Bringing the Arts into Worship

(Reprinted from The Spirit, an ecumenical spirituality newsletter)

Most of us can give a fairly accurate description of the sanctuaries where we worship. Picture the walls, windows, woodwork, furniture position; even how light comes in on a Sunday morning. We have it memorized, just as most of the major stories of the Bible are stored somewhere in our minds. Each year, we take a few out, dust them off, then place them back into storage shortly after the benediction.

Then one Sunday in Advent, you stroll into the same sanctuary. Your eyes discover several brightly colored blue fabrics flowing off the altar table into a puddle on the floor beneath. Nestled in the folds is one tall pillar candle surrounded by stars. Then you notice the floor. Leading up to the edge of the cloth is a line of shoes; baby shoes, wing tips, stiletto heels, work boots, roller blades, canvas sneakers and a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.

What’s with the shoes you wonder? Did someone clean out their closet and donate them to church? Is there some connection with Advent? You ponder this as you stand  for the first hymn. Your curiosity is piqued. You listen and look as if you’ve never seen or heard before to find out what the “gift” might mean. Surely something will be revealed.

Someone rises to read Scripture. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.'” (Isaiah 52:7 NRSV) You look at the shoes again and silently picture your own sensible loafers parked right next to those pink flip flops and you realize that everyone, including you, is a messenger, carrying the good news of Jesus Christ in a world hungry for hope and joy. We’ve all come expecting the gift of a savior only to be asked to proclaim it for others.

Now you’re “seeing” the story and the season of Advent with new eyes. As you enter the time of prayer, your heart fills with the presence of Christ. The experience sticks  with you throughout the week and you find yourself telling your creative friends at work about it. They’re intrigued. And you can’t wait to see what might appear next week on Sunday morning.

Art has the power to touch our lives in profound ways. The church has always embraced the arts, often with beautiful but static windows, carvings and par aments. We’ve become adept at using words to read and preach, but the story of God begs for life through music, image, drama, taste, touch and movement. Connections are made through the heart, not just the head.

Bringing the story to life using the arts week by week can be a rich experience for pastors and laypeople alike. As the church seasons unfold, repeating God’s story of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, the arts help us internalize our placement in a long history of redeemed people. The arts tap into unconscious sources of ritual and symbol that connect us with the mystery of God. We step into the story, claiming it as our salvation and willingly sharing it’s life-giving joy with others.

Here are a few suggestions on how to capture a text and creatively bring it to attention in worship.

  • Build a creative space, either by yourself or with a group of people who will work creatively together. Do you prefer quiet? Music? Are there candles, rocks, shells, bowls, water, etc. to create a focal point for your discoveries?
  • Pray. Ask God to guide you into the text and help you find what you need.
  • Read the text out loud. Use an upcoming lectionary text or one you know will be used in the coming weeks.
  • Close your eyes and have the text read again. If you are alone, tape your own voice and play it back. While you listen, play it in your mind like a movie.
  • Listen for the images, sounds, smells, tastes and textures in the text. Make notes of which ones seem strongest. If only a few emerge, expand your reading. Is this part of a larger story? Context? If several emerge, which one will be proclaimed in worship?
  • Ask the questions: Who is God in this story? How is God revealed? Who are we as God’s people? What is God telling us? Asking of us?
  • Go deeper: Where is life in this story? What leads toward death?
  • What is the role of community?
  • Consider the possibilities for expressing the theme imaginatively. What symbolic objects will expand and express your discoveries? What liturgical elements can deepen and reinforce the focus of the text? Is there a song running through your mind? A dramatic conversation? A dance? Will people automatically “get it” or should some explanation be offered?
  • Put your ideas into action. Watch and listen for people’s responses on Sunday morning.
  • Begin again. Stretch and strengthen your creative muscles as the church season unfolds.
  • Beware. Your relationship with God will deepen and expand.

The author wishes to thank the Women’s Art Collective for creating and successfully using this process together. Members: Rev. Vicki Kessler, Doris Beatty, Rheda Schultz, Rev. Gail O’Neal.


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