As he led worship for Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church on Sunday, June, 21, James K.A. Smith strolled past colorful but arresting murals in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich.
Created by a number of artists, the murals were painted on large pieces of plywood covering storefront windows that had been broken during a riot in Grand Rapids. The violence had developed after a peaceful, quiet Black Lives Matter protest took place in the area on the evening of May 31.
Some of the murals included the image of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who had been killed on Memorial Day, May 25, after a police officer pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes. Images of Floyd show a man with a firm chin whose eyes seem to pierce into the soul of those who view them. Since his death, Floyd has become an international symbol for protests and other efforts seeking racial justice.
Other murals depict multicolored scenes of flowers and vines, harkening to the life and growth that springs from the earth at this time of year. Another showed a black mother telling her daughter, “You matter.”
“When we come to worship, we place our concerns and burdens before God. We bring our whole selves into worship,” said Smith, who is a professor of philosophy at Calvin University. “On that Sunday, leading worship amid those images brought the burdens of our city and nation into our worship. It was a way to remember that we worship for the sake of the world.”
The murals can be seen up and down Monroe Center in downtown Grand Rapids and include messages that range from “All we need is love” and “I can’t breathe” to “Silence is the voice of oppression” and “Emerge with us and fight for justice every day.”
The backdrop of the murals was striking, but Smith simply used them as a backdrop. He didn’t reflect on them or discuss them in any explicit way during worship.
“They were there as the background — and helped to tell a larger story” — that of the sin of racism that affects our society, said Smith. As he led the congregation through their opening words from the Belhar Confession, which declares that God “stands with the wronged,” he stood in front of a statue of Rosa Parks. When he led the time of confession, a “LOVE” sculpture was the backdrop.
Although he has helped to coordinate worship and has written about ways to make worship both holy and relevant, Smith said he had not previously turned to using the world outside the sanctuary in a way like this during a worship service. But with worship being filmed remotely during the pandemic, he saw a unique opportunity to bring the world into worship.
And he isn’t the only one. Pastor Steve Dozeman, of Talbot Street Church in London, ON, has used this time to record his sermons sitting in a park, in the city center, and even a graveyard. And like many churches Talbot Street also incorporated households as part of the worship leadership including young and old alike.
Smith noted that taking worship outside the sanctuary could add a welcome dimension for churches looking to combine the world and its concerns with traditional worship, either inside a church or online.
Behind the move to take worship into the streets of Grand Rapids, he said, is the belief that the border between the church and the world is porous. These are not separate entities, each living in its own realm. Both are intertwined; neither can serve its true purpose without the other, he said.
“There should not be boundaries between the church and the world,” said Smith. “It is important to bring the world — all of who we are — into worship.”
Using the murals in worship, he added, gave him a chance to take the worship beyond words, to infuse meaning into the service through art. The murals, by being so visually evocative, told a story of their own.
“This was an opportunity for us to remember that . . . through art you can create teachable moments” as you link the world and worship, said Smith.
Especially now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and churches are using online services to connect with people, bringing art and including other creative elements into worship can help to remind us that we don’t leave our emotions, thoughts, and concerns at the door when we worship. In essence, the use of art and other images can touch us deeply and help connect us to God, the creator of us all.
“In using the video of the murals, I was able to show something I couldn’t easily do in a normal worship service on Sunday,” said Smith. “I was intentionally using the video format to theologize about something that would be harder to do in person on Sunday.”
Cory Willson, associate professor of missiology and missional ministry at Calvin Theological Seminary, said he has always been drawn to Smith’s idea that we should bring all of ourselves into worship.
Simply praying the prayers and singing the songs and listening to the sermon can take us only so far. Especially in this time of online services, we need new practices to elicit in us feelings of connection with God and with other Christians.
Willson said that watching the Sherman Street service with the tour of downtown murals got at something deeper for him. Something about the context of viewing the murals and thinking about what they represent, he said, resonated with him.
“I thought of [the horror of people] being lynched. I thought of the ongoing cry for racial justice. . . . Smith framed the issue [of seeking God’s justice] and reminded me that God wants to speak to us through art,” said Willson.
Willson has authored a book, Work and Worship: Reclaiming Our Labor and Liturgy, that is coming out later this year. In the book, he lays out the case for making sure we integrate our work lives — the things we do throughout the week after worship on Sunday — with the worship that goes on during the Sunday service. Willson also presented a webinar on Work and Worship for Worship Ministries which is available on the Network along with links to additional resources available from Reformed Worship.
“Work is where we spend much of our time,” Willson added. “This is where many of us use our gifts.” The Sunday liturgy should be the place where we bring all of ourselves — all of those gifts and experiences — before God and place all of our burdens on God’s altar.
“In liturgy, we need to hear the voice of others. It can help us see and deal with the pain in the lives around us. . . .Liturgy can be a place where we find hope. It can be something that empowers us and reminds us that we are part of the priesthood of all believers.”
In other words, each of us is a priest with special gifts to bring before God. So instead of the liturgy being a stand-alone place where we go for comfort, it can be where we go — as Smith did as he walked among the murals — to find the link between our lives outside church and God.
And, given the challenges that come with holding services during the pandemic, it can be a place that helps bridge the wider world with God, who meets us when we show up, often via our computer screens these days.
In an interview after he led the service among the murals, Smith said the church is at an opportune time to incorporate new practices in liturgy.
“We ought to be reminded that God is always with us — and reminded that we are part of a much larger story — the Christian narrative,” said Smith, that teaches us that everything in the world is sacred.
“We need to be reminded that God is always within life itself and that we are invited to live in God’s story. We take that story into worship and then take it with us when we return as ambassadors [for God’s justice] . . . back into the world.”
Joyce Borger, Director of Worship Ministries, agrees.
“COVID-19 has given the church a unique opportunity to think deeply about what worship ought to look like in our unique context and how it is integral to faith formation and missional living. While the underlying elements of our worship including the preaching of the gospel haven’t changed the method of presenting them can and ought to,” she said. “This in turn may impact decisions regarding our staffing and resourcing going forward. Worship today cannot look like it did in July 2019.”