Merging art and worship

Published 11:29 am Thursday, April 4, 2019

During the March 24 service at First Christian Church, Laura Griffith, an artist and college student, and Rev. Dr. Jerry Johns delivered the sermon.

Bill McCann

Johns’s sermon was traditional: spoken words from the pulpit.

Griffith delivered hers in paints on canvas.

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With her back to the congregation and the canvas facing it, Griffith painted while the congregation worshipped.

While Johns, Maria Jackson, JoEllen Reed, Anne Baldwin, the choir and others led the service, Griffith painted.

As music was played and sung, as the children’s sermon, prayers, offering and communion were all celebrated, Griffith worked in shades of blues and yellows, reds and pinks and browns.

After the service, I went to see the painting up close and ask her a bit about her work.

An artist basically her “whole life,” she is now a student at Asbury University, where she first did a painting during chapel.

I told her I liked her painting. Sounding a bit apologetic Ms. Griffith said, “There was not a lot of time for detail.”

The biblical text that was the basis of the sermon was Luke 13: 1-9 (NET), in particular the parable of the fig tree. The sermon was “But Unless You Repent.”

I asked Johns some questions via email about the experience.

WS: Why have a worship artist to be part of the service?

Johns: Laura is one of our beloved church kids. Her mother sent me a link to an article that the Asbury Collegian did about Laura painting during worship.

I have seen this done a couple times before in a different way and I always felt like it brought an interesting dimension to worship.

So, wanting to support Laura came with an opportunity to stretch our imagination a bit in worship. Worship isn’t just about words.

WS: Did you or the elders or other members of the leadership have expectations of Laura and the artwork she would produce?

Johns: The only expectations we expressed were that her art be reflective in some way of the Gospel text for the day and that it be done in a way that was visually big enough for people to participate.

We left the interpretation up to her.

WS: Were you pleased with the art work she produced?

Johns: I was highly pleased with the experience of having her worship with us through her art. I was pleased that she did paint an interpretation of the Gospel text for the day.

The quality of the artwork was always going to be secondary to the experience itself, though I do think the piece of art she produced will be treasured by the church.

WS: Did you feel like the presence of an artist changed the worship experience? If so, how?

Johns: Two things were going on with Laura at the easel from the perspective of the worship attendees. She was doing something the whole time, and a piece of art was unfolding.

I love watching artists work; actors, potters, poets, painters, sculptors.

Seeing them work and what unfolds before them is the unveiling of a mystery and for those of us who have no talent, it can be awe-inspiring.

Then, there is that wondering about what she was painting. What is she doing? What will be next? Why did she choose that color? What is unfolding on the canvas? Mystery. Process. Journey. Fulfillment.

All while the rest of the normal service is going on.

I expected people to be attracted and distracted by the experience. In the responses I have heard that has certainly been true. It also caused me to write a sermon that unfolded more like a novel or narrative than usual. She started bringing out the shape of the tree about the time I mentioned the fig tree in my sermon.  

WS: Would you do this again? Why or why not?

Johns: I would be willing to have someone paint during worship again, yes. Because I think it disrupts our patterns and opens us to new insights in worship. I would also be open to a potter at a wheel, an actor playing out a scene, a sculptor bringing art to life. I am willing to experience such things because the story of the Gospel is in itself a drama that unfolds. Can we use art to help us experience that drama? Yes.

Bill McCann is a playwright, poet, flash fiction writer, and teacher who writes about arts events and personalities. Reach him at