Congregations Creating Worship Visuals


Art by Dennis Di Vincenzo. Text by Joan Huyser-Honig

As Catherine Kapikian and other Christian artists have discovered, understanding the visual arts process is key to creating church imagery that builds community and deepens worship.

Worshipers entering Tualatin Presbyterian Church on All Saints Sunday saw two sets of banners. Banners hung from the sanctuary ceiling were covered with “names of folks who have gone ahead of us—from people who established local adoption agencies to great historical leaders like Martin Luther and Mother Theresa,” says Ellen Van Schoiack, visual arts director for the Oregon congregation. Two plain banners were suspended on either side of the cross. As a prayer of thanksgiving, worshipers were invited forward to write names of people who had influenced their faith. “I was able to write the name of my mother. It was touching to look at the banner and see an old person’s handwriting next to a child’s scrawl,” Van Schoiack recalls. The newly-inscribed banners were raised by drop lines while the congregation sang “For all the saints who from their labors rest…” As Tualatin Presbyterian has discovered, art created by the congregation can profoundly affect worshipers—especially when leaders take time to understand the essential process of planning visuals for worship.

Start with Scripture

Van Schoiack says that art in her congregation “is intended to help set the tone of the service or guide the participants’ attention or response.” That’s why Tualatin Presbyterian’s pastor and music director work with the art team to plan visuals. “Rather than bring an artistic concept into the room with us, we start with a scripture. We go in to look at the passage, usually a lectionary reading, and see what flies out. Connecting artists with worship planning helps us focus on the community’s spiritual needs and avoid spiritual expressions that were our private expressions,” she says.

At Grace United Church in Sarnia, Ontario, “pods” gather to study Scripture, pray, and seek spiritual discernment before creating art for worship. The pods include people gifted in theology, worship planning, or art. Christine Jerrett, minister of spiritual direction, urges GraceWorks pod members to approach Bible passages asking “Who is this God who calls us to worship?” and “Who are we in relation to such a God?” Studying Scripture and creating art together helps pods experience themselves as “a people of God, alive with the energies of the Holy Spirit, joyfully living in and witnessing to the liberating victory of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father,” Jerrett says.

Be open to the Spirit’s leading

Beginning with the Bible leads to amazing visual insights from the Holy Spirit. “God has far more eclectic ideas than we do!” Jerrett notes. And, as Van Schoiack and her team have discovered, being open to inbreakings of the Holy Spirit sparks “fearless confidence and humble trust.” The Tualatin team thought the 2005 Advent lectionary readings had too much Lenten imagery, hardly the way to prepare people for Christ’s coming during Oregon’s endless dark winters. Identifying the lectionary theme of God’s abiding presence helped them choose new texts about biblical images of light.

They used strong but lightweight materials—drop line, strings of light, fabric, photo backdrop paper—to create and hang an Advent installation from the sanctuary’s highest space. “Till we hung it we had no idea how the fabric would shift and create patterns of light and shadow. No matter where you were, you were aware of this big looming thing, a reminder of God’s abiding presence and the goodness of light,” Van Schoiack says.

Include many perspectives

Trusting the Holy Spirit’s leading prevents art teams from making snap decisions.“Once you have a team, you have to trust the team and their process. Bad ideas usually go away on their own. But five or six ideas down the line, that bad idea will make someone think of an idea that works,” says Steve Caton, director of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan. He advises creating teams that are as diverse as possible.

Stephanie Pals, a professional hair stylist, says, “I feel like the designated non-art person on Covenant Life’s design team. I think Steve asked me to join to make sure the art ideas are relatable. There’ve been meetings where I’ve said, ‘I’m not sure worshipers are going to get this.’ ” She estimates that about 40 percent of Covenant Life’s visual art is presented as an interactive worship option. At Christmas, people wrote prayers and hung them on the walls. Another time, worshipers could select a cup, scoop ashes into a garbage can, and then wash the cup to symbolize Christ’s offer to cleanse their lives. “Worshiping God is not just singing. Doing art is sometimes a more comfortable way to say, ‘I want more of him,’ ” Pals says.

At Cornerstone Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, all ages are learning the same faith vocabulary. Preschoolers through fourth graders draw pictures that get posted to the church’s devotions weblog on Vertical Habits. The youngsters worship while the adults have Bible study. During adult worship, the kids work on devotions and journals. Hee Lee, the children’s director, says it’s easier for most of them to express themselves in pictures than in full sentences. “I thought the habit of lament might be difficult for the kids. But they drew what they were going through, like waiting for an adopted sister. Their parents and friends look at their pictures online. And we refer to the art during the next week’s worship, like what does it mean to say ‘I love you, God’ and did you practice that habit of love,” she says.

Next Week: CATHERINE KAPIKIAN on helping churches transform worship spaces

On View: Pentecost by Dennis Di Vincenzo, 2008. Dennis is a graphic artist and member of The Artists Registry. Learn more about his work at

This article was first published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Text by Joan Huyser-Honig, Photography by Steve Huyser-Honig. Used with permission.

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