Detail of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

Protestant congregations often view preaching as the cornerstone of ministry. What we hear is the focus of our worship. If the sound is not coming from the pulpit, then we’re listening to the choir sing or instrumentalists play. Whether we prefer contemporary music or traditional hymns, we carefully plan worship services and hone our homiletical gifts for years to ensure that what people hear helps them cultivate an authentic relationship with God.

What might it mean for us to find ways to experience God through what we see?

In the earliest years of Christianity, Christian art was not widely embraced. The logic was that if people admired art, they might worship the created object rather than the Creator. By the third century, thanks to Christianity’s legalization by Constantine, more art began to appear in churches. Early artists used images to depict saints and Scripture.

In a world awash with images that tell us what to think and what to buy, perhaps the church needs to lean into the visual arts more than we have in the recent past. Just as we can sense the majesty of God as we stare at a snow-capped mountain, visual art is compelling because it inspires us.

In the painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” for example, Rembrandt helps us to see aspects of the story that we might miss in the text alone. We see the father’s hands on the son’s tattered clothes. We see the shoeless prodigal on his knees. If we look carefully, we can see the elder brother in the shadows. What we see evokes emotions that deepen our connection to the story. Clearly, there’s a place for the visual arts in ministry.


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Before you go…

I’ve heard people say they’d rather see a sermon than hear one. This usually refers to the need to practice what we preach. But it could apply to the significance of art, too.

I’m a preacher, so I confess that I’m biased toward engaging my faith through the word proclaimed. But what if visual art was not reserved as a tool for children’s ministry? What might happen if we gave people time to draw thoughts and ideas at the end of a Bible study? I can imagine that teenagers might especially appreciate the chance to express themselves through images. I, for one, love art and try to always keep meaningful images around me because sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

You can always reach me and the Alban Weekly team at Until next week, keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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