become, on average, a much younger congregation.

As we addressed the changes in the complexion of our congregation, we have made corresponding changes in the complexion of our worship. We have developed a culture that continually asks questions about relevance. Our struggle, like that of so many others, is to strike a balance between honoring the traditions of our well-established congregation and using forms and technologies that communicate in our present situation.

At Cascade Fellowship, the result of this balancing act is a deliberate blending of the traditional and the contemporary. Our goal is not necessarily to be new, but to be at least fresh. Over the past several years, openness to innovation in worship has been nurtured through the leadership of former pastor Gerald Dykstra. The worship planning team has taken great care to adapt these innovations for use at Cascade Fellowship.

Timothy E. Van Zalen is a pastor of Gateway Community Church, Merced, California.