congregational aesthetics: a LIVING faith (2/3)

In this short blog series I’m exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

Every congregation has an aesthetic profile, a profile that emerges out of the architecture, memorials, artwork, and liturgical accoutrements that make up the worship space or community space of a particular church. This aesthetic profile says something about who we are and about the nature of our faith.

In the first blog post of this series (here) I reflected on the weight of history – the question of how we might respond to the aesthetic tradition that has been handed down to us in our particular congregations. In this post I want to move beyond the historical, to the contemporary.

memorialOne realization I have made is that in many congregations – including the one I serve – most of the aesthetic elements are at least two or three generations old. Memorials or paintings or photographs give expression to the lives, faith, culture, and aesthetics of earlier generations. Which is to say that, very often, there are no contemporary aesthetic expressions of faith within our buildings or worship spaces. Which is also to say that in many congregations there are very few (or none at all!) ways in which we express our living and contemporary faith in Jesus Christ through paint or woodworking or weaving – through our creative capacities as women and men and kids.

So this post is essentially a plea that we discover fresh ways in which we might give concrete, aesthetic expression to our LIVING faith in Christ. A plea that our worship and community spaces be enriched through contemporary image of human life and of Christian faith. Of course, each congregation has a particular history and a particular context – and reflects a unique expression of the life of Christ’s Body. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how this aesthetic revival (good old word!!) might come to expression. But THAT it must come to expressions cannot be in doubt.

As I did with my exploration of the weight of history, let me simply offer three examples from Kensington church, to illustrate a few small ways that a living faith might come to expression through contemporary aesthetic expression.

THROUGH COMPELLING AUDIO/VISUAL (powerpoint) IMAGES     With more and more congregations moving toward the inclusion of projectors/screens in the context of worship, the question arises as to what types of images should be projected. And I fear that many congregations are giving in to the temptation to use images that are superficial and warm and cheery – for example, the endless cloudscapes and sunsets and mountains and pastures. UnknownBeyond the fact that these images are not an honest expression of the ambiguity and sometimes harshness of the natural world – these images also offer no meaningful interpretation of faith. Warm and cheery doesn’t offer much in terms of the depth and meaning of our life with Christ. A vague spirituality also does little to spark interest in the compelling nature of Christian identity.

Perhaps a basic rule of thumb when putting together slides for worship is that (first of all) there is nothing wrong with the use of black/white for text/background. Simplicity has its place in the broad Christian tradition, and leaves interpretation and emotional expression to those who sing and worship. That is, a hymn or worship song doesn’t need to be backed onto ANY particular image.

Hinged CrossIn terms of images for projection, however, there are many options out there beyond superficial and spiritually vague images. Beyond, even, the minimalistic, uninteresting, and widely available clip-art. For example, there are sites like Eyekons – a site that offers (for purchase) rich and carefully created digital images that tell the story of Christian faith. One digital image we have purchased and used is “Hinged Cross” by James Quentin Young, which interprets the cross as a door and way forward into the service and way of the crucified and risen Jesus. There is always a cost for such items, but if a congregation were to purchase only 12 such images (one per season or month), the total cost would only be around $200.00/year.

IMG_1162CREATING A CONTEMPORARY PIECE OF ART     Our congregation recently held an event in which we invited a local artist to help us reflect on the story of the prodigal son. The artist (Bernard Racicot) sketched out an image, on canvas, of a sculpture by the American artist Margaret Adams Parker — a sculpture of the returning prodigal, entitled “Reconciliation”. At our congregational event, Bernard led us in the initial stages of painting the piece of art, and he then took it back to his studio to finish it. The result is a piece of art (4’x5′) that will grace the walls of our building, as an embodied expression of the reconciliation to which God in Christ invites us. Click the image to the right in order to see a video that expresses what this project was all about.

Again, as with any creative enterprise, there are costs associated with such a project – for supplies and for fair remuneration of the artist. But it is a small price to be paid for a process and a result that is rich with life and faith.

PURCHASING POSTERS OR WORKS OF ART        In the entranceway to our church building is a framed poster of a deep and beautiful piece by the American artist Makoto Fujimura –  it is entitled “Golden Sea”. Fujimura is a Christian who is also an artist. He does not make Christian art, but makes art that is reflects his own culture and identity and interpretation of the world.

IMG_3572There are many different ways to approach a piece like “Golden Sea.” In a recent sermon (found here) I reflected on the ways that this particular piece of art can express our understanding of baptism — both in terms of depth (the cross, and sharing in the death of Christ) and in terms of beauty (the new life that is ours through baptism into Christ). During that sermon we also watched mini-documentary that explores the painting and Fujimura’s identity as an artist. (Follow the sermon link to see the mini-documentary).

Again, none of this can be done for free, although the purchase and framing of a poster (of a contemporary piece of art) is certainly not cost-prohibitive.

Our churches are living communities of faith. We have our life today, in our particular time and place, as the Body of Christ. Contemporary works of art (the possibilities are almost endless) go a long way in expressing the truth that we are ALIVE in Christ, and engaged in honest reflection about what it means to be his people TODAY. 

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