May 21, 2012

Is It Right to Display Art in Places of Worship? A Personal Story, Part 1

Above the entrance, from the interior to the exterior of the temple, and on every interior and exterior wall, there were carved winged creatures and palm trees. The palm trees were positioned between the winged creatures, and each winged creature had two faces.

In last Friday's reflection, I asked the question: Is it right to display art in places of worship? Ezekiel's vision of the ideal temple in Ezekiel 41 answers that question affirmatively. Today, I thought I would share with you a personal story of my own wrestling with the question of art and architecture in a place of worship.

When I began as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California, the congregation was worshiping in the building that was slated to be the fellowship hall. They had hopes of building a sanctuary, and that turned out to be central to my work as pastor for several years. I had the privilege of teaming up with a fantastic group of lay leaders who formed our Building Committee. Together, we sought to design and build a sanctuary that would glorify God, encourage people in their worship, build community, and welcome our neighbors to our church.

We spent years in preparation, beginning with an in-depth theological study of worship and architecture (a document that had been written before I came to the church). In time, we teamed up with a brilliant architecture firm, Dominy and Associates (now called Domusstudio). Together, we sought to build a sanctuary that honored the Lord in every facet, including the engineering, the budget (!), the visual design, and the inclusion of artistic elements. We wanted the worship space to convey a sense of God's holiness and his loving presence, to direct attention to God, and to nurture community.

In our initial designs, we did not include much art, besides the artistry of the design itself and traditional Reformed elements (cross, communion table, Bible, baptismal font). We did choose to do something that was quite unusual for a church in our tradition. The sanctuary design included many clear windows that would enable worshipers to look out and people in the neighborhood to look in. We believed that the main "art" of our sanctuary would be the sky, trees, and plants outside of the windows.

Given our location on Alton Blvd. in Irvine, our clear windows also allowed worshipers to see cars driving by on the busy thoroughfare, and even a few pedestrians. We wrestled as a committee with whether this was a good idea or not. In the end, we decided that we wanted our congregation to see our neighbors, to be constantly reminded that God had placed us in Irvine for their sake. Plus, we wanted our neighbors to be able to look in and sense that they were welcome.

When we began worshiping in our new sanctuary, many people loved being able to look out at the beauty of God's creation. Others struggled with the distraction of seeing cars driving by. I helped them to allow this to be a reminder of our mission to reach our neighbors with the love of Christ. In time, this seemed to satisfy people.

But then, we faced an unexpected challenge and opportunity. I'll share more about this in tomorrow's reflection. (If you'd like to see some photos of the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian church, visit this page of my blog.)

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How does the design of your church worship space enhance (or detract from) your worship? What kind of theological statement does it make? In what ways does the art in your worship space encourage you in your worship?

PRAYER: Creator God, you made the world beautiful, and you made us so that we might enjoy its beauty. Thank you! Moreover, you made us so that we might add to the beauty by using the "stuff" of this world and the talents you have given us. What a great privilege. Thank you.

Help us, dear Lord, to seek to honor you in all that we do, whether in building sanctuaries or building houses, whether in teaching children or raising our own children, whether in manufacturing goods to be sold or in selling them. By your Spirit, teach us how to serve you every moment of our lives. Amen.

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