In the previous post, we explored the shocking gratuity of God’s beauty displayed in the earth. We discussed how the Trinity’s lavish outpouring of excessive beauty should be reflected in our worship, because our worship reflects our God. We now briefly turn to the pragmatics of how we as worshipers and worship leaders might see that gratuitous beauty come to life in our churches.
Toward a Way Forward
Here are some thoughts, off the top of my head, toward seeking more gratuitous beauty in our worship services. (I’d love to hear yours!)
Have a keen sense of smell for the off odor of hyper-pragmatism. (Notice that I said “hyper”; being practical isn’t necessarily bad.) Pragmatism doesn’t have to be the enemy of beauty, but in our history, it often has been (just think of educational budget cuts in schools and which departments first get hit). When “what works best” is the prevailing mantra, just know that sometimes beauty gets suffocated. Beauty, for everyone but God (Who is neither wanting nor wasting), often requires a bit of excess—excess money, excess raw materials, excess time, etc. And excess is not a part of the pragmatist’s paradigm. Excess feels very impractical. We evangelicals have a long history of prioritized pragmatism (you hear it in the quip, “Win the lost at any cost.”). We just need to have our antennae up for how pragmatism sneaks in to choke out beauty, and we need to be able to willingly and lovingly call it out. (This is sometimes what is behind the tension between a worship pastor and a lead pastor. Many worship pastors intuit or lean toward fighting for beauty, and sometimes lead pastors are wired with a heavy dose of pragmatic, bottom-line thinking.)
Cast a vision for a big budget. Gratuity involves expense, especially the kind that seems inordinate. I remember one of my college church music professors bemoaning the anemic worship/music budgets of many churches. Sometimes that sounds like rich-guy talk…first world problems. It’s more complex than that. Whether you’re a big church or a small church, urban or rural, Western or majority world, you might try encouraging a budget which, as a percentage of the whole, seems a bit much. But then, once you do that, you need to carefully steward such gratuity. Gratuity should not be frivolous waste but lavish love. Remember when Mary expended a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet in one shot (John 12). She “wasted” a big budget. (I praise God that at Cherry Creek and Coral Ridge I’ve been alongside leaders and church bodies that get this!)
Begin to ask how you can beautify the elements of worship that already exist. Sometimes, when we think about “arts and worship,” we pigeonhole our thought-patterns into adding “artistic elements” to our worship (you know, freestyle sculptors and interpretive dance and such). But, what if we took inventory of what we already do and simply asked, In what ways can we make these things more beautiful? How can I help beautify the music? How can our prayers and Scripture readings be more beautiful? How can we beautify our preaching? (Many don’t think about the sermon as an opportunity for beauty, but oratory is just as much aesthetic as it is didactic.)
Beautify your worship space. This might be one of the more obvious ones, but in recent years we’ve tipped the scales heavily in favor of pragmatic function over aesthetic impact, replacing cathedrals with warehouses. So it might be worth asking the question of how we can turn our drab, dated, overly-functional, or industrial-looking spaces into inspiring, beautiful ones. (You can think about this whether you’re a church with an established building or a community meeting in temporary spaces.)
If you’re at a loss in the physical-space-and-beauty conversation, a great place to start for some building blocks is Bifrost’s Arts‘ Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum, available for free download here (see esp. pp. 38-47).
With ALL of the above, consult artists and artistically-minded people. Don’t just commission an artist (or worse, ask for a donation) to paint some murals for your fellowship hall. Don’t just bring them in to do a flash-mob sculpting of the bust of Jesus during your service. Don’t just replace the sermon one Sunday with their Shakespearean recitation of the Gospel of John. Engage their gifts and skills in the consultation and execution of addressing the big picture stuff, like budgets, worship elements, décor, and architecture.
I’ve only scratched the surface. What else would you add in the discussion of reflecting the Trinity’s generosity of beauty in our worship?