Worship and art: What comes to your mind when you see those two words together? I’m not sure we think much about how art and worship relate to one another, but all of us are affected those two words. I’m hoping we can engage in some fruitful discussions on the subject – are you with me?
I recently finished reading Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer which got me thinking about what place art should have in our worship gatherings as well as how we view and appreciate art. This past weekend, my family and I visited the Painted Churches of Schulenburg, Texas, which led to some great discussions about the role and function of art in our worship gatherings.
Differing views on art and worship
The first four buildings we visited were all Roman Catholic churches. The buildings are a century or more old, but services are still held at them.
They were built by German and Czech settlers who wanted to recreate the beautiful and lavish cathedrals they remembered from their homeland.
Not having access to vast quantities of marble and precious metals, they painted the interior of the buildings to resemble those more ornate materials. They are breathtaking. The colors, the details, the texture that has been created is astonishing.
My pictures really don’t do them justice — if you’re ever in central Texas, I highly recommend a visit.
We also visited a Lutheran church building and a Methodist church building, similarly old, and also still used for services. The contrast was stark. Gone were the elaborately painted walls and ceilings, as well as much of the stained glass.
But also missing were the fences and rails designed to restrict entry to portions of the Catholic churches. Gone as well were statues of saints, multiple altars, and candles for the dead. Even my five-year-old noticed the dramatic differences, and my nine-year-old wanted to know why. While we appreciated the more extravagant interiors in the Roman Catholic buildings, there was a sweet simplicity, beautiful in its own right, to the interiors of the Protestant buildings.
My children were not hesitant to walk around and explore in the Lutheran and Methodist buildings — my youngest even walked up in the pulpit. Those buildings felt more accessible; the Roman Catholic ones felt more ornamental.
I have no intention of summarizing the Reformation here, but it should suffice to say that the Reformers disagreed with the way in which Roman Catholic leaders structured corporate worship. It follows, then, that those differences in theology would play out in differences in architecture. Protestants do not pray to saints — thus the absence of statues and multiple altars. Protestants believe that salvation comes by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. They believe in the priesthood of all believers, so differences regarding the altar and the pulpit make sense. In many ways, the unadorned Protestant buildings were a response to the embellishment prevalent in Roman Catholic buildings.
The church of which we are members currently meets in a movie theater. Not really any embellishment or extravagance there. I love my church; the preaching, the music, the people all point me to the God we meet in the Scriptures and I am better for it. But sometimes the movie theater is a distraction when we gather for worship. We sit in big comfy chairs with separate arm rest, theater-style. We look at a big movie screen with notes for the sermon and words for the songs. There is no pulpit, no special communion table, not even any windows (to say nothing of stained glass). But none of those things is essential to worship. In fact, the earliest of church meetings were generally held in private homes, a far cry from elaborately decorated cathedrals.
But we also know from passages such as Exodus 25 and 2 Chronicles 3 that both the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon were beautiful, ornate structures, down to the exquisite detail on each candlestick. Clearly God loves beauty when it comes to places of worship.
Your view on art and worship?
How are we as Christians to think about art, beauty, and worship? I would suggest that Schaeffer gives us some helpful guidelines, and I’m thinking about doing a blog series to discuss those a bit more. What are your thoughts? What does the place where you worship look like? In what ways does it beauty (or lack thereof) contribute to or distract from your worship? How do you think your religious beliefs inform your views of art, beauty and worship? Feel free to include a picture with your comments and let’s keep the conversation going!