Towards Visual Worship and Good Stewardship of Design

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welcomeOn Sunday night, August 31, several youth groups from San Antonio-area churches of Christ met at our church, the New Braunfels Church of Christ, for a youth praise event. But this one was slightly different. Our theme was Light The Way, and part of the “sermon” was me using a tripod, a camera, a 25-second shutter speed, and a handful of flashlights to tell the story of Jesus with a technique called “Light Writing.” To do this, get the room very dark, click the shutter open, “draw” in the air with the flashlights, and when the shutter clicks closed, you have recorded a light painting in still image form. I used a projector to display the image from the camera, i.e., instead of the picture displaying on the camera’s LCD screen, it displayed on a projector. The 230 teens in attendance were being led in worship song by our guest worship leader while I painted a series of 17 different compositions. When I was finished, I scrolled back through the paintings, and delivered a short lesson from John 8:12.

Here are the images I created on stage while the teens were singing:

The light metaphor is used so heavily in Scripture, particularly by Jesus, that we wanted to build a worship experience around the idea of actual light as a way of telling the story. It was a great night, and was received very well. Months of thought, prayer, and prep went into the event. God was certainly praised by many voices, but by many eyes as well. The idea of Visual Worship was very much at the fore in our planning, because we want to worship God not just with our voices but with our eyes too. What better medium to use for that than light?

But I want to point out how this was not just a bevy of cool effects. These were specifically chosen images that form a narrative of Jesus. This was intentional, rehearsed, and story-driven. We do this in all sorts of other media. This one was visual. And it was, at least I think, cool. And it is very important because if there are ways to sin with your eyes, then there must also be ways to worship with your eyes. If this is true, then we as a fellowship may need to re-evaluate the extent to which we employ the visual in our corporate worship experiences.

redseaFull Disclosure: I am a creative type, and I’ve had a rough go in more than several worship services. And I notice that there’s fewer and fewer like me in our fellowship. But even so, I promise I’m not trying to start a “worship war.” Instead, I would like us to think about the roles that the visual can and should play in church gatherings for the express reason of making sure our message gets heard and seen in an increasingly visual culture.

I admit, the idea of Visual Worship sounds a little too artsy and perhaps foreign to members of a fellowship who worship in ‘auditoriums,’ and go to ‘lectureships’ (just look at those word roots). But we live in a visual culture filled with icons, screens, graphics, and apps, ad infinitum. The visual is the language of our current culture. If we are to engage this culture and stay relevant, I believe our worship services should employ this language so our churches are not dismissed and, more importantly, our message is not compromised by our delivery methods. And it’s no good vilifying the current culture, as if it were 21st century that’s endangering the gospel. The gospel is universal and will thrive in any culture. But it has to be communicated in culturally relevant ways. If the alternative is staying in the 19th century with our design, architecture, fonts, and furniture, that’s just as much of a cultural choice.

Understand: I not talking at all about our message. Our message is fine. The Gospel will and should be preached faithfully. Jesus came, died, resurrected. Disciples should be made. And salvation is by grace through faith. What I am saying is that it is just as ridiculous to preach the gospel to people under 30 using a clipart-laden PowerPoint as it would be to preach the gospel in Chinese to a roomful of Ethiopians. They may listen because they’re polite, but you won’t convince them it’s important. You won’t even get heard, no matter what your message is. Because—and here’s the crux—the environment of the space is monumentally important to current culture. If the environment and design of your worship space is not perceived as important to your church, then your church will be dismissed— subconsciously or not—as irrelevant.

For example, when you walk in your church’s worship space, you should be able to tell it’s a church, but you should also be able to know it’s 2014, not 1976. The color of the carpet, the style of pews, whether or not there are screens, the design of the stage area, the dimmable/non-dimmable lights may not matter to you. But they matter to hipsters, art majors, people who are the first to get the new iPhone, architects. Will interior design save souls? No. But it will set the stage for a message of salvation to be heard.

The shrubs, trees, mulch and a flowers on our church’s exterior don’t really matter to me personally, but if I’m trying to reach out to the landscaper demographic in our community, I’m going to make sure our landscaping sends the message “Hey, landscaping is important to us.” When a landscaper pulls in and notices things are done well, and done correctly, they have an open mind and good feeling about the place–and the message–before they even walk through the doors. Conversely, if the flowers are dead, and there are palm trees even though it’s Michigan, that landscaper who has decided to visit your congregation has just gotten the message that the things that are important to him are not the things that are important to this congregation. That’s not a message I want visitors to have before they even sit down.

But how many more people under thirty are there in our communities than professional landscapers?

Most often in churches, incorporating the visual means projection and computers. But what about architecture? Even interior design? Or how about the fonts and layout of the bulletin? The signage? The letterhead? There are a million tiny (visual) design elements that add up to one of two big messages: 1) we’re relevant, or 2) we’re not.

Most people aren’t able to quantify or articulate these design elements because they don’t have a background in design, film, architecture, or art. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t make these elements any less important. At the subconscious level, I’ll argue that the vast majority of people do notice the feeling, mood, general vibe and purpose of the space within 30 seconds of entering. Environment matters a great deal. And environment can go a long way in preparing a person to hear a message.

Design elements may not be the first things we think of when we think ‘worship.’ But this has not always been the case in history. In the Medieval world, the stories were told not by books or movies, but by the stain glass windows, and in a larger way, the architecture itself. Not everyone could read, and even if they could, Bibles weren’t readily available until after Gutenberg’s little invention. So the story of Jesus, indeed the story of the bible, were communicated by images. If you’ve ever been to a cathedral in Europe, you know this to be true…window after window of glass and lead that are stunning, and have been stunning for generations. (It’s worth noting that they are in the church, the place of ritual, and are illuminated from behind by light. The metaphor is just too great to pass up.) Standing there amid the Gothic architecture, staring up at those windows, you will come to know why they say a picture is worth a thousand words. And pictures, images, ideas conveyed in color and texture capture us like few other things can.

God knows this, and leveraged it back in the Ancient Near East. The artistry of Israel’s tabernacle bespoke its sanctity and importance. It is in the last third of Exodus that we meet Bezalel and Oholiab, God’s designated artisans. They were men who would communicate the gravity and eminence of God’s dwelling place through their creativity. They were chosen by God to build and decorate the tabernacle because they were tremendously gifted, and there’s something about the creative process that connects us with God. Not connect us in the church-y sense, but connects us to something Other, in the place where art has a voice that is beautiful and mysterious and makes you sound nuts when you try to explain it, because it is not from the country of words. Indeed, notice: when you walk into our modern church buildings, you look around for people you know. When you walk into one of those intricate cathedrals, you look up. Which seems to lead to a mindset and posture of worship? When it comes to telling a meaningful story, artists have the upper hand. And we Christians have the most meaningful story of all. Let’s start empowering artists to tell it, and tell it excellently.

There is even a modern resurgence and interest in the ideas of using technology in ways which enhance the message, not become the message. Indeed there is a annual conference in Nashville about this very subject called SALT. This is from the website of Salt Nashville:

“Worship is similar to the family gathering together at our Father’s house partaking in a meal together. At the dinner table there will be a main course, that for us represents the meat of our services, or the Truth of God’s word. Side dishes compliment the main course through music, prayer, offerings, announcements and liturgy. We don’t believe visuals are the main thing. We don’t even believe they are a side dish. We believe they are the seasoning that covers all these elements. There are two seasoning elements on the table: salt and pepper. Both add flavoring to your meal, but only one has the ability to preserve and heal wounds. That’s what art does in our services.”

Luke McElroy, one of SALT’s founders, has written an informative précis on Visual Worship and its origins here:

Environmental Projection is a current trend in lighting, and using ProPresenter software for worship lyrics and images in ways that tell a narrative that matches the message from the pulpit or communion table. There are Addressable LEDs, projection mapping, and ways to control house lighting from your iPad. There are so many tools out there, it’s mind boggling. But as Mr. McElroy says, these seem like new ideas, but they only seem that way because the canvas has changed. Art has been a pivotal, indeed, essential aspect of the worship experience for generations. This is why I believe incorporating the visual and intentional design back into our congregations and worship services is not just an Under-30 thing. When done with excellence (which is not the same as doing it big or over-doing it; there’s a line, and we best know where it is), a visual worship element will speak to the hearts of everyone in the pews, of all ages.

On the Thursday after our Light The Way teen praise night—four days later—the granddad of a youth group member spoke to me about the event. He was in attendance and told me he was moved to tears by the singing and the lights and the message. He told me he started out in the back of the room but moved closer in the middle of the singing so he could hear and see better. This is a man who himself was a youth minister back in the day. He’s in his late-60s. He’s been in church for 40+ years. And he told me, “That was the best worship I’ve ever experienced in my life. Thank you.”

May we create environments that open us to receiving God and giving him our best.

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