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Projected Images in Worship: Illustrate or Illuminate

Artist Sandra Bowden compiled a CD of contemporary visuals for worship, Images of Faith. It's more important to focus on what an image means for worship than on the technology for projecting it. A feature story exploring projected visuals in worship.

The Scripture reading is from John 6. So when you hear or read the words “I am the bread of life,” your inner soundtrack begins playing. Maybe it’s Sister Suzanne Toolan’s “I Am the Bread of Life” … the 19th century hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” … the Taize chorus “Eat This Bread” …or a repeated Keith Getty line, “so we share in this bread of life.”

“What if you had to go to a church that had had no music since the early 1500s? It’s unimaginable. Yet the void you can’t imagine is there—a 500-year lack of visual arts in Protestant churches,” artist Sandra Bowden says.

You likely have a musical catalogue of memories linked to Psalm 23, Isaiah 40, and other Bible passages. Bowden also has a visual memory bank. “When Scriptures are read, images float across my inner screen, informing and interpreting the Scriptures in rich ways that words alone cannot do,” she explains.

That’s why she combed through 8,000 pieces of contemporary art to choose 100 images for Images of Faith, an interactive CD. These powerful images will help your church add new ways of seeing to worship services. Using Images of Faith can help congregations treat their screens as the domain of the worship arts team, not just the technology team.

Powerful images

“I did this CD so churches can project images with artistic, historical, and biblical depth and integrity during worship. When images are there, the image is catalogued and remembered,” Bowden says. She is an artist and painter from Massachusetts, past president of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and a trustee of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.

Bowden advises basing your choice of projected images on their ability to illuminate, not illustrate.

“In illustrative work, 90 percent of the meaning is revealed at first glance. In Joan Bohlig’s ‘On the Table, Bread,’ you can almost smell the bread. It reminds me of walking into my mother’s house while she was baking bread and receiving a sense of warmth, home, and substance.”

Bohlig’s painting evokes emotion and goes deeper. The abundant loaves are arranged in a fish shape to remind you of the miracle of loaves and fishes. Her still life composition visually references 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings, a still life genre meant to convey that life’s pleasures are fleeting. Bowden says that Bohling’s etchings may appear simple on first look but include hidden symbols.

You don’t have to be an art historian to see all that, because Images of Faith includes an interpretive essay and artist information for each piece.

“Can You Drink The Cup I Am About to Drink?” is a sterling silver sculpture by Father John Kiefer, a Catholic priest. Silver crowns of thorn, connected by a spiky stem, circle the chalice base and communion cup.

“Can you imagine being handed this chalice on Good Friday? When I show it, people gasp. Some tell me later, ‘I almost wept when I saw that.’ This chalice screams the inevitability of suffering. It’s the invisible made visible,” Bowden says.

New ways of seeing

She’s convinced that some Christians view worship visuals as “a frill, an add on,” because they haven’t been introduced to powerful images.

“Old Testament worship involved every sense—sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. This is the model God gave for worship. Absolutely everyone benefits from carefully chosen visual images. If there are 100 people at worship and only five are deeply moved by the images, that’s worth it, because maybe those five are not deeply moved by music or sermons,” Bowden says.

Any pastor or worship arts committee can learn to choose images to go with a text or song. Ask your team to look at a piece of art and write what they see. What’s the first thing they notice? What are the primary and secondary meanings? Are there hidden symbols? Why did the artist choose those colors? Where is the light coming from and what does that say?

Five or ten minutes is enough time to talk about the image, “unless it precipitates a good conversation. All of what’s uncovered together in committee doesn’t need to go to the congregation,” Bowden says.

Ted Prescott’s “Annunciation” is a mixed media installation. Prescott sculpted Mary as a Mennonite girl standing alone in a humble house, preparing to bake bread. A pastor could spend an entire sermon using this artwork to retell stories of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary, Jesus’ unexpected entry into history, the Last Supper, communion, and our place in those stories.

Quietly present in worship

Bowden says that one image in a service can be enough. You could project it during the gathering, a prayer, song, Bible reading, or between the minister’s PowerPoint sermon points. Baptisms and communion are also good times to show art.

You don’t have to say much in print or verbally about the art. It’s okay to let it be what Bowden likes to call “quietly present” and give only the work’s name, the artist’s name, and a tidbit. For Prescott’s “Annunciation,” you might explain that the lily is a centuries-old symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity or that the name Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

Bowden has shown art that strikes people as “primitive.” They wonder why an annunciation woodcut has a dove near Mary’s ear. “Then I explain that medieval artists use the dove at her ear as a symbol of the Word made flesh. People’s mouths drop. These visual details are so profound theologically,” she says.

Focus on What, not How, in Planning Worship Visuals

Dozens of fonts and colors. Fly-in words. Animated graphics. Video loops behind song lyrics. 3D TV-style transitions. Lights synced to the rhythm section. And millions of free or low-cost downloadable images just clicks away.

Slow down.

“Just because the hardware cost a lot and runs magical software doesn’t mean it’s good for worship,” Dean Heetderks cautions in a Reformed Worship column. He is the magazine’s art director and director of product services for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

If you’re wondering whether projected technology is all it can be in your congregation’s worship, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach. This is especially true if you’ve been treating the screen as solely the domain of the technology team.

Remember why you gather

Worship presentation software sites post testimonials like this direct quote from a worship arts pastor: “Everything worked flawlessly. We had several comments of Broadway, Vegas, Disneyish in excellence and quality.”

That’s fine if you think of engaging in worship as a lot like enjoying a movie, concert, or pro game. If, however, you think that dialogue is a better metaphor for worship than entertainment is, then it’s important that projected technology support the goal of leading people through a conversation with God.

“This is a generalization, but for many technicians, the how is more important than the what. Artists understand that the how is often incidental to the what. This basic difference in approach makes a huge difference in worship.

“It’s the same with a pianist. Just being able to play the equipment isn’t enough. You have to know how to move an entire congregation—of all ages—through worship, giving them visual cues to what is happening or will happen next,” Heetderks says.

Visual cues

Artists serving with the church technology team can help keep the focus on visual cues that orient people in the worship space, the church calendar, and the flow of worship.

“The big ol’ screen is distracting enough. So often I find myself asking our church projectionists, “Is there a way to make this simpler and more straightforward?’” Heetderks says.

Consider photographing part of a hanging banner or other architectural feature of your church. Use this visual snippet as a background or design element on a projected slide. This reminds people that they are not watching entertainment on a stage but are gathered to worship.

Bethany Christian Reformed Church in Muskegon, Michigan, follows the lectionary and liturgical calendar. Nan Frazee-Byington designed seasonal screens to help orient Bethany worshipers in the church year. In each season, she organizes slide space in roughly the same way and includes a watermark (background image) of circles and crosses from season to season.

Slide colors and elements change with the liturgical season, such as green background and violet blossoms during Ordinary Time (after Pentecost) and white and gold backgrounds with holly and evergreens during Christmas Season.

Within each liturgical season, Frazee-Byington created sets of slides that are visually related yet not exactly alike. For example, her Lent screens have varying amounts of burlap. Christians in some traditions carry burlap in their pockets or display it in their homes during Lent. This visual, tactile reminder alludes to Old Testament sackcloth-and-ashes penitence and Christ’s grace in smoothing our rough edges.

Projected images that include text should lead worshipers through each week’s liturgy. Visually unified images and screens help worship flow like a good conversation. Trying to do too many things visually can make worship feel more like a variety show.

Heetderks suggests ignoring most of the cool transition options in worship presentation software. Since most transitions in film are straight cuts, he advises using medium-to-slow fades for most worship projection transitions, such as when the liturgy moves from confession of sin to assurance of pardon.

Less means more

It’s a big pressure for technicians to find and integrate dozens of images into a worship service. So maybe the tech team in your church will feel relieved when the arts people help simplify visuals.

Besides using projected technology to provide visual cues, consider using projected images to add layers of meaning. You don’t need images for every line, verse, song, Bible reading, or sermon point that you project as text.

One well-chosen image per service can be very effective. Worship arts and technology people working together can decide on an upper limit of how much art to include in a given service.

Good sources of meaningful art for projection include:

  • Hermano León Clipart
  • Images of Faith, an interactive CD with 100 contemporary artworks, each with an interpretive essay and artist contact information
  • Public domain images from Flickr (use only those covered by the Creative Commons license) andWikimedia Commons (especially Christianity in Art and Religion in Art)
  • Seeing the Savior, a CD with 35 images from the life of Christ and suggestions for children’s art projects
  • Visuals for Worship, a CD and booklet with 29 woodcuts of Christian and biblical symbols

How an image can minister

Picture three people who’ve talked with the same newcomer. One may forget the person’s name but easily describe her appearance. Another will tell you about the woman’s history and who she is related to—but may be unable to recognize her when they meet again. And the third person may talk most about the conversation’s emotional vibes.

The point is that we don’t all pay attention to the same things. We give different weights to visuals, words, emotions, and more. Including thoughtfully-chosen images in worship may minister to certain people in ways that the rest of the service does not.

“If there are 100 people at worship and only five are deeply moved by the images, that’s worth it, because maybe those five are not deeply moved by music or sermons,” says Sandra Bowden. She is an artist and painter from Massachusetts, past president of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and a trustee of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.

Across cultures and genres

Bowden likes to tell the story of how God used a specific artwork in the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis grew up in a wealthy merchant family, went off to battle to seek knighthood, was wounded and captured, and spent a miserable year in a dungeon till his father ransomed him.

Depressed and confused, the young man wondered what to do with his life. One day he visited an abandoned chapel near Assisi, where a life-size icon of Christ on the cross still hung. The unknown artist who painted that Christ of San Damiano crucifix filled it withreligious symbolism. “Kneeling before it, Francis composed the prayer considered to be among the oldest of his writings,” Bowden says.

All Highest, Glorious God,
cast your light into the darkness
of my heart.
Give me right faith,
firm hope,
perfect charity,
and profound humility,
with wisdom and perception,
O Lord, so that I may do
what is truly your most holy will.

As he prayed and gazed at the crucifix, Francis heard God’s call for him to rebuild the church. He rebuilt the crumbling chapel and later realized God meant for him to renew the Christian community.

That famous crucifix now hangs adjacent to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi, Italy. Seeing it inspired Bowden to create a mixed media piece, “St. Francis Cross after an unknown artist,” as part of her art history interpretation series.

God often uses the arts to cross cultures. Russian composer Konstantin Zhigulin says it was Hieronymous Bosch’s painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” that first urged him to think about God. Chinese artist He Qisays he became a Christian because of seeing Raphael’s “Madonna paintings.

When words won’t come

You’ve probably experienced times when sorrow or loss leaves you unable to pray. That’s how one woman felt after her brother was killed in a car accident. Their parents had died when they were children, and the woman had basically raised her little brother.

She later wrote a letter to explain how Bowden’s “It Is Finished” helped her.

“I hung ‘It Is Finished’ in my living room, and for the next several months, I sat and stared at Christ crucified hour after hour. It was common for me to spend entire evenings and many weekend hours as well staring at that picture. I didn't read the Bible; I couldn't study. I couldn't pray—certainly not aloud or even in coherent thought. I just sat and stared. It was the only act of faith I could manage. I could hang on to Christ.

“Even though nothing else made sense, I knew that if ever there was any hope, any possibility that this depression and sense of lostness would ever go away, it would center in Him and come to me as His gift. Actually, I felt numb and wondered if I had any faith at all. I just sat and stared,” she wrote.

“God is faithful. All my miniscule faith could do was focus on Christ. God still does wonders with crumbs.

“Sandra, I want to express to you how much God has used your art to bring me through ‘dark nights of my soul,’ recurring nights that for me have lasted months and years. God has used your work to focus my attention on Him when nothing else could even get my attention. Meditating on Christ crucified and on the implications of His grace has brought me through to a place of stronger faith and renewed joy. I must say there's a lot less of intellectual interest in theology for me, but much more draws my heart and soul toward the Lord.”

Bowden recounts that story in her book, The Art of Sandra Bowden.

Including children

Bowden has noticed that churches with permanent art in the sanctuary often use the art as a focal point for children’s sermon. “I’ve seen that at the Church of the Transfiguration on Cape Cod. They have art in their basilica. Orthodox churches do this too,” Bowden says.

Churches without much art in the worship space can used projected images, such as those from Images of Faith, an interactive CD with 100 images of contemporary art suitable for worship, devotion, teaching, and preaching.

The CD includes “Joyful Mystery #1: The Annunciation” by Jim Janknegt.

Bowden suggests asking, “Can you see what’s different about the angel? How would you imagine an angel coming to us? Just a question or two to ignite their inquiry is enough.

“I know of a church in Massachusetts that projected an image for the children’s sermon. The kids’ imaginations went wild. They took their ideas to junior church and made drawings. Before the next Sunday, someone matted and hung the images so the whole church could respond.”

She advises “teaching” an image in worship, just as a music leader or choir teaches a congregation a new song. “Remember that one image in a service can be enough. If you use too many, the impact gets blurred,” Bowden says.

Learn More

The second interview excerpt references “Temma on Earth,” a painting by Tim Lowly that is included in Images of Faith.

Book Sandra Bowden to give a workshop on using art in worship at your congregation or seminary. Buy the book The Art of Sandra Bowden.

Buy Images of Faith along with Seeing the Savior, a CD with 35 images from the life of Christ and suggestions for children’s art projects. Buying these CDs includes the right to project images for teaching, preaching, and devotional purposes by churches, colleges, and seminaries. If you want to reproduce an image for a bulletin insert or for other in-house church use, then contact the artist. Bowden suggests offering $50 per image. Using these images on book covers or for other extensive uses often costs between $250 and $800.

Help yourself to visual arts resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Gather a group to listen to podcasts about using art to deepen worship. Check out Episcopal Café’s art blog and multimedia meditations.

This blog post by Marie Page generated a raft of thoughtful comments on whether moving images behind words are a help or hindrance in worship songs. Page leads worship in a church in the UK and is director of Music Academy, founded to provide practical worship training.

Every issue of Reformed Worship includes advice on art, projection, and visuals in worship from Dean Heetderks and others, such as Steven Koster’s articles on leading with light.

Browse related stories on aesthetics in worship, art that preachesdigital storytelling, and planning worship visuals.

Start a Discussion

Talk about using projected images in worship:

  • Old Testament worship involved every sense—sound, sight, touch, smell, taste. Which senses does your worship include or exclude?
  • What are the main reasons your congregation uses (or does not use) projected technology in worship?
  • Give an example, from worship or another part of life, of an image that reached your heart or mind in a way that words had not.
  • What visual helps does your church use to lead worshipers through the liturgy?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about using visual images to add layers of meaning to worship?

  • Did you attend worship at a church that uses a lot of projected images in worship? Which questions did you come up with to reflect on that experience?
  • Did you survey members and address their concerns or misgivings about introducing more visuals into worship?