Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Senses, Creativity, and the Arts in Worship

By Robin G. Jordan

One criticism that is leveled at conservative evangelicals like myself is that we make no place for the senses or creativity and the arts in worship. This I do not believe is accurate characterization of the conservative evangelical view on these particular subjects. It is certainly not mine.

I see no problem with worship as a multi-sensory experience provided that such an experience truly engages all the senses in the worship of God and is not used simply as justification for the reintroduction of ceremonies, customs, and usages that were rejected at the Reformation for valid reasons. I have no objection to the use of bright colors in the communion table cover, the pulpit and lectern falls, and the kneeling cushions. I find nothing in the Scriptures that says that the environment in which we worship must be somber or colorless. God has filled the world around us with color.

I have not objection to engaging the olfactory senses in the worship of God provided that it not used as an excuse for offering incense during the service. This is not to say that frankincense might not be burned in the worship space on a special occasion before the service to set that occasion apart from other occasions. This was the practice of the seventeenth century Anglican poet priest George Herbert at his little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury. Or frankincense essential oil might be rubbed on the legs of the chairs in which the worshipers are to sit during the service.

If the bread used in the Holy Communion is to have strong value as a sign, it should look like bread. It should smell like bread. It should have the texture of bread, and it should taste like bread. What Jesus took into his hands when he gave thanks was not white paste wafers. It was also not modern Jewish matzo. It in all likelihood bore a resemblance to the flat unleavened breads of the Mid-East of today.

I certainly see a place for creativity and the arts in worship. Here again I must add the same caveat for multi-sensory worship experiences.

Local artisans can be used to make church furniture. They can be used to sew the communion table cover, the fair linen, the Prayer Book cushion, the pulpit-lectern fall, and the kneeling cushions. They can also be used to make the communion ware. Designs for all these items need to be carefully scrutinized for their appropriateness and their aesthetic attractiveness.

Conservative evangelicals like myself sets high value on those qualities that delight the sight or other senses or the mind. We are not devoid of an aesthetical sense. We can see beauty in the simple, clean lines of well-joined cherry wood communion table and reading desk lovingly made by a skilled woodworker in the congregation.

My observation has been that the church decorations and clergy ornaments to which a number of congregations are addicted are overly ornate and far from beautiful. They may be “traditional” but being “traditional” does not keep something from being ugly.

People give more careful attention to decorating their own home than they do the worship space of their church. Often that space resembles a Victorian parlor or a junk shop, crammed with tasteless objects that people have donated.

In my former parish we had a policy where if a family or individual wished to donate an item, we showed them a list of items that the church needed, pictures of the specific items, and where they might purchase them. We guided the donation process.

Anglican new church plants face a particular set of challenges. They are often the recipient of torn and damaged Prayer Books and hymnals, broken electronic organs, bent processional crosses, faded old-fashioned vestments, and other discarded worn-out items that churches could not bring themselves to throw away and which they gladly will donate to a new congregation under the mistaken belief that they are somehow helping them. They do not realize that new congregations in order to be successful in reaching the unchurched need new Prayer Books, hymnals, keyboards, and the like to create an attractive worship experience.

New congregations frequently worship in non-traditional settings. This often means setting up for worship and children’s ministry every Sunday and then tearing down afterwards. They must store their Prayer Books, hymnals, keyboard, and other equipment during the week. They have no room for junk!

People are also apt to have rather fixed ideas as to how the worship space ought to be arranged and these ideas are generally determined by how a particular church from their past was arranged. Often such ideas based upon the layout of “traditional” church buildings do not work well in non-traditional settings. If creativity is needed anywhere, it is in the new church plant. Indeed creativity and flexibility are musts.

When a new congregation is doing “church in a box,” evangelical simplicity is a boon. We have come to a time in the history of Christianity in North America when it may increasingly become prohibitive for a church to own its own building and a large number of churches will simply lease a building or space in a building. The number of church foreclosures has gone up.

The story of one congregation comes to mind. It was not a large congregation but it believed that it would grow over time especially if it had the right building. The congregation went deeply into debt to buy a large Gothic style church building that was on the market. This building fit the congregation’s idea of how a “church” should look. It put form before function. The congregation, however, did not grow as it had anticipated. It was not able to make the payments on the mortgage and eventually the bank foreclosed on the building and the congregation lost the building to the bank. If the congregation had settled on leasing a modest-sized building, one that may have not looked like its conception of a “church,” it would not have experienced the trauma of foreclosure. If it had grown, it could have moved to a larger building. If it had not grown, it could have downsized to a smaller building.

As far for banners and wall hangings I believe that we can learn from Islam that has a strong prohibition against images of any kind. It has turned the writing of verses from the Quran in the flowing Arabic script and simple geometric shapes into an art form. I can see how verses from the Bible, written in one of the more beautiful scripts used to write the English language, and done artistically, with the use of color, texture, and different materials, might be used to decorate a worship space. They would be pleasing to the eye and edifying to the people. If they are done with imagination and skill, they could be real works of art.

The Journey, the church with which I am presently sojourning, changes the appearance of the worship space for every sermon series. The theme of the sermon series is represented in some visual form. For the sermon series “Guardrails” corrugated aluminum panels were hung on either side of the platform in the imitation of the guardrails erected at curves in the highway. The same video clip introduction may be used to introduce the sermon throughout the sermon series. Video clips and props and even dramatization may be used to illustrate a point in the sermon.

The theme of the sermon series may also be repeated in visual form in the area in which the congregation gathers before the service. During the “Guardrails” sermon series bright orange road cones and road signs marked the way from the stairs and the elevators to the ballroom where the church’s “Sunday gatherings” are usually held. The Guest Services volunteers wore the bright orange vests that road workers wear. These visual props emphasized the sermon series’ theme—the guardrails that we establish in our lives to keep us on the road and not straying off it, as we seek to enter by the narrow gate.

Hope Church with which I previously sojourned made very effective use of video clips as the background of the lyrics of hymns and worship songs. These clips were selected for their suitability to the particular lyrics. The lyrics of a song in praise of God for his handiwork in creation might have as their background a series of images of that handiwork—flowers nodding in a breeze, rippling grass, a stream flowing over rocks, the planet Earth seen from space, a wheeling constellation.

In Creative Christian Education: Teaching the Bible through the Church Year, Howard Hanchey suggests dividing the children’s ministry year into terms and ending each term with a bang, with a celebration that involves the whole church. During the term the children make banners and other visual arts projects. They may learn a song and rehearse a drama. All these elements form a part of the celebration, which is integrated into the Sunday service. The younger children at North Cross, another church with whom I sojourned, tie-dyed large coffee filters and made them into exquisite banners during the children’s ministry time. When they joined their parents after the sermon, they brought their banners with them and the conference room in which we gathered to worship looked like it was filled with delicate pastel colored butterflies.

There are many opportunities for the use of visual arts and multimedia on Sunday mornings and at other times. All that is needed is a little imagination and creativity.

I see room for the use of a wide range of musical forms, styles, and instruments in worship. I also see room for unaccompanied singing and no musical instruments at all. Church music has unfortunately become divided into two main schools—the organ school and the guitar-keyboard-drum kit school. The school to which I belong—the eclectic school—is decidedly in the minority. God has so richly gifted the Church and the human race with all kinds of music from stirring organ voluntaries to the unadorned human voice that it is a shame not to use all of it in the worship of the gift-Giver.

I have come to view the music of the Church in a particular time and place as a part of the witness of the Church in that time and place to successive generations of Christians around the world. In the 1980s I read Betty Pulkingham’s Sing God a Simple Song. I took to heart her advice that to whomever fell the responsibility of choosing the worship music of a church should be like the householder who brought forth from his storeroom treasures new and old.

I can see a place for gestures and hand and body movements in worship, especially when young children are involved. A book that has influenced my thinking in this area is Patricia Beall’s The Folk Arts in God’s Family. I can even see a place for some forms of dance. Some folks may have difficulty with dance in worship, and I understand and appreciate their concerns. At the same time we are called to worship God with our whole being. Through dance people can present their entire selves to God. What I have in mind is the kind of dance in which worshipers join hands in a circle and move their feet to a simple folk dance step as they sing God’s praises in a joyous expression of praise to the Lord.

At one time uplifted hands would have created a stir in an Anglican or Episcopal church. It was associated in people’s minds with the charismatic movement. This gesture, which is thoroughly Biblical, is now widespread. It is found in non-charismatic churches as well as charismatic ones in a number of denominations. The orans position of the minister during the eucharistic prayer in Anglican and Episcopal churches is a survival from a time when all Christians prayed with open or uplifted hands. Many people are unaware that Puritans held their hands this way when they prayed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In “Evangelical Religion” Bishop J. C. Ryle considers “that religion which is peculiar to those within the Church of England who are normally called ‘the Evangelical Party’.” He also draws attention to the numerous false reports spread about Evangelicals and defends Evangelicals against the many charges made against them in these reports.

7.) Evangelical Religion does not object to handsome Church buildings.

We like well-designed and well arranged places of worship, good architecture, well ordered ceremonial and well conducted services. We dislike slovenliness, and would have all things done “properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:40). But we maintain that simplicity should be the characteristic of Christian worship. Remembering the great Scriptural truth, “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7), we believe the inward and spiritual character of the congregation is more important than architecture and ornaments. Further, remembering that human nature is easily led astray, we feel that ornaments, theatrical ceremonial, and such like, only drive men away from Christ, and make them walk by sight and not by faith.
Bishop Ryle makes an important point. We can become so preoccupied with the externals of worship that “the inward and spiritual character of the congregation” is neglected. The congregation’s inward and spiritual character should always be our primary focus. Our main objective should be that we worship God in the true beauty of holiness. This is the holy attire with which we clothe ourselves when we put on Christ. We may worship in the meanest hovel, dressed in rags, yet we, having put on Christ, worship at the very gates of heaven. As our Lord told the woman at the well, those the Father seeks to worship him are the true worshippers, those who worship Him in spirit and in truth.

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