By Kelly Klages
As Lutheran Christians, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to using art in the church. You may have seen a wide variety of art forms in different churches you’ve encountered. But church art isn’t just a matter of style and personal preference. The way a church uses art communicates its beliefs. So whether your church is simply or ornately decorated, there are some common denominators in Lutheran art that paint a very distinctive picture of our faith.
Freedom to Use Art
We are free in Christ to adopt art forms that are beautiful, reverent and reflective of the truth of our faith. Lutherans aren’t iconoclastic (against pictures and statues), like some other Protestant churches. Paintings, statuary, wood carving, stained glass, and other kinds of art are welcomed in the church as a way of teaching the faith and beautifying our houses of worship. Because these things are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures, we are free to use them.
Art Confessing the Faith
The great, central teaching of the Lutheran faith is justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Lutheran church art (like its sermons) will be very concerned with communicating, above all, the importance of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of your sins. This is portrayed in many ways. For example, you should never be surprised to see a crucifix in a Lutheran church or home, because it is such a clear and direct picture of the reality of our salvation.
Art Highlighting the Word and Sacraments
Also, Lutherans teach that this Gospel, that Jesus himself, comes to us in concrete ways through God’s Word and sacraments. So in a church sanctuary, your eyes will be drawn front-and-center to where those means are delivered to us: the pulpit, the altar, and the baptismal font. Many churches decorate these objects in a spectacular fashion so there is no doubt that what happens there is of great importance. Even in churches with simpler decoration, these things are usually placed in such a way that they are the most prominent things that you see in church.
Art Teaching Us What Worship is About
No matter how simple or elaborate the sanctuary is, it will be obvious that it is a set-apart place for a holy purpose (the word “sanctuary” comes from “sanctus” meaning “holy”). Because we believe that in the Divine Service, we actually encounter God in the flesh through His Word and gifts, church is distinct from everything else that happens in our Monday-to-Saturday lives. So your standard Lutheran church will look deliberately different from an entertainment center, movie theater, rec room, lecture hall, etc. This is not where we go to merely get information about God and life, or to seek thrills. It is a unique and holy place where we get to actually encounter the God of the universe to receive His blessings.
What Art Isn’t
Art itself isn’t a means of grace or a mystical portal into another spiritual dimension. No veneration of weeping Madonnas or praying “through” icons will happen in a Lutheran church, and of course the art itself is not an object of worship. Nor is it proper to use the arts to manipulate emotions to the extent that the feeling of tugged heartstrings is mistaken for the Holy Spirit. We look only to God’s Word and His Sacraments to receive God’s grace and forgiveness. Manmade means, no matter how attractively packaged, have no power of this sort. Art forms may adorn the means of grace, but they should not compete with them.
Art Reminds Us the Church is Bigger Than We Are
Not all forms of art must be exactly the same in all places (e.g., using only one painting style to depict Christ and the saints), but may vary according to Christian freedom. However, Lutherans also recognize the catholicity (or universality) of the Christian faith. That is, rather than reinvent the wheel for every generation, we acknowledge that we are part of the church of all times and places. This means that we use the best, most Christ-honoring traditions that have been handed down to us, and we continue to share them with other churches throughout the world. For example, when you walk into any Lutheran church on Pentecost Sunday, odds are that everything will be decorated in red. At a different Lutheran church, you would probably also see many Christian symbols that you would recognize from the artwork at your own church. These are things that we hold in common from a long heritage together, and they help to communicate our unity. An emphasis on catholicity also means that the art forms used in church will seek to avoid a “dated” look that comes from mimicking pop culture trends. The artwork is more likely to be of a timeless quality that seeks to transcend one specific culture or era, since the body of Christ itself transcends one culture or era.
Artist is a Holy Calling
Another distinctive Lutheran teaching is that of vocation. Being an artist or craftsman is an honorable and God-pleasing calling when our neighbor is served by the good works that are done. As such, using art in the church is not categorically decried as a “waste of money.” Communicating truths about God through the arts, and doing it well, is a very important task for those creating church art. (And, of course, church art isn’t the only kind of artistic vocation honorable to God.) Doing art poorly can, perhaps inadvertently, communicate things about God or worship that aren’t true.
So, art isn’t an indifferent thing—it’s meant to tell you something. Next time your mind wanders at church, let your eyes rest on the art that you see, and ask yourself why it was put there. The answer is always the same—it’s meant to point your eyes, ears, and heart to Jesus.
Kelly Klages is a pastor’s wife and mother of three who currently lives in Morden, Manitoba. She is author of the books Water with the Word: A Baptism Q&A and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna: Illustrated Hymns for Children.