Three Ways To Use Images in Worship Like a True Artist

Len WilsonArtists, Church, Design, Story4 Comments

T  his is the third in a mini-series of posts about the visual arts in worship.

First, I said that most visual art in worship isn’t really art.

Second, I asked about the state of visual arts in worship.

At the end of the second post, I asked, what comes next in the visual arts in worship?

In order to explore this question, it might be helpful to look at some types of images.



Also known as realism, representative imagery depicts actual events and stories. This type of art is the most common and has the longest history. Cave dwellers were representative artists. Representational images range from photographs to impressionistic images that border on the abstract. Genres in the art community include Realism, Impressionism, and Idealism. What each shares in common is a basis in reality and an attempt to express that reality.

Images are the indigenous language of the mind. But as products of Western education and thinking, we’ve learned to shape our thoughts into propositions. The result is that we’ve lost the power of image to express ideas – either to raise questions or answer them. We mainly use images to illustrate or inform. As a result, most churches think of images literally.

For example the song “God of Wonders”, by Chris Tomlin, has a line that says, “beyond our galaxy.” So I see lots of churches using space photography behind the lyrics.


Another example of representational art, and one of the safest choices of art in worship, is to display Renaissance era art which depicts biblical stories, like Rembrandt’s Balaam’s Ass. (Purely coincidental choice. really.)


Of course there are new examples, too. The skill of the producer dictates whether this is done poorly or artistically. Representational art from church tradition is most effective when shown as is, via its original medium, or when incorporated as a design element into a new work. It is least effective when it is converted to PowerPoint by someone filling a hole on a Saturday night:


Sorry for sharing that. I still laugh in horror at the memory of seeing that in worship. Sadly, even with good intentions, many images in worship now can be as compelling as a potato, like this:


Or even this:


Most pastors and producers conceptualize image as strict representation.

We have a text to illustrate, such as the story of the Good Samaritan, or the concept of a person worshipping, above, so we scour Google images looking for images to represent the words as they are spoken or printed as text on screen. We eventually realize, however, certain limitations with this approach.

Which leads to our second type.



Abstract visual art also has a basis in reality. The difference, however, is the role of the artist. In representational art, the artist minimizes his or her own role, trying in various ways to let an image’s meaning be self-evident to the viewer. In abstract art, the artist takes on a visible role as mediator of meaning. To understand the difference, consider postmodern theory, which states that truth is not objective, but relative to the message’s sender and context. Postmodern theory acknowledges the presence of the communicator. Similarly, abstract art lifts up the artist, and not just the artist’s work, as a part of the exchange of meaning from image to receiver. An early famous example is “The Treachery of Images” by Magritte (1929).


Styles of abstract art include Minimalism and Cubism. Because of the emergence of the role of the artist as gatekeeper of meaning, the artist takes on a personality. Some become rockstars, such as Picasso or Andy Warhol. Warhol’s famous soup can image is perhaps difficult to understand now, but in its space and time was a fresh commentary on the realization that Westerners had somehow found themselves living in a manufactured culture:


Abstract art in ministry has had inauspicious roots but is beginning to take hold. Early producers realized some of the limitations of trying to directly illustrate everything. For example, what happens with these lyrics?


Since not everything has direct visual equivalents, a second form of art emerged: the holy blob. Companies such as Digital Juice pioneered a certain look that has become ubiquitous in current contemporary worship circles, such as this example from my previous post:


The holy blob can be done artistically, but often is not. Instead we grab random abstract videos as backgrounds, using this sole, pathetic criteria for selection: “Does it compete with the text?”

Another, much better trend is the use of the entire space as the canvas. This is called environmental projection. This can work well when the images chosen have some connection with larger themes and ideas in the work. Camron Ware did this in a church in Mansfield, Texas, which is abstract but accessible.


Another kind of abstract art is called Non-Objective art. Some consider it a completely separate genre, because it has no basis in reality. Non-objective artists base their work solely on the principles of design, removing any recognizable realistic basis for the image. Jackson Pollock may be the most famous non-objective artist. Makoto Fujimura is a Christian artist who operates in the New York City art world. He was recently commissioned by Crossway Publishing to illustrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible:


While these examples are amazing, the vast majority of image creators lack the talent and visual knowledge to create abstract art. Others simply prefer representational art, or a third way.



Some will disagree with this portion of my typology, and say that all visual art is interpretive. Of course, at some level all visual art is interpretation; each receiver filters an image through his or her own experience. (You could also say that all oral and written communication is interpretation, too.) Yet some images, particularly realistic images, have established meanings, at least within our shared cultural context.

Foe example, we all can agree what this is:


At one level it is a photograph of a lamplight. This image can be given new meaning, however, by changing the context. As metaphor, the image of a oil powered lamplight can become an interpretation of any number of ideas. Ministry-minded producers can use the light to talk about the witness of a Christ follower; the city on a hill; or any number of other examples. This can happen through other images, spoken word, music and any element of worship, coordinated together. With the right context, light is no longer simply a representation of a specific reality; it becomes a metaphor or an interpretation of an altogether different reality.

Interpretive visual art needs guidance. While representational imagery is self-evident, or at least self-evident to a specific audience, interpretive imagery benefits from contextualization.

Juxtaposed voiceover, text, music and other elements can all work with images to create new meaning. The images may be a combination of representation and abstraction. Alone they may have little to no meaning, but in context, they can become quite powerful.


The Differences Between Image and Text.

The power of text is found in its precision and clarity of meaning.

The power of image is found in its ability to juxtapose, to create multiple meanings at once, and to both elicit an emotional response.

Text is essentially Western in its focus on filling, on acquiring knowledge by rational experience. Image is essentially Eastern, or at least post-Western, in its emphasis on emptying, on discovering wisdom by an emotive experience.

Both are legitimate expressions of faith.

Look for images that interpret, that allow viewers to connect with the story at some representational level yet bring new, often unexpected meanings.

About the Author

Len Wilson

4 Comments on “Three Ways To Use Images in Worship Like a True Artist”

  1. So true, but with short turn deadlines and pastors and techs who don’t care to relate to metaphor,… not literal enough, or young turks who can only relate to cool… frustrating to depressing.

  2. Pingback: Worship Tech Roundup | Worship Links

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