On the Arts: Ministry of the People
David A. VanderMeer
David A. VanderMeer is the minister of music and fine arts at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
This column is appearing in the third of three issues of Call to Worship recognizing the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM), a document produced by the Faith and Order division of the World Council of Churches in 1982. In the previous issues contributors wrote about art related to baptism and Eucharist, and now we focus on the third topic, ministry. BEM considers ministry primarily from two perspectives, the ministry of mission and the ministry of the ordained clergy. I am instead going to focus on arts as it relates to the ministry of the people. When I say “the people” in this context, I am not talking about professional artists or even super-crafty lay artists. I am talking about members of the community, people who want to contribute their time and energy, people who value what the arts bring to them in worship and want to be a part of the giving as well as the receiving. I have learned about this kind of artistic giving from some fabulous professional artists—people who were willing to share their time and talent to teach those of us who were not born with their gifts—and to create art that allowed all of us to participate. I think especially of Nancy Chinn, Ellen Phillips, Lauren Wright Pittman, Catherine Kapikian, and Joel Schoon-Tanis, all of whom I have worked with to create projects that allowed for participation by congregation members who did not bring special skills but brought their hearts and hands.
Some of these projects involved an artist designing or creating the framework for a project and congregation members implementing the design. The most common example of this would be paper lace banners, which I have used for liturgical seasons such as Advent or Easter and for specific rites, such as the Sacrament of Baptism, marriage, or even Blessing of the Animals. These banners can hang in the sanctuary for a season or be displayed on banner poles for a particular service. An artist creates the design and enlarges it to create a pattern, then many hands from the congregation can cut the banners.
Members of First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, making a paper lace banner
Paper lace banners hanging in the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan
Paper lace banner at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia
Another great material to use for group projects is repurposed plastic bottle caps. Again, an artist creates the overall design, and congregation members paint bottle caps of various shapes and sizes collaged into the pattern. A large-scale design in a sanctuary setting requires a large number of bottle caps, so congregants who don’t wish to take part in constructing the piece can contribute bottle caps and experience a part of the process.
Members of the Liturgical Arts Committee making a banner with donated bottle caps, choir room, Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia
Perhaps my favorite of all art projects that depend on congregational participation are origami installations. Origami originated in Japan as a practice of folding paper into intricate sculptures. The practice of folding paper cranes has been taken up in many contexts around the world as a way to call for peace. Referencing these traditions, I have engaged congregations in folding and hanging paper cranes in sanctuaries for International Day of Peace. In a church I served in Atlanta, one of the youth on the Liturgical Arts Committee suggested we fold origami stars. Rather than buying origami paper, paper, we recycled worship bulletins. To hang the stars, artist Steve Bacon, a woodworker who also happened to serve on the pastoral staff, built a star-shaped frame that we suspended from the ceiling during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. We encouraged members helping with the piece to use the folding process as a prayer discipline, inviting them to pray for someone or lift a concern as they folded each star.
Members of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, folding origami stars, fellowship hall
Installation of origami stars collaborative work, Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia; wooden frame by artist Steve Bacon
Detail, origami stars collaborative work, Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia
Fabric or fiber art can also become part of the liturgy, the work of the people. At First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I serve, quilters in the congregation have made paraments by asking the congregation to bring fabric scraps of a particular color family or, at times, randomly, depending on the project. These donated fabric scraps became the material used to make the works.
Pentecost paraments in process at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Quilted Pentecost paraments at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ordinary Time banner, Alberta Irwin, made from found fabric brought by congregation members
The pictures above show paraments that involved several quilters creating squares made from many red fabric scraps, and then assembling those squares into the pulpit falls and table cover. For the Ordinary Time banner on the right, scraps of many different colors and textures brought by congregation members were put together by one quilter. One of the contributors told us that her fabric had come from her prom dress (making it more than a half-century old), and another said that the fabric she donated came from something belonging to her recently deceased husband, making it especially meaningful to her.
Perhaps the simplest art project I have orchestrated is the making of ribbon trees in the sanctuary. This project became a very meaningful way for the whole community to pray and make art together during worship. We installed two large branches in large pots at the front of the sanctuary, and at the time of the Prayers of the People, those who wished to (almost everyone) came forward and tied a ribbon on one of the ribbon trees. The ribbons were pre-cut and sorted into baskets by color, with each color representing one of eight potential prayer categories—healing, peace, wisdom, strength, and so forth. We expected the children to be particularly interested in participating, but it turned out to be meaningful for all ages. The project is influenced by others like it that have been made in other contexts, including Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees that have been made around the world since 1981. This is a project that invites participants to tie wishes to trees in a similar way, an interpretation of the Japanese practice of tying wishes to trees in temple courtyards.
Ribbon prayer tree, made by members of the congregation during worship at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia
There is great power in making art that requires congregational participation. Catherine Kapikian calls it “participatory aesthetics,”1 suggesting in her book, Art in Service of the Sacred, that art is both a product and a process, and that when we engage in art making “we become co-creators, continuing the ongoing act of creation.”2 Nancy Chinn also talks about collaboration in the creation of art, recognizing that most of her work could not be done by one person, so she works with assistants and volunteers. “What ends up happening is that we have a very good time together and we make art,”3 she writes in her book Spaces for the Spirit: Adorning the Church. She suggests that the task for liturgical art was not visual illustration, but to reach beyond the text to find the miracle in the story. She says, “Our work is not so much to make the Holy visible as it is to proclaim that the Holy is present.”4
There is no question that the work of the great artists of our era, and dating back to ancient times, has the power to transform our worship and our worshipers. But there is also a place for the work of our hands, our ordinary hands, and our ordinary eyes and ears and hearts. There is a place for all of us to be co-creators, to engage in the process of art, to bring what we have, just as we sing God’s praises, and feed and clothe God’s children, and minister to those in need. And the ministry of participating in the creation of art may meet a need that is not yet spoken or recognized, but truly opens someone to the presence of God.
- Catherine Kapikian, Art in Service of the Sacred (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 107.
- Kapikian, Art in Service of the Sacred, 110.
- Nancy Chinn, Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1989), 35.
- Chinn, Spaces for Spirit, 35.