By Elizabeth Campbell-Maleke

The Rev. Dr. Amy Parker created this work as part of Village Chapel Presbyterian’s “Stations of the Cross” exhibit earlier this year. It represents Station IX: Crucified.

I recently read an article from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership that suggested that rather than complaining about how other activities creep in and interrupt Sunday morning worship schedules, we need to make sure that what we are doing in the life of our churches and faith communities is so meaningful and appealing that people who come to worship, looking for their spiritual hunger and longings to be stoked, as well as challenged and filled, have just that take place. The worst thing that can happen is people come to church and get bored!

But how do we do this, we good Presbyterians might ask? What are some potential ways we might enhance the experience of worship in the life of our church – especially if we are perhaps part of a smaller congregation, which is true for most of us in the presbytery, and to keep things fresh and new might feel a little overwhelming or even, dare I say it, impossible?

Maybe, rather than fear or fret, we might choose to create!

This is what I learned after talking with the Rev. Dr. Amy Parker, who serves as the Minister of Education and the Arts at Village Chapel Presbyterian Church in Charleston. She has always been artsy. Interested in drawing and painting, she taught herself how to create and saw how creating art was a gift she had to contribute in various jobs she held, as well as within the ministry of a congregation.

Because of this interest, after learning that there was a Doctoral Ministry program in the intersection of Theology & the Arts at Wesley Theological Seminary, Amy dived in, ready to experience and learn more about this intersection that she loves and regularly puts into practice in her ministry. It was while a student at Wesley and in the implementation of her final project, that Amy was able to define more fully why it can be so spiritually enriching to integrate the arts more fully into worship.

Here, she delved into the following theological foundations, as proposed by Jean Calvin (the first four come from his Psalter):

  • That incorporating the arts in worship is biblically-based!
  • That the arts invite everyone’s participation and so invites the whole congregation to participate more wholly in the experience of worship.
  • That art in worship invites us to engage our contemporary culture and experience (in other words, our vernacular)
  • That, at its best, art can bring a clarifying simplicity to our worship.
  • Being true to the reformer’s concerns, specifically the way we might make our art into an idol, she avoids imagery of God.

I got to see these principles put into flesh when I visited the “Station of the Cross” exhibit held in Village Chapel’s sanctuary April 17-20, 2019. This exhibit was first initiated by Rev. Doug Minnerly in 2006, while he was serving at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charleston. I first heard about this year’s exhibit when Emma Rickard, one of the youth members of First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown, who is passionate and skilled in creating art, was invited to contribute a piece (pictured at right).

And so on Good Friday, without any worship commitments until the evening, Emma’s mother, Missy Rickard (an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Williamstown), and myself packed all our children – including Emma, then a high school junior; a 7th grader, two 5-year-olds and an 11-month-old baby – to the exhibit. Talk about welcoming an intergenerational group!

As we made our way to Charleston, Emma shared with me, “I am very excited to see my work at a real exhibit. This is the first time I have ever seen my artwork on display.” Missy was equally excited, both to support her daughter and also to visit something so spiritually enriching on Good Friday, one of the holy days in our church calendar.

As we entered the church, after visiting the bathroom and baby changing table, we all entered (a little noisily) into the beautiful sanctuary, filled with artwork and the wonderful, prayerful, singing music of the Community of Taize. Despite the vast age range of our group and, with willing hands to hold the baby as we made our way through the exhibit, we watched as eyes widened at each piece of art along the way. There was a vast array of art media incorporated: charcoal on handmade paper with a bench and Jewish prayer shawl, oil paint or acrylic on canvas, colored pencil, stained glass, Sculpey clay and bronze paint, photography and Amy’s piece that took on a special 3D quality, incorporating copper, twine, wax and wood.

One of the most meaningful pieces for the two adults in our group was the piece made out of clay and bronze paint, entitled “Mary Magdalene,” and created by artist Terry Parsons Hickernell. Incorporating a mirror, the grief in Mary’s face jumped back at you, inviting you to explore your own. The 5-year-olds enjoyed the closing installation, where you were invited to enter Jesus’ tomb. Good thing for cell phone flashlights, too!

“Helped By a Stranger” by Emma M. Rickard

After seeing her artwork for the eighth station, “Helped by a Stranger” (pictured at right), Emma reflected on how the words Amy wrote to describe her piece were so accurate. Amy managed to write what Emma was thinking, as she created. “She was right on!” Emma exclaimed.

In further reflecting about this with Amy, she said this was a gift she could share for the exhibit. In offering words for the artwork, people could see the wisdom and insights about God on display in the art before them.

And so, we who certainly know a thing or two about words in our Presbyterian tradition, might well heed Amy’s advice here. While words are so important, as we utilize more and more senses in our worship of God, sometimes this gives our words deeper meaning (we’ll get more of those “that is right on” moments!), and hopefully, we provide our faith communities with the opportunity to worship God with more and more of themselves.

Looking to incorporate more of the arts in your ministry? Something else that Village Chapel Presbyterian Church has done is specifically include more of the arts in their Bible School.

Everything will not fit everyone. Look to see what gifts of art you have within your own congregation. Sometimes, just bringing one image into the sanctuary can be so meaningful and a helpful starting point.   

The next artistic venture at Village Chapel will be an exhibit entitled “Joy to the World,” which will run from Dec. 1, 2019 through Jan. 6, 2020. Here, nativity stories will be presented through original artworks created by local artists.

Author’s note: I want to thank Amy Parker, Missy Rickard and Emma Rickard for participating in this interview.

Editor’s note: The article mentioned in the opening sentence is excerpted and condensed from “Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission,” which the Presbytery staff has read as a book study this year and is available, along with a free study guide and other resources, at the PC(USA) Store