A few weeks ago I alluded to a series featuring songwriting tips from expert songwriters that I hope to launch this summer. In fact, I had planned to do so today, but the more I thought about the general concept, the more it begged the specific question posed above. You probably won’t be surprised that I think the answer is “yes,” but if that’s true, putting forth a rationale is only fair.
Hence, for the next few weeks, I will draw from an article I was privileged to write for Worship Leader magazine a couple of years ago (Spring 2018) entitled “Fostering Beauty.” In it, I referenced some of my favorite authors and friends, so in this first part, you’ll meet Frank Burch Brown, my Judson University/Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts colleague Mark Torgerson (pictured), Robert Webber, Andy Crouch, Jeremy Begbie, and Rory Noland. I hope you’ll be blessed as you read.
The Problem of Beauty
Discussions about beauty in worship can turn esoteric quickly. As Frank Burch Brown notes, in his Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully, anyone “contemplating the conjunction of beauty and worship is likely to confront, sooner or later, the awkward question of what sort of beauty to seek in worship, and whether a truly ‘spiritual worship’ can afford to make much of beauty that is visible, audible, sensory, palpable.” Contemporary American worshipers have “tended to be suspicious of richly sensuous or elaborate worship ceremonies of overtly beautiful or ornate buildings, which they have often judged to be ostentatious, wasteful, or superficial.”
As a result, many churches today, according to Mark Torgerson in An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today, “are eschewing any concern for beauty,” often due to a well-intended but ultimately short-sighted understanding of financial stewardship. “While it is certainly responsible to prioritize financial resources for public ministry, it is naïve to believe that the visible presence of a church does not express a particular understanding of God and communicate the priorities of a community. . . . Beauty enhances the world for all people, both those inside and those outside Christian communities.”
Indeed, we elevate the utilitarian over the aesthetic in worship at the risk of emotional and intellectual harm. The late Robert Webber, for many years a Worship Leader columnist, puts forth the following in his prophetic social commentary, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World: “Beauty, whether it is that of an individual, a place, a landscape, or an environment, has the power to communicate a sense of well-being. Beauty is the eyesight of insight.” (Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.)
In an often ugly-beyond-measure world (I am writing this article a few weeks after the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.), Webber’s words carry profound meaning: “Beautiful space can speak of order, stability, and the absolute in a society of chaos and relativity, and bring quietness and peace to the inner person.” If Webber is correct—and I believe he is—then worship leaders ought to take Torgerson’s advice and “be particularly careful about cultivating the theological connection between God and beauty.” Much has already been written on this subject, and space does not allow for a thorough examination here, but let me offer three places where we might begin fostering beauty in worship.
Cultivate Beauty Intentionally
If beauty is so important, why don’t more worship leaders make its pursuit a higher priority? Perhaps because gleaning an appreciation of beauty demands focused and intentional effort, Andy Crouch opines in “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?”—an essay in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (W. David O. Taylor, ed.). Exegeting the creation narrative in Genesis 2:9, Crouch recounts God’s making every tree “pleasant to the sight” in addition to a source of nourishment. “The trees of the garden are not just good for something. They are good simply in the beholding. They are beautiful. . . .
“God has located the garden in a place where the natural explorations of its human cultivators will bring them into contact with substances that will invite the creation of beauty.” But that cultivation takes some effort, for these substances are hidden initially. . . .
“They are latent—lying below the surface of the very good world. Only by exploration and excavation will they be discovered. . . . God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored—where more goodness waits to be unearthed. The world is even better than it appears.”
When the world’s news at every turn suggests God is unresponsive, at best, or dead, at worst, our congregations need to be reminded the world is “better than it appears.” If David asked only one thing of God, to dwell in God’s house forever in order to “behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), we can certainly add cultivating an understanding of beauty to our weekly to-do list. (Need a place to start? Along with the works above, consider Jeremy Begbie’s Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, Rory Noland’s The Worshiping Artist, and Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Volume IV of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship.)
More on beauty in worship next week, Lord willing. The Lord be with you!