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How Churches Link Art, Faith and Life

People who know how to make beautiful things with their hands are being welcomed to use their God-given gifts in worship and congregational life.

Arts pastor Colleen Kwong knows a Gulf War veteran who takes beautiful sunrise photographs, so she asked him to exhibit in the church art gallery for the Easter season. Instead, he quit coming to Christ United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “He missed Easter. I scared him off by asking him to write a statement about his work. But he eventually came back and put up that show after Pentecost.

“This vet has war injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. His statement explained that there was a time he’d prayed to never see another sunrise. He wrote, ‘Then I woke up, realizing God was embracing me. Now I photograph sunrises to remember the reality of the resurrection in my life,’” Kwong says.

She adds that Christ UCC members found the exhibit very moving, and their response to his art made the vet feel more a part of the congregation.

Imagine what might happen in your church when you help people connect the visual arts with their faith and life. Kwong, and two others quoted below, saw new possibilities after attending the 2014 Who Is My Neighbor? conference and art exhibit in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Language, meaning and mystery

“Besides being able to talk with people who are both Christians and artists, the conference gave me vocabulary to interpret art to my church and Christian friends,” says Kwong, an ordained UCC minister and liturgical artist.

“Plenary speaker Cecilia González-Andrieu, who wrote A Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, was very affirming to artists in the church. She said that with ideas and words you can convince people to do things. But it’s not till you engage their hearts and emotions that they get passionate about ethical action and social justice. Cecilia said that the arts can open our awareness of the mystery of God and help us imagine God’s vision for us,” Kwong says.

She oversees the Christ UCC gallery and helps members and guests identify and celebrate their spiritual gifts through the arts. Individual and group shows in the gallery have featured paintings, rocks and gems, butterflies, quilts, digitally projected confirmation statements and framed writing combined with objects. The exhibits are often keyed toward liturgical seasons, such as an Advent show of nativity scenes from many nations.

“My only gallery rule is you need to write a paragraph on how this relates to your relationship to God and your faith. We need to link up our own faith, art and lives. People often tell me, ‘I never thought of those links that way until you made me write it out,’” she says.

A few years ago, Kwong and Christ UCC members created visuals for the worship space—quilted banners with church logos and phrases, and flags with liturgical season motifs. Now they want to do more. Kwong got tips at the conference on talking with her worship committee about visual levels of meaning. “Say you read Psalm 23 together. What’s your first thought? Sheep? Draw that and move on. What’s the second level of meaning? Someone caring for another? Draw that and move on. The third level of visuals may be most powerful for helping non-artists get to a deeper encounter with Scripture. Some who aren’t visual may need the most direct level. Others need something more subliminal to engage the mystery,” she says. 

New eyes for the Bible

For Lisa Martinson, the highlight of the Who Is My Neighbor? conference was a paper-cutting workshop by Martin Erspamer, a liturgical artist and monk at St. Meinrad Abbey in southern Indiana.

“I’m a graphic designer, so I do banners all the time downtown for different events. Martin’s lecture and hands-on workshop prompted me to do a project for Pentecost. Paper-cutting is cheap and bold,” says Martinson, who also serves as ministry coordinator at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.

She bought 16-foot lengths of red, yellow and orange bulletin board paper from a teachers’ supply store. Martinson said her gift is figuring out processes, whether laying out the church newsletter or helping volunteers fold, staple and cut paper with X-Acto knives. “I tried a complex stencil for the first four feet. Then my daughter, Anna, did a more interesting freehand image in the middle. Our music director helped us hang the banners with fishing line strung through rafters.”

Worshipers said the banners made Pentecost Sunday feel festive. After worship everyone enjoyed cupcakes “for the church’s birthday. A newer member said, ‘Really? How old?’ We said, ‘Oh, about 2,000 years.’ We teach about Pentecost in children’s church, but many adults attracted to our congregation don’t understand Christian year seasons and traditions,” she says. Visuals offer new ways for them to frame their faith and lives.

Children’s church at St. Mark’s UMC follows the lectionary, and Martinson often has kids sketch the verse. Some sketches become bulletin covers. “Sketching the verse helps us see and experience the Bible in a different way,” she says.

“Less is more”

So many life experiences fuel Janai Robinson’s creativity. She lived till age 14 in Germany, has traveled extensively, majored in fine arts and German, is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, has a graphic design business and creates liturgical art. However, a conference presentation by Betsy Steele Halstead on creative art in contemporary worship convinced Robinson that less is more.

“Clear communication connects images and words. It keeps the point visible, not cluttered by distracted images,” Robinson says. That’s why she used a single painting to enhance a sermon on John 14:15-21 about seeing as Jesus does. Her cubist-style portrait captured life’s pain and anguish as well as the hope that Christ’s dying and rising can transform our distorted actions and images.

She used another of her paintings in a PowerPoint presentation for a Lutheran women’s retreat on Mary’s Magnificat. “Betsy taught us at the conference how to use the same piece of art throughout the presentation but in different positions, colors and representations,” Robinson says.

Robinson taught acrylic painting at a youth summer arts camp for Fellowship Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The booklet she created for her campers masterfully combined the camp theme (Let Us Walk in the Light of the Lord) with the goal for each student to create three paintings. They did so after hearing Bible stories, studying famous painters, listening to Christian music about Christ as Light and reflecting on what she called “Time after Pentecost” questions. She arranged each daily schedule under the Lutheran worship pattern of Gather-Word-Meal-Sending. All these cues reinforced the message of creating with the Creator.



Don’t miss this story’s companion conversation, Colleen Kwong on Using Art to Include Shut-ins.

Colleen Kwong, Lisa Martinson and Janai E. Robinson are dual career people who work in the arts and in churches. All say how important it is to build relationships with other Christian artists, such as through Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) or at the annual Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship.

Get worship tips on using the visual arts on screen and in architecture and liturgy. Gather your worship committee to build a philosophy for using projected images in worship.

Who Is My Neighbor? presenters and participants recommend reading books such as A Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty by Cecilia González-Andrieu and Dare to Dream: Creating a God-Sized Mission Statement for your Life by Mike Slaughter. They’ve also used the following songs as prompts to create art and connect it with faithful living:


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, education or worship arts meeting. These questions will help people think about how to tap unused gifts in your congregation and more comprehensively picture the gospel.

  • Who in your congregation is good at making things with their hands? What first steps could you take to give them opportunities to use their artistic gifts in worship?
  • In your daily life, what more often engages your emotions and moves you to action—written words, spoken words, images, gestures, music or something else? How does this compare to which worship elements change your thoughts, desires or actions?
  • What visual clues do you provide in worship and congregational life to help people frame their lives according to the Christian Year?