The Role of the Arts in Worship



By: Chris Howell

When you read or hear the word ”worship,” if you are a “church” person most often your mind recalls your favorite Christian song, or at least the one that you can’t seem to get out of your head at the present moment. We tend to associate the concept of worship with the song selection on Sunday morning. If you expand the word to include ”worship service” then your mind might include a sermon, or maybe even communion. But most often must people just reduce the idea of worship to music.

Why is that?

In one sense it’s certainly biblical: the Bible is replete with song lyrics that were set to music for the benefit of the believing community as they worshiped God. But my impression today is that it’s just more of a cultural norm. Music played in churches on Sunday morning is just ”worship” music. “Man the worship was awesome today” is a statement that most likely refers to the quality, song selection and performance of music in a house of “worship.”

But there’s certainly much more to worship than just music, and there is certainly much more to the role of the arts in the church than just maintaining or perpetuating cultural norms.

Why are the arts important in the life of the church, and are we going about it the right way? These are questions that I and many others at C3 are constantly asking. It’s a concept that we wrestle with and take very seriously, because it is our belief that the arts are very close to the heart of God. As one Christian writer put it, ”Art satisfies our deep longing for beauty and communicates profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God made for his glory.”

We see evidence of the value that God places on the arts spread throughout the pages of his Word.

  • Music – Gen 4.21, the Psalms
  • Dance – Ex 15.20, Psalm 30.11, 149.3, 150.4
  • Architecture – Ex 31
  • Carpentry, woodworking, metal working – Ex 26-31
  • Literature – the whole Bible

Even the creation account reveals something very significant about art and the nature of human beings. The concept of the imago dei  (being made in the image of God) certainly includes the capacity for love, intelligence, moral judgments, leadership and other godly characteristics. However, let us not overlook the very nature of God as Creator when we seek to understand how human beings are like him. God creates, and he creates human beings, and the image of God is presented as part of the creation narrative. It stands to reason that part of being made in the image of God is the impulse to create on the part of all humans. This is normal and universal.

We value the arts because God values the arts; they reflect and express who He is; they are important to Him, so much so that he values that they are done well. When he gave instructions for how the Tabernacle was to be built, the instructions were meticulous and exhaustive (Ex 26-31). The people that he chose to lead the construction were called and gifted specifically for that project (Ex 31.1-6). Why? Because it matters to Him, and because God is worthy of excellence.

But the focus of the arts in Scripture, no matter how gifted or talented human beings are, is never on human beings. The arts in Israelite worship are always carried out for God’s sake. Don’t get me wrong, art does have an intrinsic worth, it has value in and of itself, apart from any utility. In the words of Emerson, ”beauty is its own excuse for being.” Not every directive in the building of the Tabernacle had clear or immediate spiritual significance: some of it was just “pretty.” But even that reflects the character of God and what He values.

It is always a temptation for human beings to employ the arts, or anything else, for their own purposes and ego instead of God’s glory. Remember that instructions were given in Exodus 31 about how to build the Tabernacle. In the next chapter the people employed the arts to worship a false god in the infamous golden calf episode. This is what happens when people pursue art for their own purposes: they wind up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator (Rom 1.24-25).

To avoid this, artists need to acknowledge that their artistic ability is a gift from God. They need to resist the temptation to live in isolation apart from the Christian community, and they need to offer their art in praise to God, regardless of where or how it is displayed or experienced.

That way they can achieve the goal and purpose of art: a gift to be used in service to others and for the glory of God. Making art is an expression of our love for God as well as our love for our neighbor. When you see the arts displayed at C3, the intent is to express this love on the part of our artists for you all, as well as for our Lord.

When you come into the Campus Theatre (itself an artistic work), know that everything that happens on Sunday morning has one intent: to glorify God and encourage his church. The arts seek to ‘incarnate’ the character and beauty of God in a tangible, visceral way. The music that the band painstakingly rehearses and performs, the care to which lyrics are accurate and projected in a way that is easy-to-read, the short films that tell the story of God’s faithfulness, the thoughtful motions of dancers kinesthetically interpreting song lyrics and theological truths, the use of written and spoken words that express our experience and understanding of the divine, the care that is taken by First Impressions to beautify the lobby and entrance areas, the details and aesthetic consistency of our printed literature, even the lighting settings in the theater, are all done with extraordinary thoughtfulness and intentionality to express our love for God and for the community of C3.

It is the desire of the artists at C3 to encourage you, equip you, and at times even challenge you to see and experience God precisely as He is, and not as we have often culturally defined Him. We never want the concept of worship to simply be reducible to a “song” because this reflects a very small view of God and is inconsistent with the many ways that He seeks to be worshiped throughout Scripture. And it is also our desire that everything that happens artistically within the worship service at C3 result in God being praised, and his creatures feeling loved by Him as we all begin to get a bigger view of who this true, beautiful and good Creator God is.