Renewing Our Worship: Iconography, Part 3 of 3

Most elders and many preachers are of the analytical, left-brained type. They get all they need from a great lesson and fine song service. But they are not typical of their flock, and they aren’t adequately feeding their flock if they don’t sometimes break the mold and do something that responds to the legitimate needs of their more creative, more feeling members.

In this series, we’ve considered lots and lots of ways to bring variety to our worship and to respond to the needs of the more creative among us. I’d just add that we have to sometimes think in terms of our iconography — our symbols and visual communications.

Lots of adults, as well as most children, are visual learners. Use the talents God has given us to be visual at every opportunity.

Here are some additional ideas. And I’m not a creative, right-brained sort. I just try to pay attention to what others respond to and learn from it.

* First, do you remember that projector you need to buy to project words and music to your songs? Well, it also works to bring artistic imagery to your services.

During communion, project an image of the cross, or of the open tomb, or of the Last Supper. Or precede communion with a video from “The Passion of the Christ” or another movie showing what we are to remember.

Illustrate sermons with pictures, film clips (properly licensed), and paintings. I especially like the recent miniseries of Jesus that shows him laughing and enjoying people. Clips can be great for scripture readings or to illustrate a sermon or communion meditation.

During the song service, project the words over a picture that illustrate the song (only if the congregation already knows the harmonies).

If you have a solo, reinforce the song with images.

There are plenty of services that provide video and pictures via the internet for just these purposes.

* Second, put up a steeple and put a cross on it. It’s the universal symbol that Jesus is worshiped here. Why refuse to tell the world through symbol who we are? Why leave them wondering why we reject the cross?

* Third, whatever your church is focused on should be illustrated visually in the auditorium. If you’re about missions, hang flags from each country where you send a missionary or where a former member is now serving in missions or where you have members from. Surround the space with symbols of the nations God has connected us to.

Our teens are spending time preparing for a time of fasting to raise money for children who are starving. They are making a paperchain of 26,000 links to remind themselves of how many children die each day from starvation — and they’ll soon drape the auditorium with the chain. It’ll make a powerful point to us all.

Meanwhile, we have a large wooden cross on our stage that members have tacked envelopes to. Each envelope contains 10 names of people they will pray for this year, hoping these people will find Jesus. We did this last year, resulting in some very powerful testimonies of people coming to Jesus.

And in the foyer the college students have erected what they call a “wall of faith,” which is very beautifully done to illustrate our journey from doubt to deep, abiding faith.

Now, some of your efforts will bomb. Art is like that: experimental. Learn to enjoy the experiment.

* Fourth, do something to turn your worship area into something that looks Christian. Pews and a lectern aren’t enough. You can find those in courtrooms. Get rid of secular symbols (such as American flags (unless part of the mission thing)) and add something that’s distinctively Christian.

What that is and how elaborate it is depends on lots of things. A contemporary auditorium may need a lot of help to create the right feel. A traditional space with columns and woodwork may require very little extra.

As Winston Churchill once remarked, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Design and decorate your space with the result in mind. Ask yourself, what kind of congregation will this space shape? What lesson should our choice of decor teach?

The early church didn’t meet in church buildings. Rather, they generally met in synagogues and private homes.

First Century private homes, of course, wouldn’t have been elaborately decorated — but they’d be homes. The symbolism was manifest — they gathered around a family’s table to take the Lord’s Supper in a ceremony in which Jesus himself was mystically present. The home setting taught the church that they are family — with each other and with Jesus. It was surely very powerful.

Synagogues were filled with symbolic items. This is from the Wikipedia

Aron Kodesh covered by dark blue parochet with decorative, embroidered design.

Orthodox synagogues usually contain the following features:

The ark in a synagogue is positioned in such a way that those who face it, face towards Jerusalem. Thus, sanctuary seating plans in the Western world generally face east, while those east of Israel face west. Sanctuaries in Israel face towards Jerusalem. Occasionally synagogues face other directions for structural reasons; in such cases, some individuals might turn to face Jerusalem when standing for prayers, but the congregation as a whole does not.

The ark is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue, equivalent to the Holy of Holies. The ark is often closed with an ornate curtain, the parochet?????, which hangs outside or inside the ark doors.

  • A large, raised, reader’s platform called the bimah (????) by Ashkenazim and tebah by Sephardim, where the Torah scroll is read and from where the services are conducted in Sephardi synagogues.
  • A continually-lit lamp or lantern, usually electric, called the ner tamid (?? ????), the “Eternal Light,” used as a reminder of the western lamp of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, which remained miraculously lit always.
  • A candelabrum specifically lit during services commemorating the full Menorah.
  • A pulpit facing the congregation for the use of the rabbi, and a pulpit or amud???? (Hebrew for “post” or “column”) facing the Ark where the Hazzan stands while leading the prayer service.
  • A partition (mechitzah) dividing the men’s and women’s seating areas, or a separate women’s section located on a balcony.

A synagogue may be decorated with artwork, but in the Rabbinic and Orthodox tradition, three-dimensional sculptures and depictions of the human body are not allowed, as these are considered akin to idolatry.

Synagogue windows are sometimes curved at the top and squared at the bottom, recalling the popular depiction of the shape of the Tablets of Stone that held the Ten Commandments which Moses received from God at Mount Sinai. There is also a tradition to install twelve windows around the main sanctuary to recall the Twelve Tribes of Israel, underscoring the importance of unity and brotherhood as a result of the communal prayers.

Until the 19th century all synagogue interiors were laid out with both a spiritual and a communal focus. In an Ashkenazi synagogue, all seats faced the aron kodesh (Ark) in which the Torah scrolls were housed. In a Sephardi synagogue, seats were arranged around the perimeter of the sanctuary, but when the worshippers stood up to pray, everyone faced the Ark. The Torah was read on a reader’s table located in the exact center of each sanctuary, echoing the manner in which the Children of Israel stood around Mount Sinai when they received the Torah. The leader of the prayer service, the Hazzan, stood at his own lectern or table, facing the Ark.

A synagogue may be decorated with artwork, but in the Rabbinic and Orthodox tradition, three-dimensional sculptures and depictions of the human body are not allowed, as these are considered akin to idolatry.

The Jews have a rich tradition of symbolic teaching through their buildings, spaces, and decor, and these are the spaces the early church chose to use to worship God.

There’s no reason at all that we must worship in plain, utilitarian spaces. It’s really okay to let a little art in the room, a little symbolism, even a little poetry. God is quite okay with those things. After all, he invented them.

This is a Third Century synagogue in Capernaum, generally considered to be built following a First Century pattern. I bet it was a great place in which to worship God.

Does this mean the auditorium has to be expensively decorated, even opulent? No, a paperchain made by teenagers doesn’t cost much at all. The point is to think visually. And if the elders and ministers aren’t visually creative (few are), find someone to whom God gave the appropriate gifts and give them permission to use them.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Iconography, Part 3 of 3

  1. willohroots says:

    Very helpful! Thank you. Left brained can be wrong brained if it is exclusive. The white walls of our Puritan ancestors reflect a different culture and a rebellion against Rome.

  2. Matthew says:

    I think it is wise to know that people have different desires in Worship. Some want more fact and some want more emotions, there must be a balance to all of this.

  3. Jay Guin says:


    Agree — and the mix will vary from place to place. And I would encourage churches to balance needs through variety rather than doing the same blend every week. Even us left-brained types get bored, you know.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    Exactly. Nearly always a reactionary position is wrong. If we're trying to not be Catholics, we'll mess up. After all, they aren't wrong about everything!

    My preacher-brother-in-law said to his church, "I"m glad you've never noticed that the Baptists enter church through the doors. If you did, you'd all try to climb in here through the windows!"

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