Friday morning, during a marathon altarscape brainstorming session (lots of new ideas are about to head your way!), it struck me that there might be a few things I’m taking for granted when talking about altarscapes. Many in churches consider the altar a scared space that is only appropriately revered when set with it’s requisite candles, cross, and Bible. Those are important symbols of our faith, but they aren’t the only symbols of our faith. In fact, some of the items in the church that we have assigned symbolic value now started from a place of functionality. Candles on the altar, for instance, were placed there in early churches because it was dark! The priests needed to see what they were doing and what they were reading!
Nonetheless, when beginning to use altarscapes in your worship you’ll no doubt come across a little resistance when moving these dearly loved symbols around (or, gasp, altogether removing them for a bit). With that in mind, here are few tips for altar design.
(1) Many symbols, the same story.
In my experience, church folk enjoy something new and, frankly, pretty to look at during worship. I think adding visual elements to worship keep can keep your congregation engaged. And if you work, like me, in churches that generally aren’t using projection or video aids, it’s important to find other ways to visually engage congregants. Inevitably someone will approach you and ask “where’s the cross?” When I’m asked that question here’s how I answer: “The cross will be back. It’s one symbol of the story of our faith. This is another way to tell the same story.” If it’s Christmas, I point to the nativity on the altar and add “this is the preface to the story.” Help your congregation realize that the cross, candles, Bible, etc are all symbols of our faith but they aren’t the symbols. There are lots of visual elements that point us to our faith and to Christ.
(2) Use what you have.
Go hunting. Churches have all sorts of closets and nooks and crannies that often hide great little bits of fabric, rocks, different crosses, and so on. There’s no need to buy lots of decorative items (do keep an eye out for coupons to Michael’s though–you never know when those will be handy!).
(3) Tell one story.
In seminary, a preaching professor told our class “preach one sermon.” He was referring, of course, to many preacher’s habits of trying to preach a text from too many angles at once. “Preach one sermon,” he said. “You’ll get to preach it again.” The same is true with altarscapes. Less is more. Pick one theme from one text and go with that. When piecing an altar together, I find that a design is most effective when there is a central focus. If you are a pastor putting together an altar for a sermon you are preaching, this is relatively easy to do. If you are putting together an altar for a sermon or service someone else is planning, this means you need to be sure to have a conversation with the preacher to discover what themes she is preaching on.
(4) Don’t just rely on scripture.
If you are just starting to toy with the notion of using altarscapes in your church, it’s often easier to create congregational buy-in if you do so on special days. Congregations, on the whole, tend to be more accepting of new things or of changes on days that are already special or set apart. The church, conveniently, has a whole calendar of these days: the church year! Days like the Baptism of the Lord, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and the Transfiguration all lend themselves to beautiful altars.
If you’ve been thinking about new ways to enliven your worship space, altar design is a great place to start. Using color, texture, and light, you can visually engage worshipers in new and varied ways.