How an Image Can Minister

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by Joan Huyser-Honig

Picture three people who’ve talked with the same newcomer. One may forget the person’s name but easily describe her appearance. Another will tell you about the woman’s history and who she is related to—but may be unable to recognize her when they meet again. And the third person may talk most about the conversation’s emotional vibes.

The point is that we don’t all pay attention to the same things. We give different weights to visuals, words, emotions, and more. Including thoughtfully-chosen images in worship may minister to certain people in ways that the rest of the service does not.

“One image can be enough”

“If there are 100 people at worship and only five are deeply moved by the images, that’s worth it, because maybe those five are not deeply moved by music or sermons,” Sandra Bowden said at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship. She is an artist and painter from Massachusetts, past president of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and a trustee of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.

She advises “teaching” an image in worship, just as a music leader or choir teaches a congregation a new song.

“Remember that one image in a service can be enough. If you use too many, the impact gets blurred,” Bowden says. You could project it during the gathering, a prayer, song, Bible reading, or between PowerPoint sermon points. Baptisms and communion are good times to show art.

You don’t have to say much in print or verbally about the art. It’s okay to let it be what Bowden likes to call “quietly present” and give only the work’s name, the artist’s name, and a tidbit. For an Advent image, you might explain that the lily is a centuries-old symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity or that the name Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

Re-membering as one body

Combining images in a communal art piece helped heal misunderstandings at First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church in Ontario, Canada. It began as a Dutch immigrant church. As the neighborhood changed, First Hamilton’s senior citizens stayed, baby boomers moved, and its share of people age 35 or younger grew.

First Hamilton recast itself as an ethnically diverse missional church—but the generation gap “caused bitterness, disrespect, and tension,” according to worship coordinator Beth Terpstra.

Artists in the church brainstormed. They asked members to bring in small objects representing who they are or what they remember. They attached the objects with beeswax because of its gold color and lovely aroma. People brought in enough treasures to make seven pieces.

One artist decided to put a letter on each piece. Together they spelled ONE BODY. “That Sunday she discovered the pastor was preaching on the text ‘you are many parts but one body.’ It confirmed for us that God was working,” Terpstra said.

At that worship service, people shared their traditions. One gave a brooch from a pastor’s wife who had died. A woman brought a Daughters of Priscilla photo and talked about what it was like when that group used to meet. Another gave a fabric square from a pulpit runner and table vestment that she helped sew years ago and that the church still uses.

“Their stories helped us younger folks realize this church has been around a lot longer than we have. As older members shared precious memories from years ago, we could feel understanding and appreciation come into the room. It helped us understand why they’ve been frustrated with all the changes and why they mourn the loss of what used to be. We’re all unique and different. Some people still get upset. But the general feeling in our services is now peace and purpose, instead of division and mistrust,” Terpstra said. 

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