Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (Westminster Catechism)
Our God is infinitely more worthy of any praise and worship that we could possibly offer. It seems right, then, that we employ our best imagination, gifts and skills to help one another worship well, to help us see increasingly more of God’s beauty. Over the course of history, liturgical art – that is, art designed for worshipping communities, has been inspired and created for God’s glory. It involved architecture, music, speech (including drama, poetry, sermons) and visual art such as paintings, sculptures and tapestries. Then came the Reformation when the church, in its zeal for purity and austerity, almost exclusively eliminated art and symbols so long prevalent in the church.
Re-imagining art for corporate worship
How can the church develop a fresh vision for the arts that will be both God-glorifying and church-edifying? Worship professor John Witvliet writes about this in For the Beauty of the Church (W. David O. Taylor). His essay, The Worship – How Can Art Serve the Corporate Worship of the Church? outlines three principles useful for our consideration:
Principle #1: The most fitting liturgical arts express and deepen the corporate nature of a Christian way of life and worship.
Worship offered in community should be accessible to that community. It does not preclude explanation and discussion. Arts offered in worship should be kept simple, but not simplistic. Childlike, but not childish. Not all art will resonate with everyone at all times. Still, artists, leaders and preachers should be mindful of the diversity of age, gender, race and abilities represented before them.
Art used in worship should consider the communal context. We are brothers and sisters of Christ and children, together, of our heavenly Father. We worship all together as one body with many parts.
Art produced for worship should be a communal work, rather than an isolated one. Wisdom comes from hearing each other and drawing on each other’s strengths.
Principle #2: The most fruitful liturgical artworks are never ends in themselves but rather function as means to deepen the covenantal relationship between God and the gathered congregation.
Art used in worship should help all experience the different aspects of the service: praise, confession, assurance of forgiveness, prayer, offering and blessing – in communion with God. It is a covenantal work. Being renewed in our identity as the body of Christ, we experience the love of the Father, the redeeming work of Christ and the presence of the Spirit during our time together and after we pass through the doors into our weekly lives.
Good liturgical art should resist the temptation towards sentimentality – those things that are entirely safe, “pretty”, or that serve as a “filler”. Rather, it should move us to confess, praise and act as Christ calls us to live. We don’t worship to please ourselves. Art in worship ought to make us uncomfortable in ways that compel us to imitate Christ more closely.
Principle #3: The best liturgical artworks are iconic and idolatry-resisting.
For many of us, juxtaposing the ideas of ‘iconic’ and ‘idolatry-resisting’ may seem counter-intuitive. In the Orthodox tradition, icons are to be looked through more than at. They become a window to God’s character. So too, our church aesthetics, music, visuals, movement and spoken word is meant to focus our lens toward a clearer image of the one, true God. It is meant to be meaningful without being distracting.
Iconic artwork will not bring praise to the work itself (or the artist); “instead, it will help us to perceive God’s own beauty, love and grace.” There is nothing wrong with conveying appreciation to an artist. The best way to do this, however, is to be specific about how their contribution helped you draw closer to God in worship or faith.
While the reformers were concerned that artwork might cause idolatry, resisting idolatry is not simply a concern about worshipping the “image” made in artwork. It is a concern about worshipping false perceptions we may have of God – images that don’t live up to the full biblical depictions of his being. As we grow in faith, our false perceptions are corrected as we come to see God more clearly. Good art can, and often does, help us resist these false images we have and present a truer picture of God’s triune character and characteristics.
Every church worships through the arts – music, speech, media, and more. Worship engages our bodies, minds and spirits. We hear, listen, watch, sing, and pray. We reason, we gain new insights and understanding, we feel our hearts stir within us.
How we notice, hear and respond is influenced by what is seen, spoken, and sung. Worship leaders – modern-day Levites – have a daunting task. The Spirit equips the Christian artist with imagination, skill, passion and love for Christ and his bride.
May we always continue to listen, learn and lean into our great calling “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”.