Not Just for Looks: Practical Suggestions for Choosing Appropriate Visuals for Worship

In our daily environment we are assaulted by visual images. Most of them are related to our daily "needs" and call attention to what we "could" have or "should" have. When I take a ride, read a newspaper or magazine, or sit down to watch a movie, I am bombarded by such reminders. But when I attend church, I seldom see any kind of visual that reminds me of my spiritual "needs."

In spite of our rich heritage of Christian art, few churches in our tradition alter their worship environments to reflect the different seasons of the church year. Many congregations do not even use church bulletins as a means of visually influencing special services.

How can we begin to reclaim some of our heritage of visual images and discover some new visual connections in worship?

Integrating Visuals into Worship

The cooperation of the pastor and the worship committee is essential for an artist to make any meaningful visual contribution to the worship service. The total service needs to be taken into account when we alter the worship environment: the kinds of songs we sing, the readings, and the sermon all may suggest a particular mood— affirmative, confessional, devotional, or celebrative. That mood should be reflected in the worship environment where God's people gather.

The Christian church uses colors to mark the moods of the various seasons of the church year. The Advent color has traditionally been purple, but recently blue-purple or even dark blue has been used to separate this season from Lent. Christmas, because it is one of the holy days of the church, is colored white, as is Epiphany. During these days and seasons the designated colors should dominate the worship environment.

Images that are introduced into the worship environment should connect with either a song, a reading, or the sermon. By definition, symbols are visual reminders, so if an image stands alone, it will lose its purpose— its connection with the service. That's why it's so important to plan ahead, to attempt to integrate the total worship service by talking with everyone who will be contributing to worship. The ideas and concepts that emerge from such a dialogue will best serve your particular congregation. Everyone will know why a particular image is used; it will be a meaningful element in the total worship experience rather than just a decoration.

Visual Planning

But how does one begin this process? I usually start with the biblical texts the pastor has chosen for his sermons; I begin, then, by reading and listening.

To illustrate how this process might work, we will take a close look at some of the Advent and Christmas readings from the Common Lectionary. We can gain a number of insights simply by listing the concepts expressed in the various lessons. Some are abstract, some are visual. For the purpose of this general study, I list just a few (from the RSV), underlining those that have specific visual possibilities.

Isaiah 63:16-64:8 (1 st Sunday in Advent)

rend heavens, come down, mountains quake, fire kindles, fire causes boiling, make name known, heard nor seen, a God like you, unclean, filthy garments, wither like a leaf, iniquity like wind, Father, like clay, potter, all are work of thy hands

Psalm 80: 1-7 (1st Sunday in Advent)

face, shine upon, tears, save

Mark 13: 32-37 (1st Sunday in Advent)

take heed, keep alert

Isaiah 40: 1-11 (2nd Sunday in Advent)

every valley, every mountain, grass withers, flower fades

If all of these texts will be part of the worship service, and especially if the sermon deals with the Isaiah text, the pot from the first Sunday and the flower from the second Sunday could be combined into one image. If you have a potter in your congregation, it may be effective to ask her to create a pot during the service. That pot will serve in weeks to come as a beautiful reminder of the message for this day.

Although time and space do not permit me to list all the key words or concepts for weeks two through four of the Advent season, let me tell you which imagesremained with me after studying the suggested passages for these Sundays. When I reflected on and listed the lectionary readings for the second Sunday in Advent, I came up with a flower that fades as the main image. For week three the text suggested either a garland or a broken chain, and for the fourth Sunday, I suggested a crown.

In summary then, for the four Sundays we have four images: pot, flower, chain, and crown. These images can either be incorporated into one visual or used separately.


When I read the Christmas lectionary texts, I was impressed with two ideas. For the evening service before Christmas I envision light and angels and the concept of coming down from heaven to earth. When these images are combined with an evening candlelight service, we will unite many of these concepts, and the result will be a magnificent illustrational experience of the texts.

For Christmas Day the announcement, the response, and the role of the shepherds stand out as key factors. When we combine the ideas of these two lessons (see facing page), we could conceive of one image, seven (or twelve) angels coming down to meet seven (or twelve) shepherds. (Seven and twelve are both numbers that symbolize fullness in the Scriptures.)

Keep It Simple

When we create images, it is important to remember two things: simplicity and proportion. By keeping an image simple, we avoid the trap of becoming overconcerned with detail. For example, the profile of a pot allows people to recognize it as a pot; fancy decorations or a three-dimensional effect are unnecessary. All that is important is the symbol—it reminds us of the fact that God is the potter and we are the clay. It is all right if people do not understand that symbol when they first enter the sanctuary and have not yet been told the story. But when they leave, the meaning of the visual image should be clear.

In addition to simplicity we should remember proportion, or relationships within the overall image. How big, for example, should the pot be in the space of the banner? What emphasis, what kind of focus are we trying to create? And how does the church sanctuary influence the decisions we make about the size of the image?

Most of those who contribute to filling the worship space with symbol and color quickly discover that each church sanctuary presents demands as well as solutions. They also find that their congregation's unique style of worship has a lot to do with the types of visuals that will be effective in worship.

God seeks our individual and corporate responses to his very surprising message of salvation, his coming to us. Let us greet him with all he has given us—our voices, our instruments, our hands, and our worship spaces.


Not every congregation has artists who can skillfully sketch ideas into shapes. Some clip-art books provide ideas and useful drawings which can become the basis for banners or other liturgical art. One such book, from which the following pieces were taken, is Clip-art for Feasts and Seasons (1982 Edition) by Gertrude Meuller Nelson, published by Pueblo Publishing Co., Inc. The publisher grants parishes and schools permission to reproduce any of these drawings m their publications that are distributed free. Available from Pueblo Publishing Co, Inc. 1860 Broadway, New York, NY 10023, (212) 695-4282.

Chris Stoffel Overvoorde is a professor of art (emeritus) at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is also a Reformed Worship editorial consultant.


Reformed Worship 17 © September 1990, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.