Originally posted on March 19, 2017 at Advocate: Association of Presbyterian Church Educators
For many of us, considering the use of art in worship and in ministry can illicit two emotions. We may feel inadequate or incompetent to produce good art. We may also imagine art in worship and in ministry to be like a craft store blowing up in our sanctuary space. However, art is merely the act of creation and invitation. As artists, we are mediators between what is and what could be. Art is a powerful tool to open up the minds of people to the impossible possibilities that God has in store for our faith community, our world, and us.
Thirteen years ago, I was called as an associate pastor to St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco to help grow the church. However, we all know now that the growth of the church is not dependent upon good programming, a solid strategy plan, or even amazing worship. The goal of growing the church is also a misguided end destination. However misguided it is, the growth or health of the church is not the sole task of any one person or a few, but the whole church. Therefore, how do you invite the whole congregation to participate in the creative process of discerning one’s mission, purpose, and direction where God may lead?
Depending on what translation you use, the first three words in the Bible is “in the beginning.” The Common English Bible translates Genesis 1:1-2 as “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without shape or form.” I love that the first words in the Bible illustrates God as artist. With a blank canvas set before God, God created. As pastors, teachers, educators, and worshippers, we can glean two important elements to consider from these first two chapters of Genesis: space and participation.
In the beginning, God didn’t even have a blank canvas to work on. God’s first act of creation was to create the space to hold what would soon be created. God first created the day and night, then the sky, followed by the sea and land. Then God created the sun, moon, and stars to fill the day and night; the fish and the birds to fill the sky; and the animals and people to roam the land.
Before brainstorming what art can be created, consider the space.
What is the physical space whether it is the sanctuary, the church building, or the classroom? What are the possibilities? What are the limitations? What is obstructive and uninviting? What is welcoming and safe?
What is the emotional space of the worshippers or learners? Are they open to new ideas or taking a risk to try something different? Are they joyful or mournful? Do they feel safe in the space or intimidated?
What resources are available? Are finances abundant or limiting? Is there energy or people available to plan, imagine, and execute what art in worship and ministry can be?
By addressing the issues of space, we can begin to think about what purpose art can serve in this space. Do people need a tangible way to engage with Biblical stories? Do people need a process that allows them to risk or experiment so that new ideas can come forth? In order to create a more permissive and welcoming atmosphere, do people need to tap into their more playful and whimsical side? Using art in worship and in ministry is a transformational process because it is a journey that calls us not only to trust ourselves but where God is leading.
Art in worship and in ministry is more than just having beautiful decorations. It’s a communal process that invites all to add their fingerprints and self-expression to mark a specific moment and context in time. In Genesis 2, after all was created, God invited the human one to participate in the creation process by naming all the living things. This act of naming not only made the human one a co-creator, but also to take ownership of what has been and is being created.
One of the difficult tasks of being a church leader is not creating a mission statement, but guiding the faith community to live out that mission statement, especially if it requires a shift in the makeup, identity, and purpose of that faith community. We humans do not like change and yet we are subjected to change every day of our lives.
When I began my call at St. John’s, it was because the congregation noticed that the community around them was changing and, therefore, they needed to change. Over the thirteen years, art has been a tool to embrace what we cannot control, manage our fear of letting go, reflect on how our actions and the biblical stories intersect, mourn what is no longer the same, and celebrate what is to be. Art is not limited to paint on a canvas. It is merely the act of creating and inviting others to participate. Therefore, if you are a pastor, an educator, a teacher, or a learner, you are an artist just as God, the Artist, has created you and now invites you to take part in the creative process that allows people’s lives to be transformed.