Art as Liturgy

This is the transcript from a short presentation I did at ‘Friendly Forum’ on Thursday evening.

Imagine if the local church became known as a place to experience creativity, transcendence, and beauty.

Hundreds of years ago churches were, in many ways, centres for these experiences. Somehow, over time we’ve abdicated that role but I’m passionate about churches re-engaging with creativity, thinking creatively and using the creative process. Particularly when they plan – creatively transforming, modifying, reworking the hundreds of years of liturgical resources at our disposal.

It seems only right to quickly define both art and liturgy before we head too far into my ranting stream of consciousness on the subject…

The Oxford English dictionary defines art as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination’ which is fantastically broad and perfect as an umbrella for our discussion this evening.

Liturgy is not quite so easy to pigeon hole – dictionary definitions are bland at best so I googled it. Wikipedia gives some insight about the Greek origins, the only part that excited me though was the phrase ‘Technically speaking, liturgy is a subset of ritual’. Scrolling through the search results I came across an article on the Jesuits of Britain website entitled Liturgy : art or science by Ernest Sands. Here’s a short extract;

Liturgy is capable of sparking off volcanic fires of passion, resentment and elation. It can anger, frustrate, summon, hint, seduce and inspire. In seeking to discern the presence of God and to respond in praise, petition and thanksgiving, authentic liturgy can leave no one untouched or unconvicted. It speaks of and to the basic yearnings of the human heart, offering the elusive promise that in Christ the good life is possible.

So here’s a few thoughts on art and liturgy…

Have you ever heard someone say “I’m not creative” – I don’t buy it. You may not have artistic ability but it’s not the same thing and here’s why I think that…

In Genesis 2 it says that God formed man from the dust and breathed life into him. In 1 Thessalonians 5 it talks about being body, soul and spirit.

Body – is flesh, bone and blood, there’s scriptural significance to all of those that we don’t have time to go into right now…

Soul – Mind, emotions and will – again, I don’t have a lot of time to elaborate on those today but it’s worth mentioning the huge body of work that illustrates how art can improve your mood – such as the article ‘Creativity improves wellbeing’: art transforms mental health ward that appeared last week in the Guardian.

Today though, I want to focus on spirit.

Now bare in mind I am not yet a theology scholar, I have not spent hours grappling with this. I think we all have a spirit and there’s three things I think happen there. Please forgive the simplicity of what I’m about to say and I hope it makes sense in relation to why creativity is so important for the church to engage with…

1 Corinthians 2 vs11 say ‘for who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. In the next chapter vs 16 it says Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? So there’s a relationship between our spirit and the spirit of God I’m going to call this communication with God.

Then we have something I’m going to call intuition because it sounds more spiritual than 6th sense. I’ve got more exploring to do here but I think it relates to conviction through conscience, see Romans 2 vs15, the spirit of discernment, that inward guidance they want to see in the ordination discernment process…

Thirdly, and most importantly to this little presentation is the fact that I believe our spirit is home to creativity. If we are made in the image of the ultimate creator then we are innately creative. Yes, there’s a spirit of creativity that some people poses more than others, neatly summarised by the story of Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31 but I think it goes deeper than that, I think creativity is part of our spiritual DNA.

You can see it sometimes when people are watching a film or staring at a piece of art, it’s bypassing their head and affecting their heart. There may be an emotional response but I’m guessing that’s because they are deeply moved by something in their spirit rather than it being a soul based reaction.

Now, I don’t want to generalise too much but I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I don’t think words have the same sort of power to skip the head as music or visual art or performance or experiential events because we have to use our heads to make sense of words, to form understanding.

So, if it’s our hearts where we communicate with God, where we build our capacity for discernment, where our faith is deeply moved – why is the church so insistent on using so many words? because in my opinion, words don’t give God the same capacity to stir our spirits.

Here’s something to think about as a churchy example. When you’re taking communion, is it the prayers of preparation that speak to your heart or the ritual of actually taking it? Is it the words or is it the movement, the taste, the smell…

Now, it might just be that I’m a visual kinaesthetic learner and this is just something I’ve struggled with for a couple of decades but if that is the case then it brings up questions about how well we’re catering for a variety of learning styles in our churches… Either way – it’s important that the church engages with creativity.

And just to be clear – I’m not talking about having the youth group do a sketch to illustrate your sermon, I’m talking about art becoming the liturgy.

There’s many things in church that frustrate me but the worst is when people say “we’ve always done it that way” – that one sentence kills creativity on the spot. I believe that churches need to engage with the creative process so that their worship is authentic, relevant, contextual, radically inclusive and outward focused.

I think some of reasons churches don’t engage with the creative process are;

Lack of time, Lack of people, Lack of resources, lack of available cash and the abundance of non context specific fads like messy church but let’s take a second to look at Jesus’ ministry and re-evaluate our position…

Jesus chose a small group of diversely skilled guys from the fringes of society and then travelled with no money or resources yet we base almost all our worship on the stories that resulted from those 3 years.

Yes, creativity takes time and energy and more people and some money, it’s harder work, it takes determination and grit and patience and collaboration and compromise but we need to do it – we need to sign up to this because I truly believe it will transform our communities, our churches and our personal journey’s with Christ.

Why do we need creative worship, why do we need to use the arts as liturgy? Because creativity can skip the head and go straight to the heart… it’s not just Christians who are innately creative, it’s everyone and it’s creativity that will elicit a positive emotional and spiritual response in people. It’s art as liturgy not as illustration that will build faith.

To be a disciple of Jesus – to walk a journey of faith in the Christian God, for me, can’t be separated from engaging creatively with our world.


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