Sunday, February 17, 2013


Protestant Churches are, by and large, visually bland.

I've seen some beautiful woodworking in churches, and some lovely architecture, perhaps there's a cross at the front, or some carvings on the pulpit or lectern. But by and large, the walls are pretty bare. There's nothing to look at, the average Mainline Protestant worship service uses exactly one sense: Hearing.

Churches, however, used to be filled with images, some still are. I had the opportunity to visit Holy Apostles Orthodox Church for a wedding a few years ago, and I was absolutely struck by the beauty and fullness of their worship space. Each sense was engaged: hearing of the music, liturgy, and reading and proclamation of the Word; the smells of their incense; the touch of the think carpet on which we stood, and at times sat; the taste of the bread they shared with their visitors as an expression of hospitality; It was one of the most significant worship experiences of my life.

So why are they so different?

A few hundred years ago, someone took a look at the ten commandments, one of which (The first or second, depending on your tradition) says that you shall not make an image of any living thing. Some folks took this more literally than others, resulting in an iconoclasm, or a destruction of images. This happened a couple of times throughout church history, and was always done in the name of ending idolatrous practices.

It left our protestant churches with only the written or spoken word as an acceptable form of expression. This habit has not served us well.

Riding the back of the printing press, we pushed words to the forefront of culture, and the Protestant church has gotten really good at words over the years, championing literacy and poetry for the glory of God.

But we've forgotten that God also created our other senses, and gave us artistic abilities which God expects us to use to glorify God.

Perhaps it is time for a destruction of the idea that images are bad. Perhaps it's time to say demand more than hearing the word, perhaps we are entering a time of iconoclasm-clasm, when we adopt our ancient role as patrons of the arts, knowing that God is not captured in any medium, not even in the words we love so much, but portions of God can be revealed to all our senses: images, smells, textures, tastes, and yes, the sounds of music and the hearing of God's Word for us.


  1. Well done on your article! I completely agree. We sometimes make the joke of CANDLES in the Presbyterian Church. I think that comes from our need to smell the sulfur and feel the heat.

    We have little glimpses of those alternate senses when we see the Baptismal Fount with water inside to remind us of our Baptisms. We taste the body and blood. We physically come to the table. We literally bring and serve the implements to those who cannot make the walk over.

    Yet... How do we know when we've gone too far? How do we know when we've made worship into an ecstatic experience? How do we know the difference from worshiping God and "feeling" something.

    1. Great points Carol Marie!

      I think that line is different for every worshipping community. Obviously there's not a ratio or number of acceptable artistic expression, and each person will have a different opinion on how much is too much.

      I for one don't think that ecstatic worship is a necessarily bad thing. I've seen folks do it very earnestly. I think we've gone too far in the opposite direction and have limited what gifts are appropriate to offer to God.

      I think it's ok for us to try new things, and it's ok for us to fail at those things. It's less of a failure and more of a discernment process.

      We do have elements of iconography in our worship, such as the table and the baptismal font, even the Presbyterian Seal can be one. Perhaps we should be more open about our reverence for artistic expression and the engagement of all our senses.

      Thanks again for your comment!