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Visual Arts in Church: Making the invisible Word visible

Rainbows, piles of stones, the Ark of the Covenant, a star, a dove. Isn't it time to follow God's lead and reclaim the visual arts to remind us of God's presence among us? A feature story about the role of visual art in worship.

You don't always need a sermon to get the picture. Colorful banners along the main driveway prepare you to expect celebrative worship at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

At Orchard Hill Reformed Church, also in Grand Rapids, visual messages speak loudly each week, thanks to Jim Fissel, director of art and worship. He’s also a liturgical painter. During Lent, Fissel and his team of arts volunteers hang wind chimes outdoors, but use cloth and ropes to silence them. This reminds people that, just as Jesus withdrew into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry, Lent invites us to somberly prepare our hearts for Easter.

When an Orchard Hill member Bonnie Lindke volunteered to loan her miniature lighthouse collection and lighthouse watercolors, Fissel displayed them throughout the narthex. In the center, he created a floor-to-ceiling abstract version of a lighthouse. The display’s only words were “The guiding light—I am the Light of the World.” People entering and leaving worship could see that God still leads his people.

Betsy Steele Halstead cherishes the final worship service at an intergenerational worship conference. "By then, we had become a people together. Friends of the Groom, a drama group, processed in with a dove-shaped kite on a long stretchy pole. The dove had a long trailing tail of ribbons. I saw them come in and thought, 'Oh that's nice.'

"Our last song was about how the Spirit moves in us. As we made gestures with the song, someone waved the dove and its streamers above us. The combination of visuals, movement, and music was so powerful, yet so simple. We could feel the Spirit among us.

"Using visual arts can help us encounter Christ. It's only one way. It's not the only way. But it's a tool we can all develop. It's time to recognize, study, grasp, and reclaim the visual arts in our worship," Halstead says. She is a visual arts resources development specialist and conference manager for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

The visual artist's call

Some Christians feel confused about the relationship between artists and the church.

In his wonderful book Passing the Colors: Engaging Visual Culture in the 21st Century, Chris Stoffel Overvoorde explains that he used to believe he was called to be an artist. "I don't believe that anymore. I'm called to be a Christian. And the best way I know to be a Christian is to be an artist," says Overvoorde, who was born to a working class family in the Netherlands, trained as a ship mechanic, moved to the U.S., and became a painter and Calvin College art professor.

"Most artists feel inferior, but if you are a Christian, then you belong to the family of Christ. If you belong, then you are just as good as the next guy. We need each other. Artists can provide meaningful insights into life and religion. But artists need to learn about the church, and the church needs to learn about artists," he says.

Christians who want to serve God through their art will be happiest when they see art as a discovery, Overvoorde believes.

"I don't have to make biblical scenes. I can make landscapes, florals, abstract works, whatever. There are frustrated artists who want to be missionaries. They want to make a piece into a prayer; that's noble, but doomed to fail. If you want to make art, then make art. If it turns into a prayer, wonderful. But you need skill and technical insight to make art. Otherwise it's like me trying to write a Spanish poem when I don't know Spanish.

"If you can describe exactly what a painting will look like, there's no need to make it. Painting is a process. Every stroke is a decision. Art is about discovery," he says.

Halstead says that sometimes those discoveries become meditative offerings to God. They may also be instructive, like stained glass windows. Or, like angel statues in Gothic churches, these art discoveries may stimulate memories, reminding us that we worship with all the saints in heaven and on earth.

Creating visual art to enhance worship involves a special kind of discovery. "If you bring in people with different perspectives, then those stronger in biblical knowledge can help artists. Artists know about light and dark, about creating movement. Connecting it all gets exciting. For example, you might ask a theological question about whether others see us as we are. The artist might suggest using transparent and opaque fabric to symbolize showing our Christian selves to others instead of keeping our faith private," Halstead says.

The church's response

She helped organize a conference on artists serving the church that drew 350 people from Catholic, Reformed, Pentecostal, Greek Orthodox, and other traditions.

"So many people said, 'I thought I was the only one interested in this topic. I've felt so isolated.' That's typical of Christian artists. Artists rarely walk up to pastors and volunteer their services, perhaps because musicians have been valued more in churches than artists have. It was great to get so many artists in the same room with worship planners and pastors," Halstead says.

She and Overvoorde see dialogue as the key to using more visual arts in worship. Committing to dialogue requires grace from both artists and churches. "In the secular world, the artist is the creator. But we stress that, in church, art is done in community. Some artists are slightly resistant to that. We have to dialogue about a Christian worldview so we can reclaim art," Halstead says.

Unless pastors and worship planners draw artists into dialogue, they'll miss out on great ways to visually enhance worship and congregational life. Many churches hear "art" and think only of liturgical banners, bulletin covers, and projection technology. But art can grace almost any space in church, and it can include vestments, vessels, furnishings, mosaics, stained glass, architecture, paintings, sculpture, and the way sanctuary space is arranged.

Artists get hurt when churches leave them out of the conversation. Overvoorde suggests, "If your church has a show for artists, don't go into judgment mode: 'I like it. I don't like it.' The question should be whether it's meaningful. I've made a lot of tough images, like a woodcut of Abraham holding a big knife ready to gut out his kid. But that's biblical." One church asked for, and then removed, his woodcuts without giving him a chance to discuss his work or their congregation a chance to learn.

Churches should be sensitive about asking artists to donate time and supplies. That can be expensive and problematic, especially for those who earn their living as artists. Some artists choose to tithe their work. But it's best for churches to develop clear policies on renting or purchasing art; paying for supplies; and determining ownership when an artist loans a piece but then moves to another church or community.

Doing art in community

While Overvoorde thinks from the perspective of a professional artist, Halstead says, "We are all made in the image of God. We all have artfulness in us, so we need to discover that creativity and use it."

The GraceWorks project at Grace United Church in Sarnia, Ontario, focuses on using visual arts to worship God, rather than show off creativity. A "pod process" unites artists and theologians to create visual arts that illuminate scripture for a particular worship service.

Pods organize around a scripture text and/or a theme. The project director chooses which text they'll work on. Pod members start by using lectio divina to pray the scripture. They ask: "Who is this God who is revealed through these texts? To whom in our culture is this scripture good news? What do we need to do so that those people will hear it as good news?"

According to pastor Christine Jerrett and artist Susan Woodhouse, the relationships that develop among pod members are as important as the works they create. "If we create beautiful art but fail to love one another, we have simply failed," they say. That's why they encourage collaboration, feedback, questions, further input, and sensitivity to each others' ideas.

We can all respond to creativity

Steve Caton, programming director for worship and arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, encourages similar sensitivity to relationships among those who help him plan multi-sensory worship experiences.

"When I taught in an inner-city elementary school, I couldn't depend on reading the chapter or answering questions to bring the point home. As a teacher or parent, you know your kids learn in different ways. So why do churches default to listening?" he asks.

Surveys show that Covenant Life members feel closest to God when they have to leave their seat and participate in a symbolic act related to the sermon, like burning a piece of flash paper with their sins written on it.

"We have such an image-rich faith. Even if you can't show creativity, you can receive it. And multi-sensory learning is ageless. People from age 3 to 93 can get it," Caton says.

He and his team plan worship experiences eight weeks ahead. They involve the speaking pastor and look for ways to access several learning abilities, such as touch, smell, sight, sound, and movement.

During a series on brokenness, worshipers received a broken tile. "The sermon explained that in King David's day, impaired people were not accepted in public, let alone at the royal table. So Mephibosheth, Jonathan's crippled son, had trouble believing David would show kindness to him. The pastor drew a parallel between Mephibosheth's fearful reluctance of accepting David's kindness and our difficulty in accepting Christ's grace.

"Then he asked, 'What is that brokenness for you?' We went into a time of silent confession and acknowledgement that Christ welcomes us to his table. During this time, a gentleman was spreading mortar on a table. People were invited to come forward to pray and put their piece of tile into the mortar. They all came forward.

"That's our communion table now. Two years later, people still show me 'their' tile and say what they were thinking about when they placed it on the table," Caton says.

Another time each worshiper received a four-foot strip of cloth. The pastor asked them to take the cloth home and use it as a reminder to pray about how God might use them in church, as volunteers, in para church organizations, or other roles. Three weeks later, people brought their fabric back to church. During the service, they went to activity stations scattered around the sanctuary to write what God had called them to do. Then they wove their strips in and out of a mounted frame. "Now we have several weavings hanging at a church like a visual heritage," Caton says.

He and his team once hung dead trees from the rafters during Advent, adding bits of holly and berries each week. On Christmas Eve, worshipers received dead twigs. The sermon, based on Isaiah 11, explained how Christ is the new shoot branching from "the stump of Jesse." People used silver wire to graft fresh holly sprigs to their dead twigs, to symbolize their invitation to be grafted to Christ.

"Very little art in our church is pretty. But it is meaningful. Start simple. Keep it concrete. Answer the questions: Why are they lighting a candle. What does it mean?" Caton advises.

Learn More

Consider buying one of these books. Then write a book review for your church newsletter and donate the book to your church library.

Chris Stoffel Overvoorde says, "The angle of the pulpit chairs can affect a space humongously. In some churches, it seems that visually, anything goes-five mikes up front, shining like crazy, cords snaking all over the stage, big boom boxes. Do you want order in worship? Do you also want it visually?" Book Betsy Steele Halstead for an environmental worship space consultation. Or order Overvoorde's booklet "So You've Been Asked to Design Visuals."

Read Christine Jerrett's article "Spiritual Gifts and Worship" from Fellowship Magazine.

Learn how to improve your artistic skills from Christians who make art: Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), Asian Christian Art Association, and the Grünewald Guild. Order digital images suitable to project during worship services from Eyekons, a stock image bank of "art made through the eyes of faith." Purchase a CD with 358 multicultural images for worship.

View 8,000 icons from 34 countries and learn how Eastern Orthodox Christians use icons to remind worshipers that Christ became incarnate, dwelt among us, and is still present with us.

Set aside an hour to explore the visual arts in worship links from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

The Text This Week offers an art concordance keyed to biblical themes, scripture texts, and the lectionary. This Australian site offers children's activity sheets keyed to the lectionary.

Start a Discussion

  • Joshua set up twelve stones as a memorial to when God dried up the Jordan River so the priests could carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Promised Land. What visual symbols remind your congregation of how God has fulfilled specific promises?
  • Many artists do not belong to a congregation. How could your church reach out evangelistically to artists?
  • Which areas of your church include visual arts? What message do these works convey? Where else might you use art to enhance worship or congregational life?
  • How might you use a common interest in creating art to build community in your church?
  • How well do the arts-inclined people in your church understand the difference between thinking theologically and thinking decoratively?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers encounter Christ through the visual arts?

  • Have you designed a survey or inventory to discover artistic gifts among your congregation members? Remember, this may include people with woodworking skill to design a baptismal font or engineering know-how to consult on space, banner-hanging, and lighting issues.
  • Have you created a step-by-step guide to running a summer arts camp for kids, offering watercolor lessons at church, hosting a Christian art show, or inviting artists who don't attend church to share ideas or attend a special event?
  • Have you developed policies in art rental, purchase, or ownership that other churches could use? Can you offer other churches guidance on including art supplies as a line item in the annual church budget?