By: Shawna Bowman

Art & Congregations

When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.
—Genesis 1:1-3 (Common English Bible)

We often refer to God in prayer as Creator God, but rarely do we pray to our Creative God. Yet our ancestors paint with vivid imagination about our origins in Genesis, describing a divine creative being—one who has imagination, curiosity, and the heart of an artist.

What does it mean to have the heart of an artist? Artists rely on what is not yet; they are in the business of midwifing something new into being. Artists make a practice of openness, learning to trust that the materials, the process, their instincts, and their experiences will come together to generate something new. Artists are not afraid of failure, understanding that it’s an intrinsic part of the process. Nothing new on earth has come into being without the process of experimentation.

What if we approached our congregations with the same openness, the same curiosity? Using and making art in communities of faith is one way of embodying our creative God. It’s also a way we can begin to shift the culture of our communities towards an attitude of experimentation and away from the fear of failure which has paralyzed so many of our congregations.

When I speak to congregations and faith-based groups about incorporating art, some people complain, “I don’t have time to think creatively.” Sound familiar?  Well here’s the thing: If art or art-making or creativity of any kind is just  one more thing you’re adding to your already too long “to-do” list, then even when you get to it, it’s not going to fundamentally change or transform your community. If we aren’t creatively approaching our tasks of ministry from the beginning, then we won’t experience the potential creativity has for transformation.

I am a visual artist, and I tend to incorporate the visual arts into the creative life of the congregation in three different ways. These aren’t so much hard and fast categories as they are helpful examples of how visual arts and art-making enhance the whole life of the community.

Illustrative art is one of the most ancient form of storytelling and one of the simplest ways to incorporate art into worship. As early as the beginning of the second century, “Christian” art began to appear on the walls of catacombs, telling the story of a new and fledgling community of faith. Folks learned the story by seeing the story.

  • How is your congregation utilizing the visual arts, photography, paintings, sculpture, digital media, and other images to tell the stories of our tradition and communities?
  • How might your congregation use images to tell the story of Christ and your own community inside and outside your walls?

Liturgical art has also long been present in the celebration and worship life of our communities. At their best music, dance, and visuals help us celebrate the Word of God in our midst. As a visual artist, I have had the rare experience of being invited to paint and create in worship as an act of worship.

  • What would it look in your church community if folks had the opportunity to create as an act of worship?
  • What if they could respond to the Word with words of their own?
  • What if there were easels or iPads or long strips of paper down the aisles where they could create?

Finally, we all benefit from interpretive art.  When a preacher preaches or a teacher teaches, it is their task to give meaning and interpretation to the biblical story. In a similar way, the visual artist can do more than illustrate the story. If given opportunity for preparation, discussion, and study, he or she can also help interpret the story and proclaim the Word.

For example, using the illustrative route to tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we might include images of bread and fishes and sing songs about a small boy and his little loaves. But when we use an interpretive lens, we pair that story and song with images of food lines and soup kitchens, homeless shelters and city streets. Through art we are making meaning and offering a particular theological perspective.

  • What might it look like to use interpretive art as part of the sermon?
  • As a response to the sermon?

Each of these three ways of thinking about integrating art into the lives of our faith communities is meant to be engaging and approachable. When we’re invited to participate in creating something together, it reminds us that we are cocreators with God, that we are connected to one another and to a story that is bigger than ourselves.

Shawna Bowman is a pastor and visual artist. She currently pastors a quirky and radically gracious community, Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. She works with churches, faith communities, and non-profit organizations to help them tell their stories through visual arts. She paints, builds, and invites others to encounter God through creative processes.