By: Carmel Tinnes

Designing education or worship is an opportunity to bring together many elements and create a gestalt where each included element adds a layer of meaning and builds something not otherwise included, making the result greater than the sum of its parts. The content of education or worship is important, but that is only the beginning! Once content is determined, an education or worship event is built by exploring the following elements: space, color, image and sensory engagement.

Space is one of the first elements to be addressed when creating an education or worship event. Where will this act of education or worship be housed? Establishing a space to embody what is about to happen involves more than providing seating for participants. Physical needs must be met, but other concerns need to be addressed as well. What moods can be created within the space? Is the space big and open, small and closed, light and airy, dark and close? What relationships can the arrangement of space help to develop? Can it be arranged to develop partnership, community, solitude? What is said through the aesthetic language of space communicates meaning the moment participants enter the event.

Beginning with an empty room, an educator/artist is free to make decisions about seating arrangements and materials. Where in the room will the focal point be located? Where will the participants be in relationship to that point? How will lighting help or hinder? What are distractions in the space? What can be adapted for use during this particular event? How does the space arrangement bring each participant closer to God, to each other, and to him/herself? How does the space support the content of the education or worship event?

If the room has tables, pews or other furnishings that cannot be moved, an educator/artist must decide how to integrate these elements into a meaningful plan that supports the content of the event.   Sometimes creative space solutions are needed. For example, during a Communion service at Iona Abbey, tables were brought into the nave so that all who gathered for worship could be seated around a table together. The high formal Communion table was not moved away, but attention was re-focused on the central point of the long table in the nave.  This re-focusing within the space transformed the communion experience for all the participants.

Color is another design element filled with possibilities for the educator/artist. Liturgical colors lead the church through the seasons of the church year and speak powerful meaning by their presence. Colors produce an emotional/physical response from those present. A blue room feels cooler than a yellow room; a red room feels more energized than a green room. What color dominates the space and what does that color say to the participants? How does that color support the content of the event being planned?

An educator/artist may not be able to paint a room to create a desired effect, but the color of the space can be changed through lighting and accessories. Colored bulbs can be placed in lighting fixtures to bring color to an otherwise stark space. A cool feeling space can be warmed with the addition of yellow light. Directional lighting can be used to guide the eyes of the participants to a focal point or away from a distraction. Fabric can create focus or add color as well.  A powerful use of color to enrich meaning was designed into a series of Lenten worship services.  In the chapel the color tone was gradually darkened each week by dying fabric used to drape the space from primary colors to dark hues of those colors during Holy Week.  This created an increasingly somber mood, fitting the content of the chapel services as the time of Lent continued.

Images selected for use by an educator/artist add elements that vary from concrete to symbolic. The presence of running water in a space can simply be a soothing sound, or it can remind participants of the waters of baptism or the waters of the flood. Two candles on a communion table can provide encouraging light in the darkness, or they can remind those present of the two natures of Christ. A painting projected onto a wall, related to the event’s content, can provide an interesting visual or focal point, but the image selected may not be understood unless interpreted for the participants.   A key role for the artist/educator in choosing images is knowing when interpretation is needed. Are the chosen images meant to provide a subtle presence, or be an explained and interpreted visual? One instance of blending a subtle presence into the overall meaning of an event happened on a World Communion Sunday. A service was led by seminary students from around the world. Although all participants were served the same bread and wine from matching chalices and patens on the four sides of a central table, on the four corners of that table stood dishes from around the world: a rice bowl and sake cup; a fine china tea cup and plate; a large leaf and carved wooden vessel; and a plate and glass from the seminary’s cafeteria. When individuals sat in a circle around the table or came up to the table to be served, they could see these dishes. While not explained or even mentioned in the service, their presence added to the meaning of the service in a subtle but meaning-filled way. If an image cannot be understood without interpretation, how will it be explained in the context of the event?

Engaging all the senses through a variety of design elements is the integrative role of an attuned educator/artist. The elements addressed above focus on the visual, but what about scent? A musty room can be a distraction for any event. In contrast, the scent of spikenard in a room can make the study of the text of Jesus’ anointing more powerful. What about inclusion of the tactile? Manipulating items in a temple model can help participants better understand Hebrew worship. The Godly Play curriculum resource is based on seeing and then manipulating materials to help children grow in their understanding of a biblical text. This concept can be integrated into an educational experience for all ages. The scent of baking bread from a self-contained bread machine, placed in a sanctuary during communion or a classroom where the theme “Jesus as the Bread of Life” is being explored, adds something that cannot be understood in any another way.

As educator/artists we can create an environment in which the use of the creative elements of space, color, image, and other sensory experiences work together to build amazing education/worship for the contexts where we serve. Content is a starting place, but the educator/artist creates experiences with many different elements that build together into a gestalt for participants. In this way educator/artists can live into Maria Harris’ call to “work as poets and sculptors and creative artists, colleagues of the brooding, hovering, indwelling Spirit.”

Carmel Tinnes is an educator and artist who has served the church by teaching, creating, and being present for those around her. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the arts as language in worship and education. She serves as Director of Educational Ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She can be contacted at [email protected].


During Lent this year we are sharing a series on The Artist as Educator. Look for posts from Theresa Cho, Lisa Hickman, Allison Wehrung, Sybil MacBeth, and Carmel Tinnes.