The State of Visual Arts in Worship and What Comes Next

Len WilsonArtists, Church, Design, Strategic Thinking3 Comments

art-design-worship
L  ast week I explored the idea that there are really only two approaches to the visual arts in worship: art and design. And that most of what we actually do is design. So what does that mean for choosing images for worship?

While this is certainly an oversimplification, in most churches, each approach to the visual arts – art and design – has a specific look.

 

In most churches, the Art approach = Holy Blobs of Color during singing.

If you’ve been in a modern church service in the past few years, you’ve certainly seen the “contemporary” version of the art approach. Here’s an example I randomly pulled from Vimeo:

Ideally, artistic imagery, as I described in the previous post, awakens our senses by making us see things in new ways. It asks questions. Good blobs can be really pretty and sometimes there’s an amazing random connection wow moment that happens when they are juxtaposed with lyrics.

But I’ve always wanted a bit more than a random wow connection.

Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of this look, which my friend Jason Moore and I call the “Holy Blob of Color.” (Maybe our label gives my feeling away.) Part of my hesitation is that I grew up in liturgical settings, not in 3-songs-and-a-sermon-settings, and this experience has given me an eye for theme throughout the service. And I’ve always felt, to some degree intuitively but moreso as I write this post, that the holy blob of color is a bit skewed toward the hipster worship demographic and may not make connection with people from other traditions, whether they are liturgical, visual, or so on. In some ministry settings where I’ve worked, including my current setting, a holy blob doesn’t resonate with the congregation.

 

In most churches, the Design approach = a sermon brand.

Series branding elements usually appear in marketing prior to the worship event and make a small appearance at the beginning of the sermon. Sometimes variations on the theme show up in text backgrounds and in lower thirds during the sermon as well, for example behind scripture. Most of the graphic elements available in the “Still backgrounds” section of sites such as Worship House Media are built with this assumption.

Most visual arts in worship today are blobs for singing and a brand for the sermon.

 

There’s potential for more in the visual arts in worship than blobs and a brand.

I think there’s greater potential for the visual arts than this current model. But what would this look like?

One model is what I’ve talked about in previous work. For nine years I co-owned a worship media company called Midnight Oil Productions. We led a workshop called Creative Worship. In it we advocated a strict branding approach, so that the same palette – images, colors, fonts, and so on – is present throughout worship, but extended beyond its typical sermon-only usage to the entire service. In other words, if the service is on God’s invitation to us to become reconciled to him through Christ, we might use an old handwritten letter with a seal for the main branding image, like this:

Invitation art main-580

And then a variation on that theme during singing, like this:

Without context, old letters as song backgrounds aren’t any better or worse than holy blobs of color to most people. They’re just eye candy. But if you set up the connection at the beginning of worship with a story about receiving a personal invitation in the mail, and tie it to God’s invitation in Jesus, then suddenly what was a generic lyrics background has meaning.

This is the benefit of this model, which for lack of a more creative name I’ll call Design That Leads to Art.

Good visual metaphors can bridge the gap between these two approaches.

 

The problem with Design That  Leads to Art is that not all sermon branding images work in a worship context.

For example, the current series at my church uses an old postcard look, here:

EndlessSummer_SermonSeries_slide-580

 

The postcard works great for the content of the sermons in the series, and it’s well designed (thanks Cool Joe!) but it doesn’t work for creating an environment of worship and connection to God. In my experience, staring at a postcard or some variation on the theme while singing doesn’t help create worship. Rather, it interferes with the intimacy of the worship moment and pushes us toward the cognitive experience of the message.

To overcome the staleness of blobs and a brand and the limitations of Design That Leads to Art, I’ve looked in recent years for metaphors that have a more directly worshipful context, where I can maintain the thematic benefits of the design approach and the beauty of the art approach. The Invitation theme above worked well, but most weeks don’t achieve this, because:

  1. Many pastors don’t plan far enough ahead to do the necessary work to coordinate sermon series with production
  2. Some pastors plan ahead, but the sermon idea(s) lend themselves to images which don’t work well in song settings, or
  3. The sermon has a good metaphor, like the invitation above, but the church doesn’t have the necessary artists to make it look artful.

So, the question as I write this is, what comes next? Are we stuck with blobs and a brand? Is Design That Leads to Art possible, with just better coordinated church staffs or a new class of properly trained church artists? Or is there a third way, which we have yet to discover? What do you think?

 

Next week I’ll take a step back and look at art from a broader perspective in hopes of finding a way forward.

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Writer. Story lover. Believer. Branding philosopher. Breakfast chef. Tickle monster. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Creative Director. Occasional public speaker.

Len WilsonThe State of Visual Arts in Worship and What Comes Next
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  • stephen proctor

    Such a great post, Len! Your other one on Design vs Art rocked my world.

    At my church, we are in the mode of thinking of design that leads to art. Though you could say we have “branding” surrounding a season, we think more about metaphors and spiritual imagery that shows up subtly all throughout the atmosphere…but in ways that aren’t obvious. we’ll let this imagery show up on screens, environmental projection, the way the Communion Table is illuminated, stations, etc.

    To me, the imagery seems less “design” (providing answers) and more “art” (evokes a question, makes you wonder, invites you into something deeper that isn’t obvious at first glance.) We want any imagery that shows up to do this, but in very subtle but immersive ways.

    The creative arts team at my church challenges me more than anyone else on the planet. Sometimes I feel like the least artistic person in the room b/c they constantly refine any idea I bring to the table. It’s so refreshing, hard and good for me.

    As for what I observe in church culture at large, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Though the “holy blobs” have a place, I desire to see the church media industry push past this approach and to see the worship time (and it’s visuals) as a way to tell the Story, not just set up the sermon.

    • http://lenwilson.us/ Len Wilson

      Great thoughts Stephen, thanks for sharing them – I am pushing myself here, and envy that you have a great team to work though this with. At one time I was content with design and a little metaphor. Re-reading your comment again is inspiring me to go ahead and post some more brewing thoughts on art.