Dr. Gwendolyn Starks, PhD I grew up in an old Anglican Church surrounded by the rich reflection of stained gl ...
The Unsanctified Sanctuary: Part Two
Claiming a Space for Worship through the Arts
Throughout history, Christians have been formed and shaped by rich theological and liturgical traditions that give meaning and significance to their lives. One of the values that contemporary believers inherited from their forebears is an emphasis on the left brain, on reason and rationality. Christianity developed in a Greco-Roman culture that valued the life of the mind. While this approach has much to offer, the traditional stress on reason means that the creative dimension of Christian living – the right brain – often goes unnoticed, or at the very least under appreciated.
In the previous blog I discussed the dilemma of worshiping in a multi purpose space. Congregants entering our room have nothing that signifies sanctuary or holy place; nothing prepares them for what they are about to do. In these situations it is often up to the musicians and their leader to choose melodies and words that guide us towards hearing the word and receiving the sermon. Music then sends us on our way out into the world. Nothing signifies that this space is set apart for something significant.
It cannot be argued that it has been the practice of the Church for centuries to convey Theological truths and biblical narrative through the Creative arts. Indeed it has been at the very core of ITIA to explore the arts and their ability to convey man’s interaction with the Divine through imagination and creativeness. For those practitioners of the Arts who leave the shelter of the academy as scholarly thinkers it can be doubly at odds with our spirit to worship in an artless space. It is, therefore, my contention that we Theology and the Arts majors responsible, and for some of us called, to guide our congregations into a deeper knowledge of Christ through more than just writing and speaking about the Arts but through an experience of the creative process.
Theology for Non-theologians
Artistic choices matter; they have a practical effect on the lives of the people in the church and in the surrounding culture.
According to Bauer the theological questions asked by those of us in Arts Ministry and institutions like ITIA are “unfamiliar to many artists and lay-people and almost as many pastors.” And questions such as these, within the context of church, are “potentially threatening and divisive.” How then do we introduce theological messages in such an environment? The answer: very carefully, EGR: Extra Grace Required.
Endorsement From Above
Yes, God has given us an unusual and exceptional vocation as Theo-Artists. He has not, however, given us the right to dive into an empty space brashly waving the banner of our intellectual expertise. I have learned from experience, that any project proposed for a church has hoops to jump through: the Church is in some ways a business and run by governing bodies. First, it must be cleared through the Board of Directors and/or the Pastoral staff. In some instances, each step is pre-planned and communicated and approved by those who watch over the budget and the church calendar. Sometimes this is done months in advance. It is also a good idea to bring the other leadership, like the worship team, on board.
The flip side of this is also true. For the most part the governing bodies and the pastoral staff are made up of those who are what Bauer recognizes as “left brain.” Once the business of approval is received the church leaders and authorities need to understand that is of the utmost importance that they are visibly seen to participate. They are, after all, the leaders, guides, shepherds of the flock. The pastor and other leaders of the church must be prepared to come alongside the project and support the artist not only with lip service, but also to show the congregation through example; they must be physically involved.
I think I need to repeat the above sentence for the sake of those in Church leadership.
The pastor and other leaders of the church must be prepared to come alongside the project and support the artist not only with lip service, but also to show the congregation through example; they must be physically involved.
Nurturing the Arts by Nurturing the Artist
With rare exceptions, the church has not accepted artists as full partners in ministry. In fact, the treatment of the arts and of artists themselves has varied wildly depending upon the time, place and art form in question.
Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts.
While one would hope that we no longer go to these extremes, the hurt that has been caused by Church in general towards those in those in creative fields is an area that still needs a great deal of healing. Some creatives have had to search for a long time to find congregations that will accept their calling; others stay silent about their vocation in order to experience corporate worship. I have met those who have maintained their faith but abandoned the Church and, even worse, those who have abandoned their faith in order to serve their calling.
Artists are intuitive, insecure, and talented people; they can be quirky, sensitive, arrogant, shy, bombastic, generous, and wonderful. In all of this, however, they take very the comments and criticisms that so easily fall from the tongues of well-meaning leadership and laity very personally. The work is personal for the artist. It springs forth from within and many feel that they leave part of themselves in every project. Unlike building a wall or painting a room, Artists place themselves in a very vulnerable position when they interpret the world through their craft and even more so when they step forth within a traditional, reactionary or conventional group of individuals as those found in the corporate body of Christ.
And yet we hear so much about reclaiming the Arts within the Church. It is my position that until a true healing has occurred between the Artist and the Church, a true re-birth of faith filled, Christ centred art will be difficult. If the task of the Artists, those actors, dancers, sculptors, painters, poets, musicians and professional imaginers in our midst, is recognised as both work and vocation by the church body then we can begin to experience a true revival of creativity in our congregations and in our spaces of worship. The Artists themselves also have an obligation to their church body, just as all of us do who sit in our pews or chairs, and we will discuss that in our next blog.
Returning to the Task at Hand: The Project
In my previous blog I shone the spotlight away from those of us who meet in a building specifically designed for worship and towards the repurposed, temporary space. Our task here is to gently raise theological awareness through the use of imagery, colour, symbolism and performance.
Introducing Art Into An Artless Space
Although the use of the creative arts should not be restricted to one or two times per year, when introducing the notion to a space that is barren takes time. It is, therefore, helpful to use the Church calendar. Advent and Lent are not only good for long term participatory projects, the congregation are more used to seasonal changes. Christmas is already loaded with imagery, colour and performance thus it opens room for introducing a permanent change.
We began Christmas 2014 by painting the completely black risers at the front of the stage. The risers were embellished with the scripture verse that our congregation had been using for spiritual growth: Love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and with all your Soul, with all your Strength and with all your Mind, and your Neighbour as Yourself.
Colourful curtains had been added to the set up for the backdrop and over the speakers. The job of constantly dressing the stage became too difficult for the set up team to maintain and over time these stopped being used. As the riser already had to be put into place every week, a paint job didn’t cause any more work for those on the team .
Due to a church plant, staff changes and a long pastoral search, the next step of the project has taken two more years to be conceived and come to fruition. Just after Christmas 2016, it was agreed that Lent would be our next time to introduce more colour into the worship space. The type of project would be a Mystery Mural.
DescriptionA Mystery Mural takes some preparation by the Artists leading the Church but its Theological impact is immense.
Preparation for Our Mural
With a project of this type it is important to know where the piece will hang in order to determine dimensions. The Legion Hall, as seen in my previous blog has dartboards on the wall, which are covered by large panels when not in use. During the Sunday service some are partly blocked by projection screens but others are still visible on the periphery. These were perfect for displaying works of art during the service.
Art is subjective and there is always the risk of letters to the pastor or board regardless of the intention of the artist. It is imperative that the congregation feel that they have a vested interest in the work displayed on the walls of their sanctuary, especially since they have to look at it every week.
Thankfully my Church has a unique perspective on mission work that provided the subject matter. The Go-Team has four specific areas of relational mission focus therefore we would do four separate murals. As well as our home Community, we have built relationships with Helping Hands Street Mission in Hamilton, Ontario; an Indigenous Community in Muskrat Dam, Ontario; and the Jinja Connection Ministry in Uganda. Our boards would display images from each of these areas.
The research for the images and the drawing could begin.
- Bauer, Michael J. Arts Ministry. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2013
- Ibid. 226.
- Ibid. 37.
- Mamet, David. True and False. New York: Faber and Faber, 1997. 6.