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Participants empowered to use art in worship

Jul 16, 2008
by Toya Richards Hill

LOUISVILLE –Mary Gaines, who has been involved in arts in the church for 40 years, said she came away from the 2008 Worship and the Arts Conference at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary “renewed” and energized.

“It’s almost a feeling of new life,” the 70-year-old Texas resident and retired minister said July 12, following a spirit-filled worship service that closed out the conference. “There’s just a fullness.”

Now, Gaines said she intends to take ideas learned at the conference back to the worship committee at the new church development in which she is active.

That type of experience is exactly what the designers of the July 9-12 conference were hoping for.

Sponsored by Louisville Seminary, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology and Worship, and the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture, the first annual event was a hands-on experience, incorporating all aspects of the arts in worship and dedicated to exploring creative approaches to worship planning and leadership.

“We pray that this will be a time of learning and growing together,” Rev. David Gambrell, the PC(USA)’s associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship, told the ecumenically diverse group, which hailed from across the country and even from abroad.

Worship leaders skilled in drama, music, visual arts, dance, and writing encouraged the 60 registered participants and 20 others, who attended portions of the conference, to actively use their creative gifts – executed through their physical bodies – in worship, and also to tap into the talents of those in their own congregations – or bodies of Christ.

“Our bodies are important for our faith,” said conference keynote speaker Rev. Mark A. Torgerson. Throughout scripture the body is celebrated, he said, highlighting the conference theme in his address, Celebrating the Body: Seeking Fullness in the Arts and Worship.

“Borders and Beyond” is the theme of the 2009 worship and the arts conference, also scheduled to take place at Louisville Seminary next July.

“Artists of faith are given natural talents … by God,” Torgerson said. “Their presence is necessary.”

The presence of artists and their diverse styles was a continual emphasis as the conference unfolded and participants learned unique ways of bringing together art and worship.

One worship service was conducted completely without words, which challenged those present to “pay attention and imagine,” said Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes, assistant professor of worship and preaching at Louisville Seminary and a conference organizer along with Gambrell.

A dancer opened the service, ushering in the Spirit as she moved up and down the main isle of the Seminary’s Caldwell Chapel. Silence engulfed the room, but the message was clear. At one point congregants were invited to gather at the baptismal font, where they each held onto blue and white netting coming from the font and weaved through the group like flowing water.

They chanted a harmonious sound; the netting was unwound, and they all embraced around the Water of Life.

“Our participation and movement replaced the need for words,” Lisa Hermann, a senior Master of Divinity student at Louisville Seminary, said following the service.

Worship such as this could “feel uncomfortable” for those who aren’t ready, said Carvalhaes. So “you have to prepare a congregation” by reading, talking about worship, and exploring why the church does what it does, he said.

Also, “people can learn by doing it,” said Carvalhaes, who is among the faculty at Louisville Seminary helping to shape the institution into a center for global worship understanding.

“Doing it” was a major component of the arts conference as participants attended workshops designed for more detailed training and experience and even developed an entire worship service, the conference finale, from scratch.

“It was a very engaging conference,” Carvalhaes said. “People truly participated.”

In a session on dance, led by dancer, choreographer, and writer Clare Byrne, attendees talked about their personal experiences with dance and were led in various movement exercises.

Catherine Crandell, a senior Master of Divinity student at Louisville Seminary, shared that when she first came to know the Christ, “I had a very strong urge to dance for the Lord.”

She did dance, but then stopped. Then one day Crandell said she heard God say, “Why don’t you dance for me anymore?” Attending the arts conference was “a divine opportunity.”

“It’s helped me to be more expressive in my worship,” she said. “It’s been very freeing.”

Torgerson, who has been working and teaching in the areas of theology, worship, and the arts for 15 years, encouraged conference participants to “embrace play,” which creates a sense of joy and release, among other things.

Is there a willingness to move beyond the comfortable and safe, he asked? “Can we expand the number of avenues through which we seek to know more about God?”

Torgerson also stressed that the intersection between the arts and worship is not a new one and is present throughout the scriptures. Literature, music, visual arts, and drama have “always been present in the celebration,” he said.

“The arts are no stranger to the church,” said Torgerson, the author of An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry in the Twentieth Century.

This conference helped people experience worship “in a more embodied way, … in a way that is less dependent on words and pays more attention to the sights and sounds and senses that are engaged in worship,” said Gambrell. “I hope that we have given participants ideas and resources for glorifying God through worship and for enjoying God’s presence.”

Hopefully, as the participants go back to their places of worship, they take the idea “that perhaps it can happen at home too,” Carvalhaes added. The desire is “that they would feel empowered.”

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