Imagining Visual Worship
“No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love Him.” – 1 Corinthians 2:9
We Have No Idea
Imagine being given a glimpse of the Age to come. Go ahead…imagine!
My reaction would probably be something like Jodie Foster’s at the end of “Contact”:
“Some celestial event! No…no words. No words…to describe. Poetry! They should have sent a poet! So beautiful. So beautiful! So beautiful!!! I had no idea. I had no idea…”
Perhaps this is what John felt in the book of Revelation: an overwhelming, indescribable sense of awe and wonder best described in visual poetry.
This is why I love to lead visual worship: to use visual poetry to spark the worshiper toward the mysterious, astonishing beauty of our Creator.
God wants to give us small glimpses of Himself. But are our eyes closed? Visual worship helps us learn to see.
“The real art of discovery is not in finding new land, but in seeing with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust
“I’m so weary of being “led” up and down the same familiar streets while there await us unexplored vistas of unimagined beauty.” – @aaronkeyes
God’s beauty is displayed in creation for all to see (Romans 1:20). I want to bring that enchanting, unexplored Beauty into our worship services as much as possible.
Imagination in Visual Worship
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain
Sometimes I wonder if our imagination isn’t for making up false realities to fantasize over, but perhaps meant to be a doorway through which God speaks. Many times the Spirit speaks visually through my imagination when yielded to Him. If this is real, perhaps the art we create is an expression of the God-whispers we’ve seen internally. Our art and visual worship can help the Church to see the Unseen.
Now I’m not proposing that whatever you dream up is good or true. Imagination and experience should never override or contradict Scripture. What I am proposing is having a Biblical, prophetic imagination that facilitates dreams and visions. Our imaginations can illuminate the Word of God! This can happen personally, but it can also happen communally…as prophesy is a gift for building up the Church.
“Visual Theology happens when we are engaged with the Scriptures with the fullness of our imaginations.” – Makoto Fujimura
C.S. Lewis is a great example of someone who let his imagination be a vehicle for Truth. And his creative process fascinates me:
“Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected the information about child-psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all.”
Lewis tookin the richness of Christ and His Word and it came out through his imagination and into his art. (HT: @gpackiam)
I try not to curate visuals for visual worship with a specific message or “take-away” in mind. Rather I simply choose imagery that moves my soul. When I hear music, I let my imagination be filled with images. Then I go and try to curate the best images to match my imagination. My hope is that the Spirit reveals multiple messages through those images.
I focus on immersing myself in strong, healthy liturgy, prayer, and my relationship with Jesus. I surround myself with great community and mentors who ask thought-provoking questions and allow honest conversations. And I try to create with a beginner’s mind…with a child-like spirit of wonder.
“Wonder makes words of praise louder.” – JRR Tolkien
I’ve found that when I lead visual worship this way, the Holy Spirit says things way beyond anything I could come up with myself. So while I am very intentional and sensitive to the visuals, the pressure is off of me to say anything specific…I let God do the talking.
“I think He [God] wants us to live ‘out of imagination.’ I am convinced that our potential lies in a ‘sanctified imagination.’” Mark Batterson
I’m learning to lean into my inner mystic, which gives me freedom and permission to wonder about God’s otherness and to practice His mysterious presence.
Mystery in Visual Worship
For centuries, the Protestant Church has been cerebral-focused and intellect-driven. With the best intentions, we seek understanding, but typically in rational, logical ways. This can result in a lop-sided, narrow view of God.
God is infinite; we are finite. Even in our best collective efforts, we barely scratch the surface of knowing God. Though we will never know the mind of God, He is constantly revealing His unknownness. But His mysteries are something to be enjoyed, not explained.
“Artists – at least the best ones – create things not because they know stuff and want to tell us about it, but precisely because they don’t know stuff, and want to explore that state of not-knowing.” Sebastian Smee (via Mako Fujimura)
I’d be lying if I told you that I knew how to “make mystery happen”. It’s more about allowing it through the door and inviting it into our worship. But I do try to curate atmospheres filled with the “ambiance of mystery.” Setting the right mood/vibe affects everything. The aesthetics are not mystery itself, but they certainly can help in posturing the soul to receive and enjoy Mystery when He appears.
The ultimate Mystery of Faith is found at the Table…in the Bread and Wine. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This should be the center of our worship and the climax of the Story we should be telling. At the end of the day, this is what worship is all about: communion with our Savior!
It’s so difficult – almost unfair – to describe imagination and mystery with words. This stuff can’t be merely talked about. It has to be experienced. Words are simply inadequate. In fact, many times words can cheapen mystery; sometimes it’s better to honor mystery with silence. Still, I hope this article can serve as a commentary on your own journey of exploring your God-given imagination and enjoying His mystery.
A book that has really helped me process this area of worship is Robert Webber’s “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail”. Webber saw “the rise of postmodern society in which mystery, experience, beauty, nonverbal communication, and premodern mindsets all had a place.” And as a visual worship leader, this greatly intrigues me and compels me to dream about the role visual worship will play in the future of the Church.
“Lord, fill me with your Spirit and sanctify my imagination so I think God thoughts and dream God dreams!” – Mark Batterson
May God grant us new eyes to see!