Faith Formation and the Arts

Karen Matthias-Long

“In the beginning…God created…and God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1:1, 26)

Our synod is sponsoring a first -time ever “Celebrating our Faith through the Arts” event in April. It came about as a result of a retreat with our synod’s Faith Formation Resource Team. For years members of this team have led workshops on Christian basics and everything related to Christian education (teacher training, choosing curriculum, discipline, using a teacher’s manual, etc.). Our retreat leader – during one reflective time together – asked us to share our passions as we went around the room. I was surprised and delighted to learn some new things about my colleagues. Some of their passions included drama, art, music, and writing. If this is where our passions are, why not lead a workshop or have an event focusing specifically on faith formation and the arts?

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Throughout all time, human beings have expressed themselves through the arts. Music. Dance. Visual arts. Drama. Writing. Drawings were painted on cave walls. Dances were part of rituals around a campfire. Stories were told of great accomplishments and small. Music echoed through the halls of great cathedrals.

For me, the arts have been a way to encounter God and have, therefore,  played a significant part in my own spiritual formation. I have seen movies that have strengthened my faith;  heard music that sends me into a kind of spiritual realm; and, read books and poetry that make me think about my relationship with God.

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I have since convened a group of youth and adults to help plan the synod’s faith and arts event. The energy around the room is amazing. It has been awhile since I have been part of a planning group that is as enthusiastic as this group. Our goals for this event include introducing people to the idea of having an arts festival in their own congregation, sampling some of the art offerings, and providing an opportunity for the synod’s artists to network.

In addition to encouraging our congregations to sponsor an arts festival, what can we do – as resource center directors – to provide support for our artists? What can we do to encourage Sunday school teachers, Bible school teachers, worship planners and leaders and small groups to focus on the arts and faith when they gather together?

Here are some ideas. I am also including links to webpages that you may find helpful.


Music is already a large part of our faith experience. But, we can try new things to find connections between music and faith. How about going to a live concert to support musicians? Afterward consider these questions: Did the music stir you? In what ways? What do you think the musician/composer was trying to convey?  Listen to music from a culture other than your own and ask yourself the same questions. Share stories of your musical experiences. What song or hymn speaks to you most? What is it saying to you? What musical piece has given you goosebumps or has made you feel as though you were floating in the heavens?

Learn some chants and use them in a group or in private devotional time. Taizé chants are some of my favorites. Go to iTunes or Amazon and search for Taizé. Listen to some samples. It is possible to pick up the chant by listening to them on these sites.

Visual arts

Visual arts range from pottery and sculpting to painting and photography and more. Something to remember is that the art itself doesn’t have to have a specifically religious theme in order for observers to reflect on it and find a spiritual connection of some sort. Picasso’s art, for instance, isn’t very religious as perhaps as some of Rembrandt’s paintings.  But, we are more likely to draw others into faith conversations when we look at art that is rooted in real life experiences or expressions of color and form. I was reminded at a conference recently that young people are more likely to respond to “Guernica” and examine that disturbing work from a faith perspective than they are to respond to the blond haired, blue-eyed painting of Jesus. A conversation around art works may include these kinds of questions:  What does this work of art say about sin, evil, grace, love, hope, creation, redemption, salvation, humankind? What is the back story? What do we know of the artist and the circumstances in which he/she lived/lives? How does the work move you?

Encourage others to try their hand at creating some kind of artwork: make pottery, paint, take photographs. What if Sunday school teachers told their students (children or adults) to take photos during the week that show where God has been on the move? Or take photos sharing where have they seen examples of grace and forgiveness?

A member of our planning team is Margo Reed, a 10th grader, who is an avid photographer.  I asked her if she could choose some of her photographs that we could project on a wall during our closing worship for our synod arts event. Before the day was over, she had selected 36 of her own photos AND wrote a commentary about the pictures. I made a short video with her photos and added her text to each slide. Our whole team was blown away by her photos and commentary. This is an example of how the arts move our young people. It is for this reason that I share her photos in this link to the video “Create!” Sometimes young people – and adults as well – are able to express their faith more profoundly through pictures than through words.


In Kathleen Kline-Chesson’s article (see the link below), Kathleen points out that unlike Christians today, the Hebrews did not make a division between body and spirit. “Dancing before God was an experience of both revelation and response; an intense and vital expression of love, praise, thanksgiving, mystery, fear and even anger. Scripture records Miriam’s dance of thanksgiving before the Israelites as they were delivered at the Sea of Reeds (Exod. 15:20-21) and David’s dance of ecstasy before the ark (II Sam. 6:14) The Psalms, written to accompany acts of worship in the temple, offer many examples of dance and liturgical movement. To dance was to praise God with the fullest expression of joy. To kneel and bow down was to show reverence and obedience.”

Check out the links below to learn more about faith and dance:

St. Gregory of Nyssa – St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco offers a lot in the way of arts. In the sanctuary, there are paintings of dancing icons. They use “paperless” music and use instruments other than an organ from time to time. In this video clip (see 2:39) members of the congregation DANCE around the altar as part of the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

Community Choreography Projects – Artistic director Barrie Barton is doing something special with her “Community Choreography Projects.” Dancers and choreographers may glean some ideas from this website.

The Living Word: Dance as a Language of Faith – Kathleen Kline-Chesson provides some food for thought in this article on liturgical dance.


Last spring, I attended Princeton Theological Seminary’s Forum on Youth Ministry. One of the seminars I attended was called, “Beyond Bathrobes: Christian Drama and Storytelling,” led by Tom Long of “Friends of the Groom.” He and a colleague participated in the daily worship services at the forum, providing intensely moving sketches of various types. During the seminar, several of us volunteered to participate in some the sketches as he taught the seminar group. As a participant in one or two of those seminar sketches, I was just as moved as when I was a witness to the sketches presented in worship. Drama – whether it is plays, sketches, readings, or movies – can be a  powerful tool for helping people make connections between their life and faith.

Popular movies can also help us look at faith and life issues.  Watch movies and look for signs of grace and forgiveness or redemption and hope or other faith themes.  Sometimes interesting parallels can be drawn between movies and the biblical narrative. There are many good resources to find online to help leaders plan discussions around movies.

Here are a few links I recommend:

Friends of the Groom On this website, interested persons can order sketches and dramas or invite Tom Long and “Friends of the Groom” to lead workshops.  I highly recommend them!

(From IMAGE)  “The 2011 Arts and Faith Top 100 Films” – This is just one magazine’s list of “top 100″ films related to faith. See what you think. What films would you add? What films are surprises on this list?

Spirituality & Practice: Resources for Spiritual Journeys – Frederic and Mary Ann Brussart published “Cultural Information Service” in the 70s and 80s. Now they have a website where they comment on films and books and connect them with spiritual practices.

Hollywood Jesus – Hollywood Jesus reviews films and points out some possible religious themes in today’s popular movies.

Reel Spirituality: Faith, Film and Culture – This is a link on the Brehm Center webpage. Check out the blogs related to films and faith.

Written Word

Who hasn’t been stirred by a poem or a story? There are many ways to explore the written word in congregations. Some congregations, for instance, have book clubs. Members read on an agreed upon novel and then gather together to look at themes and meanings. What other ways can the written word be explored in congregations? Some of the same questions asked about art and drama can be asked about the written word. Where is God present in the story? Where are signs of grace, faith, hope, sin, redemption? How is this story like our own stories? Check out the following website for resources related to literature.

Spirituality & Practices: Resources for Spiritual Journeys – This particular page of the Spirituality & Practices website focuses on literature.

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In addition to the resources for each of the “arts” areas above (music, visual arts, drama, dance, and writing) the following resources relate to all of them:

The Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture -Notes from the website: “The Society’s purpose and program are based on the belief that the roles of the arts and religion are decisive. They reflect the struggle to conserve and to recover depth and wholeness, to reaffirm personal responsibility in the face of dehumanization, to define the ground for human freedom and creativity in a culture which tends increasingly to impose impersonal tyrannies over mind and spirit. Religion in isolation from the arts is starved of concrete embodiment of its insights into the fullness of human life. Art gives religion the eyes to see ourselves in all our dimensions, the ears to hear the voice of our inner lives and the instruments with which to communicate with each other. At the same time, the past suggests that the arts realize their potential most fully within that transcendent, unifying vision which is the heart of religion.”

Ruminate Magazine: Chewing on Life, Faith and Art – Ruminate is an award-winning quarterly literary arts print magazine engaging the Christian faith. Ruminate publishes poetry, short stories, photography, visual art reproductions, short fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, essays, reviews, and interviews.

Image – This link points to “Image” where interested persons can subscribe to the magazine and/or follow some of the art-related blogs. Image touches on all the arts.


Questions for you:

Is there an art expression that move you most? If so, what is it and why do you think that particular art form affects you as it does?

What resources do you have to share for those interested in exploring their faith and life through art?

What congregations in your area are sponsoring arts festivals? How do you lift up their work so that members of other congregations can experience them?