Conversations on images in our evangelical churches have long been absent from our evangelical circles for years. That is, until the recent surge of technology in many churches striving to be “contemporary” and “relevant”. With the development of programs such as ProPresenter and the invention of LED walls, alongside the increasing use of lights during worship service “productions”, images have regained attention within evangelical churches.
Recently, in the July 2015 volume of Worship, “a peer reviewed, international ecumenical journal for the study of liturgy and liturgical renewal”, noted Lutheran liturgist Gordon Lathrop wrote an article titled “Saving Images” that could be very informative for the evangelical images conversation.
Beyond visual images, however, Lathrop encourages a return of verbal imagery in our liturgies. More specifically, he argues for a renewal of verbal biblical imagery in our liturgies.
Lathrop begins the article with a reference to the 1987 film, A Month in the Country, a story about the coming of a new pastor to a small Yorkshire parish. Reverend Keath detests that the image of the parable of Matthew 25 is being restored in the worship space. The image of heaven and hell will “distract” from the worship says Mr. Keath.
Surprisingly enough, Gordon agrees that images may be distracting, but his response consists of three questions: what is worship actually, what is worship for, and what is the image distracting us towards? These questions may prove invaluable to local churches determining the role of images in worship.
He quickly brings the question of images into the context of our liturgies:
“What of our liturgies? Do they immerse us in images that are capable of holding us and our real experience and transforming these toward faith and hope? More: if we are going to put images on our walls, how does one decide between the lilies and the judgment? What else might be put there? Will it distract? From what? To what? And what of the more recent practice whereby nothing is on our walls and we may again simply see someone like Mr. Keach above us in the pulpit as the central image in the room – or, more likely in our current culture, simply see ourselves?”
Gordon notes the difference between two images. The first is that of the lily. While the image of a lily comes from a biblical text, it is a flat and literal illustration, rather than a metaphorical image, such as the judgment image from the movie mentioned above. The illustration of heaven and hell served as “God-in-Christ acting, encountering, and enfolding” many of the people of the church “now with holy mercy”, as a kind of “presence-in-metaphor”, as Lathrop writes.
I believe this is an important distinction to consider when selecting images to be used in our worship services. It also allows for contextualization and making appropriate changes as time moves forward. Your context, culture, and people will change over time, so it may be necessary to change the images used in the liturgies to maintain a “presence-in-metaphor”.
This idea of “presence-in-metaphor” is crucial to Gordon’s renewal. The metaphor comes alive in God through Christ, meeting the people where they are in life. Just as a word of encouragement can meet someone where they are, so an image can make an impact on us as well.
Gordon then begins to explore the use of biblical imagery in the texts within our liturgies. He notes that texts have altered to support doctrinal positions, rather than images that point to the actions of the liturgy. It is the metaphors that refer to what is happening within the assembly at that specific time.
After setting the stage with his reflections on biblical and metaphorical images in our liturgies, both visual and auditory, Gordon brings Aidan Kavanagh and Austin Farrer into the theological conversation.
Gordon agrees with Kavanagh in that every liturgical act are among the “forms and formations” of the assembly, but does not carry it to Kavanagh’s furthest conclusion that every liturgical act “changes and outstrips” its assembly. Since images, both visul and auditory, are a part of the liturgy, and therefore a “liturgical act”, images do form the assembly. He then poses the question, “So how do these images work?”
Noting Austin Farrer from The Glass of Vision (Westminster: Dacer, 1948, 134), Gordon writes,
“that Christianity itself is a rebirth or reuse or transformation of images, that the Scripture is a tissue of images, that the right way to read the Scripture is to look for the images and their interactions, and that theology is most properly ‘the analysis and the criticism of the revealed images.’”
Farrer recognizes that in God recreating all things and restoring all things to Himself, that even images are included in this. I would personally add that sometimes metaphors are the best way to communicate truths that do not work with simple recitation. Gordon then concludes by looking at metaphoric imagery in Revelation and Hebrews.
Evangelicals, Images, and Formation
From an evangelical perspective, I think that we ought to consider the formational impact of images in our worship spaces and in our language. What we must come to terms with is that everything we do, especially in our worship, shapes what we believe and how we believe. This ties into the studies of liturgical theology: understanding the theology that is understood from our liturgies.
Consider how your context may interpret, even subconsciously, an empty worship space, a worship space with some inspiring art, or even an Orthodox-styled space that attempts to recreate the heavenly realm. Not every image or worship space design may be appropriate for a certain time, space, or congregation. This is the art of images in our worship spaces.
Then consider how your church utilizes images in its language. How is your congregation shaped when all it hears are texts that support doctrine, rather than opening and expounding the language of the Sacred Scriptures? This begs the question, of course, about your congregation and their education. Read my first article here where I explored the topic of introducing your congregation to new acts of worship before they fully understand the action.
An easier starting place may be considering the worship language you and your church use. Is there room for introducing more biblical metaphoric languages into your texts? Having read a number of ancient homilies (sermons), there use of metaphoric language drives their words and opens up a whole new depth to preaching the truth Sunday in and Sunday out.
I would like to return to the question Gordon presented concerning what our images distract us towards. This is a very important question that evangelical pastors, worship leaders, and congregants can ask. Let us consider the LED walls and the laser lights that some churches have opted to use, often during the music sets of their assemblies. How does the assembly interact with these features? What do they think of when they see large screens and flashing lights? What associations do they have?
The beauty in the questions Gordon presents is that the images that our used in our spaces and our texts can change over time. This is the strength of evangelicalism: we can appropriate our structures, systems, worship and liturgies, and witnesses to the time, space, and people that we live in and among.
Amidst this conversation can quickly come the cry of not worshiping images, and you are very correct. Images, like many aspects of our faith, can be abused. This argument is weak, however, because many aspects of Christianity can and historically have been abused. Nevertheless, we cannot continue to reduce our faith. Reductionism has continued to run in our churches, and while it may have had its place at one time, it is now hurting our witness and ability to disciple those within the Church.
So how will you reflect on your worship space and worship language? How can we be more biblically informed as it pertains to image? How does God becoming man, the incarnation, play a role in our understanding of images? These questions must be asked and answered for various local contexts.
What thoughts do you have about worship and images? What is Gordon missing or what would you affirm? I would encourage you to share your thoughts with me, as this is something that I have been thinking about over the last year. Maybe you have already given your worship space and worship language an overhaul. Why did you change, how did you make the change, and what have been the results of these changes? As iron sharpens iron, so we, across the lines of traditions and experiences, can inform one another for our local contexts.
I would highly recommend the Worship journal for your worship and liturgical studies. Please visit the NEW Resources-Links page here for the link to Worship and many other great online sources. Use the Contact page here to send me links you think I ought to consider posting to the Resources page as well*. I look forward to hearing from you soon and thanks in advance!
*I reserve the right to include or reject any resource that is referred to me with or without reason.
Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.