The Problem of Beauty
Discussions about beauty in worship can turn esoteric quickly. As Frank Burch Brown notes, in his Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully, anyone “contemplating the conjunction of beauty and worship is likely to confront, sooner or later, the awkward question of what sort of beauty to seek in worship, and whether a truly ‘spiritual worship’ can afford to make much of beauty that is visible, audible, sensory, palpable.” Contemporary American worshipers have “tended to be suspicious of richly sensuous or elaborate worship ceremonies of overtly beautiful or ornate buildings, which they have often judged to be ostentatious, wasteful, or superficial.”
As a result, many churches today, according to Mark Torgerson in An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today, “are eschewing any concern for beauty,” often due to a well-intended but ultimately short-sighted understanding of financial stewardship. “While it is certainly responsible to prioritize financial resources for public ministry, it is naïve to believe that the visible presence of a church does not express a particular understanding of God and communicate the priorities of a community. . . . Beauty enhances the world for all people, both those inside and those outside Christian communities.”
Indeed, we elevate the utilitarian over the aesthetic in worship at the risk of emotional and intellectual harm. The late Robert Webber, for many years a Worship Leader columnist, puts forth the following in his prophetic social commentary, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World: “Beauty, whether it is that of an individual, a place, a landscape, or an environment, has the power to communicate a sense of well-being. Beauty is the eyesight of insight.” (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.)
In an often ugly-beyond-measure world (I am writing this article a few weeks after the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.), Webber’s words carry profound meaning: “Beautiful space can speak of order, stability, and the absolute in a society of chaos and relativity, and bring quietness and peace to the inner person.” If Webber is correct—and I believe he is—then worship leaders ought to take Torgerson’s advice and “be particularly careful about cultivating the theological connection between God and beauty.” Much has already been written on this subject, and space does not allow for a thorough examination here, but let me offer three places where we might begin fostering beauty in worship.
Cultivate Beauty Intentionally
If beauty is so important, why don’t more worship leaders make its pursuit a higher priority? Perhaps because gleaning an appreciation of beauty demands focused and intentional effort, Andy Crouch opines in, “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?”—an essay in, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (W. David O. Taylor, ed.). Exegeting the creation narrative in Genesis 2:9, Crouch recounts God’s making every tree “pleasant to the sight” in addition to a source of nourishment. “The trees of the garden are not just good for something. They are good simply in the beholding. They are beautiful.” Crouch further highlights the description of Eden’s headwaters in the next verses. Pishon, the first of the rivers, “winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold” (v. 11), and that gold is “good.”
“Why,” Crouch asks, “does the author indulge in this metallurgical excursion—with its digression within an excursion, ‘And the gold of that land is good’? . . . God has located the garden in a place where the natural explorations of its human cultivators will bring them into contact with substances that will invite the creation of beauty.” But that cultivation takes some effort, for these substances are hidden initially.
“They are not like the low-hanging fruit of the garden’s trees. They are latent—lying below the surface of the very good world. Only by exploration and excavation will they be discovered. Only by experimentation and craftsmanship will their possibilities be disclosed. God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored—where more goodness waits to be unearthed. The world is even better than it appears.”
When the world’s news at every turn suggests God is unresponsive, at best, or dead, at worst, our congregations need to be reminded the world is “better than it appears.” If David asked only one thing of God, to dwell in God’s house forever in order to “behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), we can certainly add cultivating an understanding of beauty to our weekly to-do list. (Need a place to start? Along with the works above, consider Jeremy Begbie’s Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, Rory Noland’s, The Worshiping Artist, and Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Volume IV of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship.)
Give Equal Time to Transcendence and Immanence
Christian theology is riddled with paradoxes. God is both completely just and wholly merciful. God is omniscient but remembers our sins no more when we repent. And God transcends our existence on earth while being immanent, always with us. In the words of the fairly new song, God is a “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy.” At the same time, God is, in the words of the fairly old song, “only a prayer away.” Hence, our worship ought to balance content that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.
Generally speaking, however, “Christians have been particularly fond of remembering that the transcendent, holy God became immanent to us in Christ,” Torgerson states, claiming that this “focus on the immanence of God in Christ supported a twentieth-century emphasis on evangelism and service” in many churches. (One need not be a sophisticated sociologist, historian, or aesthete to affirm Torgerson’s notion. Whether we look at architecture, music, or a host of other considerations, most of us clearly worship in what Lester Ruth calls “personal-story” churches rather than “cosmic-story” churches.)
Let’s say Torgerson is correct that the motivation for the predominance of God’s immanence in our worship stems from a high view of evangelism. (This clearly was the case during the advent of the seeker-sensitivity movement and remains a component of the modus operandi of seeker-friendly churches today.) Webber argues that transcendence can serve the cause of soul-winning as easily as immanence. In what he calls “my favorite story of evangelism through beauty,” Webber tells the (true) story of Vladimir, prince of Kiev, who sends a contingent of his charges into the world to discover true religion. Searching high and low but coming up empty, they finally arrive at Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Wisdom. Upon their return, they report their findings to Vladimir.
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” Indeed, the beauty of the worship featured elements both transcendental, provoking other-worldly sentiments in the worshipers, and immanent, manifesting beyond doubt God’s presence in their midst.
In his quest to know God intimately, seeking God’s immanence such that his soul thirsts, David finds a transcendental experience with God: “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Psalm 63:2). Thus, this combination of God’s transcendence and immanence prompts David’s worship. Worship leaders endeavoring to achieve a similar balance might find similar responses from their congregants. (Need a place to start? Consider adapting a Taizé chorus for your worship. Cosmic-story lyrics and Renaissance-inspired harmonies promote an element of beauty rarely found in contemporary worship. Check out my article “Renewing Worship: The Positive Payoff of Messing with Convention” in the Worship Leader magazine archives July/August 2012 issue, for tips regarding making Taizé choruses work in a praise-band setting.)
Find “Beauty in the Common”
The final suggestion for promoting beauty in worship is at once simple and difficult. Anyone can do it; it’s that easy. Most of us don’t; it’s that countercultural. “We are often drawn and even conditioned to desire the dramatic and magnificent moments in life,” says Chicagoland pastor Ian Simkins, founder of the Beauty in the Common online community, “but that is to miss the power and presence of God in the common, ordinary spaces of our lives. . . . Beauty in the Common seeks to find those experiences, regardless of context, background, or story. Beginning from a place of commonality allows us to better see the beauty in one another and the ways God is moving in and through those around us.”
For the purposes of corporate worship, Simkins echoes the assertion that beauty promotes evangelism. “Life has a way of beating wonder out of us, but when the Psalmist invites us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ [Psalm 34:8], that involves more than just a weekly experience; it is, instead, a way of awakening awe deep within our hearts,” something which has the power to fill what Pascal called the “infinite abyss” in the soul of the unbeliever. For those who approach Christianity with suspicion, beauty can serve as a gracious bypass to cognitive resistance. “Rather than trying to convince,” Simkins concludes, “beauty seeks to invite.”
One such invitation could involve congregational testimonies. Ron Man, in his blog Worship Notes, recommends we make room for and utilize different types of stories in our worship sets: “someone sharing why a favorite song or hymn is meaningful to that person, followed by the congregation singing it, . . . work stories . . . how God motivates and uses [parishioners] in their workday jobs, [or testimonies of] elderly faith heroes talking about their long walks with the Lord.” Many churches already do this periodically, and with easy-access video technology, we have no shortage of options for promoting the beauty of our common experiences in corporate worship. (Need a place to start? Consider Simkins’ website: beautyinthecommon.com.)
Worth the Effort
“Beauty is most emphatically not the necessary and sufficient condition of aesthetic excellence,” offers Nicholas Wolterstorff in the classic Art in Action. Hence, the pursuit of beauty in our worship need not involve stained glass or pipe organs (though it can), nor does it mandate multiple-thousand-dollar lighting rigs or sophisticated sound systems (though it can). This is good news for the Church Universal, for all of us can pursue beauty on our own terms, as it relates to our particular circumstances, regardless of the sizes of our budgets or congregations.
Doing so is worth the effort. Emerson wrote,
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”