By Lisa Smith.
There is graffiti painted on the side of an underpass near my neighborhood. In large black and red colors it reads, “Art is Order.” Despite the irony of the tagger’s lack of respect for the order of law, I see it as a signpost declaring something true; on some level art is order.
Or at least art is part of order making. It is one of the ways in which we as humans try to make sense of our world. Often the “meaning” in our experiences, feelings, thoughts and observations is not immediately evident. This leads us to ask spiritual and existential questions like, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Who or what made me and for what purpose?” And the answers to these lead to ethical questions: “If I am made by a loving benevolent God and you are too, then how must I treat you?”
It’s not a matter of being “artsy” or having some sort of spectacle. It is more a matter of finding ways to enter deeply into the order and elements of worship already established in your service.
We need tools to help us process and find something concrete to hold onto. Throughout history storytelling, image making, singing, music, dance, etc. have been integral to the process of order-making, of making sense of the world and our place in it. I believe these are tools given to us by God specifically for the purpose of “working it out” because our rational capabilities will only take us so far. The mystery of God requires us to experience and trust something that needs more than intellectual understanding. Helping people learn how to see, how to make meaning of their lives, culture and faith for themselves is certainly part of our task in church.
Sometimes people will say to me, “I wish we could be as creative as your church, but we are a traditional congregation.” The funny thing is, I think they might be surprised at how “normal” our congregation and worship is if they came to visit. We don’t have a worship band or a huge choir. We don’t frequently use multi-media or have a drama team. We have limited resources and make the most of what we have. So here’s the really good news: You don’t have to stop being who you are to be creative! The traditional worship service in particular is full of opportunities for creative expression and exploration.
It’s not a matter of being “artsy” or having some sort of spectacle. It is more a matter of finding ways to enter deeply into the order and elements of worship already established in your service. And, most importantly, it’s about asking the right questions. If our questions center around attraction, image, preferences and taste we get nowhere fast. When we focus on those questions, it makes art and creativity luxury items that can be added or taken away based on our extra time and money as frills that are entertaining and nice, but certainly not necessary — especially if they are divisive.
But art is not luxury. Art is order. The questions intrinsic in the process of making and viewing art are essential to our encounter with the divine. If our questions instead center around making meaning out of that which we do not understand, we may find it quite easy and in fact logical to employ our imaginations in worship.
We already seek to answer questions like how God can be so intimately in relationship with us and yet not tangibly present by regularly employing drama to enter into that mystery together as the entire congregation acts out the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. We use tangible symbols of bread and wine to make meaning of Christ’s words and to make the invisible very much present with us. In this way we rehearse our faith.
Christianity is replete with symbols of order-making and at different points in history the arts have been employed for this purpose. Art in worship is not new, though certainly it has been neglected and it is to our benefit to learn how to reclaim these tools. We can start by observing where the arts are already at work to help us make meaning through symbol and parable. Then, begin expanding our questioning to see what is not adequately addressed. What if we asked questions like, “How can we make our offering more an act of submission or acknowledgement of God’s provision?” “In addition to the cross, would it be beneficial to add symbols that reflect the triune nature of God to direct our attention in worship?”
Questions like these posed to creative and imaginative people in our congregations will naturally lead to good, theological conversations about art in our churches. In that way, we will find the arts to be a tool for unity and order instead of chaos and division. And if we could master these tools in worship, imagine the possibilities for engaging our world!