Art Appreciation in the Church: Two Approaches

In a symposium considering ‘art appreciation’, it seems appropriate to consider its definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘appreciation’ involves ‘[t]he action of estimating qualities or things’, a ‘sympathetic recognition of excellence’, and ‘[p]erception, recognition, [and] intelligent notice.’  So within the definition of art appreciation is the ability to discern and understand quality art. I want to contend that art appreciation extends beyond what we ‘naturally’ like or dislike, and that it stems from something developed, either consciously or unconsciously.

In this post, I want to explore two ways art appreciation is developed – through education and through association/repeated exposure. I then want to apply these two means of development to a church context.

Art appreciation through education is perhaps the more common way by which we come to appreciate a work of art.  In my own experience, I have observed that as my understanding of a work of art, an artist, or a time period increases, it changes the way I view a work of art. Education provides a context, a lens if you will, by which I can study, interpret, and appreciate the work of art before me. In some instances, education can completely change my ‘appreciation’ of a particular work of art. Works that I didn’t understand before become interesting and perhaps even brilliant when I understand the context within which they were created. Additionally, art training and exposure to elements of design such a line, form, and colour add another dimension that adds to one’s appreciation of works of art. Because I understand and have experienced the struggle and time it takes to develop one’s skill in the arts, I can look at a work of art and appreciate the technique I see displayed.

When applied to the church, there are very clear ways that education can be used to help congregants appreciate works of art. I grew up in a church that had a thriving arts ministry, and this ministry was intentional in helping to develop the art appreciation of its members. One of the ways this was done was through education. In addition to occasional lectures, a class titled ‘What Christians Need to Know about Art’ was regularly offered. The class was for artists and ‘non’-artists alike with the aim of learning about the role God has for the arts in the church and how to implement the arts within church life. This class was key in cultivating a sense of art appreciation within the congregation – the artists learned to appreciate how their gifts fit into church life while the congregation learned to appreciate art more generally as well as the gifts of the artists in their community.

While it seems self-evident that education is a valuable means of developing an appreciation for the arts, I want to explore a second approach. Art appreciation also develops through repeated exposure to works of art. Repeated exposure weaves art into the fabric of our lives almost to the extent that we don’t even notice that it is there, but yet we couldn’t imagine our lives without it. While education happens in the structure of a classroom, exposure is a less structured, though often still intentional, way of developing one’s appreciation for the arts.  Let’s apply this second approach by considering a particular example.

St James Leith is a Scottish Episcopal Church based in Edinburgh. For them, the arts play a foundational role in the worship of their congregation. The arts are so valued here that the church has relocated their worship space to the church hall and reordered the interior to create a space that can easily be visually altered. For example, mounted panels are regularly re-painted by the congregation in line with a theme based on the liturgical season. The congregation then worships within their creation each week. What’s interesting to note is that through this repeated exposure, a by-product has been the development of an appreciation for art and the aesthetic within the congregation.

If art appreciation is important in the church, thought needs to be given to how this is best done. Education is a viable option and one that more churches could give their time to. However, without exposure and experience, how far can education really extend? How, as a church community, can we create an environment where the arts and the aesthetic seep into people’s experience, and thus create a place where the arts become a part of who we are rather than just what we do?

Image Credit: Carol Marples


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: Wesley Vander Lugt

    Thanks for offering two different way of thinking about art appreciation in the church. Do you think that these two could be combined, such a Sunday school class or a small group that talks and learns about art but also visits galleries, exhibits, performances, and installations?

    Of course, there would have to be interest in being involved in this sort of thing, and part of the problem that I have encountered is that people see art appreciation as an extra, “luxury” thing on the periphery of discipleship. In order to garner interest, therefore, it would be important to show how art appreciation is at the core of what it means to be a Christian in the contemporary world and is not just for the elite.

    1. says: Sara Schumacher

      Thanks for your comment, Wes! Sure – I think that the two approaches could be combined. I didn’t mean to insinuate that they were mutually exclusive and I actually think that the synergy from the combined approaches leads to deeper appreciation. In the scenario you offered, I would question whether what you’ve posited is actually exposure or just a different kind of education, especially since the art visits are all to places outside of the church environment. When I spoke of exposure and why I used the example of St James is because the congregation was repeated exposed to art in their worshipping environment.

      And yes, interest and recognition of importance would sit at the foundation of art appreciation.

      1. says: Dave

        While I was one of the artistic advisors to a theatre group in my faith community for several years, I used a combination appraoch. I taught acting theory and stagecraft on a regular basis, and eventually moved into teaching how theatre acts a lens through which we see our faith…and introductory theo-dramatic of sorts. I also found that many members of the group were heavily immersed in the theatre of the church world, but had no consistent exposure to really good theatre outside of the church realm. Thus, I began to regularly arrange group attendance to shows in the area to expose them to good theatre of different varieties.

        1. says: Sara Schumacher

          Thanks, Dave, for sharing your experience. Do you think that art appreciation increased in your congregation?

  2. says: Jo-Anna Axell

    Dear Sarah!
    Thank you for the symposium. We are just about to have a Music service in my church.. I never heard of it before, nor heard teachings about it. It is not supposed to be a sermon but close to it and I was looking for some extra points, what you are saying is true, and feels natural. I hope we as a church can get there, though it takes devoted members for it. Im happy to have this music service sunday, maybe thats a start!
    love to you my friend! Hope all is well.

    1. says: Sara Schumacher

      Great to hear from you, Jo-Anna! I hope that your music service goes well, and I’m glad to hear that this post was helpful for you. I’d love to hear how the music service goes!

  3. says: Phill

    Your church/art experience is not the norm for most christians, including myself. To read of such situations where art (more than just music) and worship co-exist is merely a dream. Art has impacted and influenced my life and worship through exposure and education, however, its difficult to translate this into church life.
    Thanks for your post it was inspirational to read.


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