By Debbonnaire Kovacs
During the time I have been Features Editor, I have been collecting stories of above-the-ordinary use of arts within Adventism, and I have decided to do a series on the stories I have now. If you or your church use the arts in an exciting way, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: this will likely not be a weekly series; there will be other stories and articles interspersed with it. But you will begin seeing at least one story on Sacred Arts per month, and when possible, those articles will include links to our Poetry & the Arts section for more photos, videos, etc. of the arts in question.
First, here’s a background on the subject from my own point of view.
I have always loved arts of all kinds: music, painting, drawing, sculpture, all the things we traditionally think of as artistic. Perhaps it was that interest that led me to realize while I was still quite young that lots of things we don’t think of as “artistic” actually are: cooking, childcare, teaching, designing everything from a room interior to a new piece of technology, homemaking, bridge-building…I came to believe by my 20s or so that everyone—every single person created in the image of a creative God—is artistic in some way. It’s a matter of finding that artistic expression and then dedicating it entirely to God for whatever use God chooses.
I didn’t begin to wonder—yet—at the relative paucity of arts in Adventist worship. In my youth, most sanctuaries displayed a nature scene and/or a painting of a head of Christ, and a bouquet of flowers. Most have always given some thought to lighting and color in decorating. That was about it. According to my memory (historians may correct me) it was around the time that we began to reclaim the centrality of grace, in the 70s and 80s, that some churches began using banners, at least with words like “peace” and “love” on them, often with borders, scrollwork, or imagery as well. We have always been big on music, of course (and on arguing which music or style is most or least worshipful). Choirs and individual musicians within the Adventist community regularly win world acclaim for their sacred music (though secular music can also be an act of devotion to God).
Late in the 90s, when I received in the mail one day a brochure advertising a “Sacred Arts Conference,” I experienced a literal, physical thrill I can’t describe. I had never heard or seen the words “sacred” and “arts” together, and they seemed to me to be a call to the epitome of holiness and worship. That particular church (First Friends Church of Akron, Ohio, and I’ll never know how or where they got my name) had a Sacred Arts Committee, whose mission, they said, was two-pronged: to “reclaim the place of arts in worship,” and to reach out to the artistically-minded within their congregation and outside it in ways they might embrace more fully than spoken sermons.
I went to the conference, which offered dozens of workshops in every conceivable form of art as worship, and came home more thrilled than ever. I wanted a Sacred Arts Committee in my own church! My success with this wish in the intervening 15 years or so has ranged from slight to nonexistent. For the past eight years, I’ve begun to attend a local multi-denominational church on Sundays as well as my Adventist church on Sabbaths, and I’ve learned an enormous amount about using all five senses in worship. Union Church doesn’t have a Sacred Arts Committee per se, but they do have a budget for arts, and the Worship Committee bends every effort to seeing to it that the visual experience of the church in candles, altar furnishings and so forth, the music, the sermon—every facet of the worship service—fits together around the Scriptures for that day. Their stated goal is to reach all kinds of people in ways that help those people experience the presence of God and follow that presence wherever God may lead in their lives all week.
Where are the arts in Adventist churches? They are still developing. Over time, besides all that is listed above, some churches have begun to use skits and dramas, though that remains controversial. Even more controversial is worship or liturgical dance, though I personally know nothing that is more likely to reduce me to tears of awe and I have seen this in Adventist churches occasionally.
Here is what I believe:
It is extremely likely that all forms of human arts from drawing to dance were originally intended for use in worship—true and false worship! The Bible clearly shows this. To use dance as one example, the priests of Baal danced themselves into a frenzy in a supposed attempt to reach their god, and so did the Israelites around the golden calf which may have represented the Egyptian goddess Hathor but certainly did not represent the true God who had rescued them from Egypt. On the other hand, the Psalms speak more than once about worshiping God in the dance, and in Judges 19:21ff, the story is told of the young women who danced in “the dances” for a “feast of the Lord.”
The sacrificial system set up by God used every single sense to reach the soul; sight, sound, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. The only officers were priests, Levites, and musicians, and the entire service was all about passionate, emotional turning from sin (in the sacrifice) and response to God (often in singing and/or prostrate prayer). I believe we have always been and are today called to a whole-body form of worship: in other words, to love God with all our hearts, souls, and strength, as well as with our minds, at which we Adventists already excel.
How do you worship God with your entire being? Let the conversation begin!