Empty Walls, Empty Halls

By Hillary Asbury

The visual arts are an important part of the life of the Church, even if it is sometimes difficult to see it.

 In some churches, the use of art is bold and seamlessly intertwined with worship and liturgy. Paintings, mosaics, carved marble, and stained-glass windows adorn ancient and modern sanctuaries alike. In some of these churches the artwork takes over the entire building, manifesting in an overwhelming display of God’s word, reminding us that there is something bigger than us, something outside of ourselves that bursts into our lives and claims us. Many times, the imagery sprawled across the architecture of these churches endeavors to tell the entire epoch of law and gospel, of sin and salvation, from the fall of Adam to the resurrection of Christ.

In other churches the role of visual art is subtler.

 Perhaps a tame mural in a nursery, or a watercolor hanging in the church halls. These are easier to overlook but they still remind us of God’s small mercies, the tiny miracles that greet us every day. They are short stories, snippets, that guide us to the bigger picture.

Some churches, however, don’t seem to make use of the visual arts at all.

Sometimes, these places of worship have purposefully excluded artwork from their spaces, banning it from the walls in an attempt to remove distraction or out of fear of idol worship. It’s a mildly iconoclastic view that sees images as an affront to the Divine Service, as irreverent at best and outright rebellious at worst. In other churches there is a desire for minimalism, an aesthetic choice in favor of clean walls and a sterile environment for focused worship.

For other churches, it is merely an oversight.

They do not actively pursue art for their worship space, either not thinking to include it, or not knowing how to do so.

 Often it is an issue of cost: hiring an artist is expensive.

 It takes money (sometimes money churches simply don’t have) in order to buy or commission art that is of good quality and is suitable for a house of God. Maybe these churches see the value of artwork which speaks the Word of God but are unable pay that value. In other cases, it may be bureaucracy which stands in the way. The church wants art. The pastor wants art. The people want art. The desire for artwork, however, becomes buried in the process by which these decisions are made. It can take ages for committees or boards to agree on big decisions like this, and sometimes the initiative gets swallowed up entirely. It’s understandable, though. As I said before it is quite expensive to hire artwork, and people want to be sure they are getting the best they can get in exchange for their church’s precious resources.

Perhaps that is all any of this really boils down to.

We want to be faithful, respectful, reverent. We want to make good choices and do the right thing for our congregations. Some churches feel the right thing to do is leave art to the outside world (a shame, I think, but I am obviously biased). Some feel that art is a powerful tool in helping spread the Gospel. Some feel that it is a luxury- nice to have but not a priority.

We in the Church want to be diligent about our stewardship over everything we have been given.

We want to be sure our congregations are served, spiritually cared for, and edified. We don’t want to be wasteful or careless with our budgets. We are thoughtful in our choices and often slow to spend. It’s quite admirable. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also be just as diligent in our stewardship of the visual arts.