What if we did away with harmony in musical worship? I mean, it's not really necessary, is it? It's just an extra person singing, adding another layer of sound. There's nothing holier about pretty music, is there?
I really struggled with this question when I lived in West Africa. Harmony—or even singing rather than chanting—isn't really a meaningful part of worship where I was. Dancing was pivotal, but they didn't care too much about the vocals.
Once, while recording a local hymnal project, I tried sneaking in a bit of harmony while my friend led the song. Though she usually let me join in, she stopped immediately, stared at me with confusion, and declared, "No, no, no. It goes like this..." Then, she proceeded into the melody.
It's Your Loss
I get it. Harmony didn't fit in West Africa. My West African friends were never really exposed to it. They didn't understand it, and they were fine to worship without it—just like I didn't feel I needed a balaphone.
They were oblivious to harmony, and that was completely fine. You get used to this kind of thing when you're living in another culture. Some things have to give, but I still did feel the loss.
With enough time, however, things changed for me. I learned to understand the beauty of what West African art forms added to worship and still miss the lively dancing to djembe and balaphone.
In the same vein, I wonder what our congregations may be missing. Are there some art forms we could use in worship to help us better feel the depth of God's story or understand His person? How might leaders use those mediums to teach and to grow people?
Preaching tells, storying shows
Art isn't just for traditional "artists" and is probably broader than what you may first think. The easiest example is the art of storytelling. Most preachers will start with or weave an interesting story or illustration into their sermons to catch people's attention. But it usually does more than just that.
A well-crafted story can be used in preaching to help people feel the facts that you're presenting. That's the beauty of good art. It sneaks up on our affections and helps us better understand or believe what we know to be true.
Think about Nathan's approach with David in 2 Samuel 12:1-10. Instead of presenting David with facts (Adultery is sin. Murder is sin. You have sinned, and need to repent), Nathan pierced David's heart with a simple story. With his defenses down, David heard a story of grave injustice, and it helped him understand what he had done.
Likewise, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe probably didn't teach you any theology you couldn't hear in Sunday School. It just made you feel it.
So, can we use other art forms to build up the church, too? Absolutely! You don't have to begin a formal art program, but here are a few ways church leaders can cultivate worshipful art in their congregations.
How to Encourage Art in Ministry
1. Build relationships
For the most part, American Christians have gotten out of the practice of using art (especially visual art and poetry) in worship. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just bland. It's like a song with no harmony.
The trouble is, most of us don't know any "artists" in our congregations or fear receiving the kind of confusingly bizarre art that mystifies more than it clarifies. Incorporating thoughtful art in ministry, however, doesn't have to be daunting. It starts the same way as most other aspects of church: discipleship.
Discipleship is the necessary starting point for good, worshipful art. Even if they wouldn't call themselves "artists," you probably have tons of creative people in your congregation. Youth are especially innovative and willing to take risks.
Sometimes, you just need to give them a platform and permission:
Share poems or relevant paintings from the pulpit, and explain why they help you understand a passage. If you need some help, there are tons of biblical scenes depicted in art from the Renaissance and Middle Ages.
Have someone perform spoken word poetry during the offertory.
Allow members to submit doodles, paintings, or writings with explanations you can post in a hallway, as a powerpoint countdown before the service, or wherever works for your congregation.
Host an informal time where people who enjoy being creative can gather to talk about a theme from their Sunday School class, recent sermons, upcoming studies, or even their own personal devotionals. Let them collaborate and express what they've learned however they'd like: needlepoint, painting, quilting, songwriting, etc.
Remember it's less about the form of art and more about the heart and communication of truth. This opens the door to great collaboration, especially considering the diversity of the greater Houston area. There are likely beautiful cultural expressions of art in your congregation you never even knew existed. As we tap into diverse art forms, our praise may begin to look more like that in Revelation, where every tribe, tongue, and nation brings the best of their culture to worship God.
If you get something too bizarre, use it as a teaching point. Allow artists to tweak their explanation, or let them know why you don't want to display their work just yet. If you've shown how you value them as a person, they'll likely understand and grow as both a Christian and an artist through the process.
2. Cultivate Servant-Heartedness
Find people to support your ongoing ministries. Do you release sermon audios? See if someone will design a graphic to use for each series. Need something new for the church walls? Ask volunteers to update the bulletin board or do a mural in the nursery. Get a youth Sunday School class to paint their room together. Have the praise band write songs for the church.
The opportunities to serve in creative capacities are almost endless. Our church even auctions off art the congregation has contributed to raise money for missions.
Keep in mind that art takes time and materials that may be expensive, so consider compensating those you ask to regularly contribute if you're able.
3. Articulate Truth
Always encourage clear communication. Though this is the third point, it's really the most important in making art truly worshipful. A beautiful painting is nice to look at, but a beautiful painting with a clear gospel message is so much richer. It stirs up our hearts and reminds us of true things every time we look at it.
Remind artists that they're using their gifts to build up the church. This means sometimes simplicity may make the most impact. To return to point 1, with a good relationship, you can give the insight to help them make their art more clear and approachable for the average church member. With an open heart and mind, we can add something more beautiful to our worship and be all the better for it.
Marie Burrus is UBA's Communications Specialist. She manages, edits, and contributes content for UBA's blog, website, UBA Voices newsletter, and social media outlets.