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A Theological Basis for Excellence in Christian Media and Design

Over the course of the last two decades, many churches have used a WordArt announcement or packed too much information into an event advertisement with a variety of fonts. And while these may sufficiently communicate a message, my designer’s eye sees a problem that needs a solution. Even though we all know the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” most of us still make quick ‘cover value’ decisions, especially in a world dominated by design and media. I wonder how often great Gospel content has been left unnoticed due to unclear design?

So we should pursue beautiful design for our Gospel content for the sake of visibility. But we should also do so because our art often reflect our theology. In our songs, plays (performance arts), and in our media (visual and audio), our theology lies behind the art. For this reason, our art can reflect a poor application of our theology if we are not careful. Perhaps a bold statement, I know, but allow me to offer some justification for it.

As someone who is trained as both an artist/designer and a theologian, I hope to put forward some thoughts for reflection. First, I will argue that there is a legitimate theological basis which should cause us to strive for excellence and beauty in design in the Church and Christian ministries. And second, I will suggest that spending the effort, time and thoughtfulness to design with excellence is worth it because the Gospel compels us to communicate its message beautifully.

Theologically Driven Design

During the time of the Byzantine empire, churches were built in the shape of a cross with the altar at the centre of the crux. The theological symbolism was profound—it indicated that people could only come to worship God in the cross of Christ. Perhaps you’ve felt the awe of visiting an old cathedral, designed so that the viewer feels their smallness. The architecture intentionally lifts your gaze away from earthly things toward heavenly things (2 Corinthians 4:18). This impetus for theologically-driven design of sacred space is not without its Biblical parallels.

Moses put Bezalel and Oholiab, along with other skilled persons, in charge of constructing the sanctuary for the Tabernacle. Furthermore, God said that He had filled Bezalel with the Spirit which enabled him to devise artistic designs in precious materials and crafts (see Exodus 36:1-4). Likewise, Solomon had the Temple built with skillful excellence, to ornament the Lord’s house (see 1 Chronicles 22 & 28 and 2 Chronicles 3-4; cf. 1 Kings 6-7). These gifts of creativity in the arts and design were given by God for use in worship to glorify Him.

Our Lord is an artist, and He created the heavens to tell something of His glory. He didn’t just make them functional—to provide light and solar energy—but He also made them beautiful to reflect His beauty (Psalm 19:1). Moreover, a large portion of the Bible was written not merely to communicate raw facts, but in poetic or linguistically creative ways. We believe in the inspiration of Scripture, and part of that which was God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17) was also the creative and beautiful design of its composition, which utilized the skills and talents of the human authors. Clearly, there is a right place and Biblical motivation for excellence in aesthetics and design to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

When we as Christians stop at just mere functionality—saying, “well, once all the information is on the flyer, it’s good enough”—we’re stopping too short.

Moving Beyond Utilitarianism

In many churches, there can be a temptation toward just doing what gets the job done with the least amount of time and resources. But as we can see from the previous Biblical examples, the focus was not just utilitarian but also aesthetic. The beauty and grandeur of the design of the Tabernacle, Temple, and Byzantine churches were intended to communicate something important about God, the faith, and our place it in. Their architecture and furnishings were meant to convey a sense of awe, reverence and, worth of the God to whom these sanctuaries were built. And, while I recognize that we’ve moved from the ‘come and see’ motif of the Old Testament Temple to the ‘go and tell’ motif of the New Testament, the message we are to go and tell is unmistakably beautiful as well!

In the modern world, films use orchestral scores and choirs to awe us with a sense of epic grandeur; weddings use music, decorations, and eloquence to convey the importance of the ceremony; and we build sculpted monuments as historic memorials to honour important events of the past. The arts add something to our experience of the sacred that mere utilitarianism cannot. Excellence in aesthetics help to communicate the weight of the occasion, and what more weighty occasion is there than the worship of our Triune God?

Beauty and the Desire for Transcendence

It is a deep cry of the soul to be enraptured by beauty—to behold, bask and become a part of it. And we are attracted to that which is delightful to the senses because it communicates something transcendent. I believe this is the heart of what David was expressing in Psalm 27:4:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

Thus, the way we design the aesthetic elements of our worship, our sacred spaces, our church flyers and announcements, our Christian videos, social media posts, and a host of other design-related applications, should also reflect the Gospel of the God who is resplendent in beauty. Not so that they would be ends in themselves, but rather that they would point rightly to the true beauty which is transcendent.

C.S. Lewis rightly notes that the books or music which we thought the beauty was in, were only the means through which it came to us. They illustrate what we really desire and long for; they are not the thing itself. They are only “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” In many ways, the arts intuitively communicate the transcendence and splendour that we yearn for more successfully than any other method. They also make us anticipate our eschatological hope, which will be the consummation of all of our longings for beauty.

A Challenge to Us

Why then have we so often missed the opportunity to design with excellence as Christians? I think John Piper rightly critiques the lack of encouragement for the development of the arts in the evangelical church because

we are (rightly) a goal-oriented pragmatic people who are bent on being efficient in the spread of the gospel. The production of art is not efficient—so it feels superfluous to us. There seem to be so many more urgent things in life than creating art. We don’t believe that these kinds of [artistic] affectional experiences are essential to a God-exalting life.[1]

Some things can be communicated by mere logic and reason. However, the truth about our God and the Gospel are so grand that propositional facts alone will not suffice. We must employ metaphors, images, symbols, art, music, and design so that the truth can be said beautifully. So, the challenge for our churches and ministries is to endeavour to reflect deeply on our theology and strive (responsibly within our means and budgets) for excellence in our design, arts, and media. We must also value and seek the contribution of those the Lord has gifted artistically in order to communicate the Gospel truth in a clear and beautiful way—because we all need a sense of His transcendent glory!