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How to Plan Art Used in Church Worship

Is your church commissioning liturgical art, creating art for cross cultural worship, or designing a new building? A feature story on how to involve more people from your congregation in planning and creating art for worship.

As the church year moves toward Easter and Pentecost, your congregation may be eager to deepen and renew worship.

Many churches find that adding—or improving—an arts planning process reveals God’s grace in startling ways. Creating art for worship can sink Scripture into people’s lives, connect people from different cultures, and build bridges into the community.

Working Scripture into kids

While teaching music at Christian schools in Anchorage, Alaska, Jan VanKooten developed a method for helping any child write a Scripture song.

Now choir director at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VanKooten trained four adults. They helped high school, middle school, and fourth/fifth grade classes add rhythm, melody, and harmony to Bible verses. “This opportunity is for everyone. It’s not only for ‘musicians,’ ” VanKooten says.

Each class went through the process in six weeks. “We have only 45 minutes for church school. We offered snacks so kids showed up without dallying,” she says.

First kids chose and wrote out a favorite Bible passage. “Speak it. Underline the words or syllables you find yourself stressing. That’s how the meter shows itself. The stressed syllable will be the start of a measure or a secondary beat,” she told them.

Listening to familiar hymns helped students see how good melodies match theology in song texts. Identical opening notes in “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” convey constancy. Outside class, one girl noticed on her own how the melody goes down for the words “joy to the world” and up for “let earth receive her king.”

“By the end of this process, you know something about the kids, their hearts, their personal theology, and their emotional makeup. It builds bonds with different ages,” VanKooten said.

After each six-week session, the congregation sang new songs in an evening service. High schoolers planned and led their service. Middle schoolers served as readers. In the fourth and fifth grade service, children introduced their songs.

Robyn Stegink explained, “Psalm 8 helps me picture God and how high he is above us. It makes me feel grateful that he would do everything he did for us. I chose this verse with my mom—and it is also very special to me because it is my dad’s favorite psalm.”

Song service bulletins included words and notes for each song. Instrumentalists would play a song, then someone would sing it, and then the congregation would sing. “By the time you repeat it three or four times, you have the Scripture in your hearts,” VanKooten says.

Having kids write Scripture songs helps ease contemporary music into worship. As one elderly woman said, “I sang them all even though I didn’t like them all.” Shawnee Park CRC now sings at least one student song each month.

Unity without uniformity

St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Holland, Michigan, was built in the late 1960s. When a 1995 fire destroyed the sanctuary, the congregation decided its new worship space would reflect their growing diversity.

“We wanted to design something that would show unity without uniformity. And we wanted to give voice to the formerly silent,” says Father Stephen Dudek.

He came up with a building planning process that included “three reactor groups, designed along linguistic lines. You can’t just ask one English speaker, one Spanish speaker, and one Vietnamese speaker to represent a whole group.”

Dudek, now pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Wyoming, Michigan, says the St. Francis process was “not art by committee but sensitivity to culture.”

Father Charlie Brown, who came on staff after the new building was completed, says that the arts are still helping parishioners “appreciate differences and celebrate gifts we all can share.

“When you enter our church, you notice two art pieces on the back wall. One is of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so very important to Hispanics, and the other represents the 117 Vietnamese martyrs. In our day chapel, there’s also a wood carving of Our Lady of La Vang.

“In normal weekend worship, these images aren’t used. But when Hispanic or Vietnamese people come in to mass, they feel more welcome, like this is their church too,” Brown says.

Stained glass windows and carvings in liturgical furniture include common Christian symbols, such as grapes and wheat for communion. Visuals also include plants special to particular cultures, such as corn, prickly pear cactus, shamrock, tuberose, and tulip.

On Good Friday, Hispanic members of St. Francis do a costumed procession through the neighborhood, ending with a crucifixion reenactment inside the church. “It’s bilingual and every year, more non-Hispanics join in. They find it very meaningful because of the ritual, drama, and prayer—even though it’s outside their culture.

“We all share ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ When we enter into someone else’s celebration, we connect with something that maybe our culture forgot. After all, corpus Christi celebrations used to be part of European culture,” Brown says.

Making community connections

“Wealthy self-made people here can be difficult to access. However, there’s a lot of depth and interest in community arts,” says Katie Adelman, associate minister for faith formation, worship, and music at Ascension Lutheran Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

That’s why, when Ascension decided to commission art for lectionary gospel readings, they looked for artists outside their congregation. “We saw it as a way to share the gospel with folks we wouldn’t normally meet,” Adelman explains.

The church’s arts and faith team chose passages with visual potential and decided which art medium would best express them. They interviewed and appointed local artists and recruited teams of six to ten people to discuss a gospel text with an artist.

“We asked, ‘Now if you couldn’t say that with words, how would you communicate it? What did that gospel reading speak to you personally…intellectually…emotionally?’

“Teams talked with artists about what they envisioned. They had to trust the artist. The artists did a fabulous job of listening and returned with art incredibly beyond what teams had been thinking,” Adelman says.

The project gave some Ascension members their first chance ever to talk with artists who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. A post-project reception introduced artists to each other. Each will also have a solo show at the church.

Now moms wear a glass beaded necklace when their babies are baptized. A three-generation family that lost its matriarch, a grandma, found comfort in a photo series that symbolizes passing on faith from one generation to the next. A painted triptych has become the congregation vision statement.

“The arts help our congregation see themselves in new ways and with new communities. Art helps people get out of the literal intellectual pattern of reading Scripture and into imagination.

“Art in our midst surprises us. It changes us, if only minutely to begin with. It’s wonderful to let it roll and bubble up, to pay attention to how a piece of art work comes into worship and matches someone’s life,” Adelman says.

Planning Conversations That Create Art for Worship

“Art always communicates,” says Steve Caton, director of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

He says that art created for worship must do two things. It illustrates a concept, such as purity, redemption or sorrow. Caton also asks himself and his teams to “press beyond the initial message to the message giver or message answer.

“God calls for purity. Jesus offers redemption. The Spirit comforts sorrow. I strive for art that moves deeper than a nice or moving thought. Art for worship must always point to its creator,” he says.

Caton calls planned conversation “the single richest resource for artistic ideas.”

Prepare the conversation

Place, prayer, and agenda are key to planning good arts team conversations.

“Create an atmosphere for these conversations both physically and spiritually. Have this conversation at a home, in a park, or at a coffee shop. Light a candle, share some food, treat the senses—and treat your team by paying the bill!” Caton advises.

He says you can create a “spiritually sensitive atmosphere by covering this conversation in prayer.” It’s also good to let your team know you appreciate them, care about them, and see them as “responsible to God for their contribution.”

Help team members arrive prepared. Before the meeting, send an agenda that includes:

  • what you’d like to discuss
  • Scripture references and a note from the speaker or pastor
  • a reminder of what the next liturgical season means

“Ask the team to pray in advance of the meeting that the Spirit would heighten their sensitivity to good ideas, intriguing thoughts, or media,” Caton says.

Focus as a team

Caton gets suggestions on whom to invite to arts team conversations from people already involved. “Good-hearted artists are rarely self-promoting and won’t tell a director or staff person of their skills. But they may be friends with those who know their capabilities,” he says. 

He keeps the emphasis on team and focus. Caton says it’s easiest to work as a team when you practice release.

“Leaders, release yourselves from the responsibility of eliminating bad or whacky ideas and rabbit trails. Bad ideas usually go away by themselves. Whacky ideas provide humor, often leading to better ideas. And rabbit trails sometimes turn into the right path. We do not know the mind of God. We just know when to call it a rabbit trail and bring the conversation gently back. 

“Team members, release yourselves from coming up with the right idea immediately. Never is the first idea the right idea, but you have to start somewhere. Do not set time limits on yourselves,” he says.

Sometimes the final idea surfaces during a planned conversation. Other times the conversation merely sets a process in motion. The “right” idea comes to a team member after the meeting, maybe in the car, or while going to sleep, or in the shower.

To help your team stay open during the conversation, Caton advises, “Refrain from killer phrases such as ‘There’s no way’ or ‘People would never go for that’ or ‘We could never afford that.’ ”

A good agenda sent out ahead of time helps arts teams stay focused. So does including the preacher in the conversation.

“In my case, the pastor is gracious enough to spend time sitting in—but not running—these conversations. This ensures the artists understand God’s call for his or her sermons. It also gives great feedback on a subject to the preacher,” Caton says.

Allow ample lead time

Caton usually begins conversations about liturgical seasons at least six weeks before the first Sunday in that season. He takes Advent and Lent planning teams on an overnight retreat nearby. “It lets us step away from daily demands and hear or be with God and fellow artists for an average of 24 hours,” he explains.

Teams commit to meeting weekly for six weeks and delegate as much as possible. During the last 10 days before a season starts, Caton and his team may put in 120 hours. “Divided by even just 6 people, that would be about 20 hours and spread out over 5 to 8 evenings,” he says.

Caton says he’s learned the hard way to plan ahead. He advises allotting, at minimum, 10 hours for a Sunday or one-day project. His minimum to prepare for a liturgical season is 6 hours a week for the 6 weeks before the season.

Regarding planning budgets, Caton suggests, “Don’t follow the budget while trying to honor the Spirit. Follow the Spirit and try to honor the budget.”

Covenant Life Church has spent anywhere from $40 to $4,000 per arts project. “God is faithful even in budgeting. One summer the whole team was convicted to follow through with a project. It cost us far more time and money than we had foreseen. The best idea for the following series ended up costing us about $45, because we had materials we could reuse and several items were donated,” he says.

Creating a Culturally Sensitive Church Building

After fire destroyed St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, the Holland, Michigan congregation decided its new worship space would reflect their growing diversity.

Sometimes churches describe themselves as multicultural but act more like a collection of congregations. They share a building but operate on separate tracks.

St. Francis de Sales used its rebuilding process to help Anglo, Hispanic, and Vietnamese worshipers think through their identities as members of a cultural group and as Christians.

“We wanted to design something that would show unity without uniformity. And we wanted to give voice to the formerly silent,” says Father Stephen Dudek.

Three-tiered process

Dudek, now pastor at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Wyoming, Michigan, came up with a building planning process that included reactor groups, a building committee, and an executive committee.

There were three reactor groups, “designed along linguistic lines. To hear what people have to say, you need a critical mass. You can’t just ask one English speaker, one Spanish speaker, and one Vietnamese speaker to represent a whole group. But if you get a group together, it’s so very helpful,” Dudek says.

Reactor groups were open to anyone willing to learn and who would commit to attending five or six meetings. “We told them about goals and liturgical principles. They could share thoughts and feelings and give input on designs. It's not art by committee but sensitivity to culture,” Dudek says.

The culturally diverse building committee was made up of a dozen professionals in business, engineering, law, construction, and communication. Three members of the building committee also served as the executive committee.

How faith and culture relate

In an excellent article not easily available online, Dudek described dimensions of faith and culture that guided the congregation (“Building a Home for a Multicultural Parish: Lessons Learned,”in New Theology Review, Vol. XII, no. 1 (2000) pp. 37-45).

Christianity is transcultural. Central liturgical furnishings—baptismal font, altar (communion table), and ambo (pulpit)—visually state that Christians have a common culture of baptism, sharing meals, and forgiveness.

People adopt cultural values into their faith practice. St. Francis de Sales now includes a plaza. Spanish speakers suggested it as a space where people might talk or gather even if they felt unable or unwilling to enter the sanctuary.

During mass, worshipers received cards so they could write which plants had special meaning for them. Now the shrine of oils, where sick people are blessed, is decorated with flowers and fruits associated with healing. Plants associated with life and death adorn the book of remembrance.

Culturally relevant images of corn, prickly pear cactus, shamrock, tuberose, tulip, and water lily mark stained glass windows, the altar, and other liturgical furnishings. There are also Christian symbols, such as grapes and wheat, and sunflowers. “Sunflowers follow the sun across the sky and remind us to keep our eyes on God,” Dudek says.

Christians stand apart from un-Christian cultural patterns. St. Francis de Sales used its arts planning process to break down ethnic barriers. “People respected, understood, and compromised in powerful ways that were good for all.

“The English speakers were very keen on chairs, not pews. The Spanish speakers said sleeping babies would fall out of chairs. They convinced the English speakers that pews would be fine,” Dudek says.

He remembers when Vietnamese speakers looked at a design for a 117 Vietnamese martyrs stained glass piece. “They said, ‘We don’t have mountains like that in the Vietnam. Those remind us of the refugee camps in the Philippines.’ ”

At first the church planned to put a steel fence around the prayer garden. Elderly Vietnamese men said they’d have a hard time coming into church because the fence brought back painful memories of re-education camps.

Mexican-Americans were the majority among Spanish speakers and they asked to have a Mexican flag in the Our Lady of Guadalupe image. But then, Dudek writes, “a small previously voiceless group of Latinos from other countries began to ask if Our Lady of Guadalupe was not the patroness of all the Americas?”

The reactor group listened to those from Chile, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico. Instead of a Mexican flag, there’s a little red, white, and green in a screen.

Sharing between cultures is part of Christian identity. Dudek writes that the church building itself has become “the text for telling stories and sharing beliefs and values across cultures.” The same visual that helps older immigrants connect to their past acts as a bridge for more recent arrivals to bridge into the future. And various visuals give people from other ethnic groups windows into a different culture.

Working side by side

Asking God to establish or prosper or bless “the work of our hands” is a familiar part of the Catholic mass.

Dudek says that St. Francis de Sales is a true “work of our hands.”

Volunteers hauled out rubble, helped landscape, installed cabinets, and crafted liturgical furnishings and vestments. They ranged from migrant farmworkers to college professors, from teens on work-release jail programs and senior citizens.

“People worked in a tent for a whole winter to chip off mortar from 15,000 bricks so they could be reused. They spoke English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. You don’t have to speak to appreciate each other while working side by side,” he says.

Learn More

Jan VanKooten and her team used Sibelius music notation software to format church school students’ songs, such as these by Robyn Stegink and Kirk Groenenboom. They set some songs in four-part harmony so the choir could sing them. Contact Jan VanKooten to come and train your church in her Scripture songwriting method.

If your congregation is multicultural, Stephen Dudek advises hiring a liturgical design consultant who has cross-cultural experience and understands the main ways that culture and faith interact. St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church hired Mark Joseph Costello, a Capuchin priest from Chicago.

Read Facets articles by Katie Adelman on God’s part in creative ministries and opening ourselves to renewal.

See more photos of how Covenant Life and other churches use visual arts in worship  throughout the Christian year. Check Calvin Worship Symposium programs and archives for worship arts presentations by Steve Caton, Lisa De Boer, and William Dyrness.

Read a Reformed Worship story about Steve Caton. Arts in worship was the theme for this issue of Theology, News and Notes.

Join other churches in observing National Migration Week. Glean Catholic insights into various cultural groups new to your congregation or neighborhood.

Browse related stories about digital media in worshipmusical theology, and successful multicultural churches.

Start a Discussion

Talk about the arts planning process in your church:

  • What do you appreciate and find challenging about the arts planning process in your church? Discuss the type of art, how it fits worship, preacher input, breadth and depth of people who plan and lead worship arts.
  • Jan VanKooten’s Scripture songwriting project was open to and worked well for all kinds of kids, not just those who see themselves as musicians. In what ways might your church be missing out on creative gifts of people who don’t put themselves forth as “artsy” or “talented”?
  • What do you think of Katie Adelman’s insight that art can change and surprise us—and push us to let the Spirit work through our imaginations?
  • Which voices are silent or overlooked in your church arts planning process? What first steps might you take to learn from them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to help your congregation improve the arts planning process in your church?

  • Did you design an arts project that reached out to new segments of your church?
  • If you came up with a participatory idea that helped worshipers use a new art form in worship—something that involved several senses—will you share your experience with us?
  • Have you developed checklists or templates to smooth and speed your arts planning process?