No congregation can claim to be Christian without faithfulness to the Word of God, because it is the pure Word of God that makes us Christians. God’s Word is the one thing needful, both for our preservation in the faith and for adding people to the Church. We see clearly in the book of Acts how necessary the Word is for the growth of the Church. Sometimes Luke writes of the Church’s increase in terms of people, as in Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Sometimes he writes of the Church’s increase in terms of God’s Word, as in Acts 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” And Luke wants us to connect the two, as in Acts 6:7, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” So again, the pure proclamation of the Word of God is the one thing necessary for the preservation and growth of the Church.
Yet we must admit that there is a difference between a Divine Service being held in an ornate cathedral, and a Divine Service being held in a sports bar. To be clear, the difference is not in the efficacy of God’s Word. God doesn’t need us to adorn his Word in order for his Word to accomplish his purpose. And yet the Word of God is the most beautiful treasure we have on earth. Shall we dress it in rags like a beggar just to prove that the efficacy of the Word does not rest in its outward adornment? Shall pastors look bored and speak in monotone to show that their excitement and rhetoric are not needful for the Church’s well-being? Shall we tear out our stained-glass windows, make our communion vessels out of plastic, and design our church buildings to look like movie theaters or lecture halls or YMCAs with steeples in our effort to make a clear confession of the power of God’s Word?
These things do not extol the Word but teach people to despise it, to think it common, and to be bored with it. Shall we not rather adorn God’s Word with the finest rhetoric because the Word is worthy of it? Should not the conduct of the service, and the order of the service itself, appear great and holy because the Word is great and holy? Should we not design church buildings to look as beautiful as heaven on earth, since the Divine Service is heaven on earth? The Word of God is the one thing needful for us Christians. And it’s because it’s the one thing needful that we desire to make it appear great and beautiful and wondrous.
This adornment of the Word serves outreach, even though it’s shameful to speak of beauty as utilitarian rather than as an end in itself. Nevertheless, beauty has its effects. When visitors see the greatness and beauty and wonder of our church buildings and services, they themselves will be brought to consider what it is we think is happening there. Beauty is not the Gospel; it won’t turn heathens into Christians. But it will call their eyes and ears and noses and bodies to consider why the Divine Service appears so important.
Now perhaps you’re wondering how one might beautify church buildings and services. “We don’t have the budget for constructing a cathedral with a marble altar and massive stained-glass windows,” someone might say. “We’re a poor little congregation.” That’s fine. One of the great things about beauty is that beauty is not dependent on money. As Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Mt. 6:28-29). The flowers that are free for the picking are more beautiful than the wealthiest man who ever lived. In the context of Matthew 6, Jesus uses this example to teach that there’s no need for us to be worried about our clothing. But by these words, Jesus also teaches us that real beauty is a free gift of God.
So how shall we show the Word of God to be beautiful? First, with the liturgy. The liturgy is an order of service that has been in use for centuries, parts of which the Church has sung and spoken for two millennia. I don’t appeal to it for its age (though heirlooms passed down to us by our fathers should not be hastily discarded), but rather because the liturgy highlights the beauty of the Word of God. We sing the Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy,” as if the Word of God himself is standing right there before us to receive our prayers—because he is! We sing the Gloria in Excelsis with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest,” as if we’re celebrating the incarnation of our Lord every Sunday—because we are! We stand for the Holy Gospel as if appearing before the throne of a great king to hear his proclamation. And that is exactly what’s happening.
We sing the Sanctus, the song the angels sing around the throne of God, “Holy, holy, holy,” because the Holy One of God deigns to dwell with us in the Sacrament of the Altar. We sing the Agnus Dei, praying to the Lamb of God, directing our eyes not up into the stratosphere or at the backs of our eyelids, but at the bread and wine which are Christ’s body and blood. We sing the Nunc Dimittis with Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” because, like Simeon, we have heard the Lord’s promise and seen the Lord’s salvation.
Second, let us adorn the Word of God with fine music. Heaven is a musical place (as it’s pictured in the book of Revelation), with the saints singing hymns and chanting antiphons back and forth. We rightly confess that when we sing on earth we’re joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. So, let’s sing hymns with excellent texts, and let’s sing them to excellent tunes, accompanied by a good choir and/or a good organist. If instrumental talent is lacking in a congregation, the Lord has still given us voices, and good a cappella singing is beautiful. That being said, our congregations should make every effort to purchase a fine instrument, and to provide for a cantor to oversee the music and singing. Congregations might also consider hiring someone to assess the acoustics of the sanctuary, not with the goal of putting up sound treatment to deaden the space, but with the goal of achieving a pleasant, natural reverberation. Congregations who are building or renovating sanctuaries have the advantage of constructing a hall to be beautifully reverberant.
Third, we should adorn our church buildings and services with tasteful decoration. At this point it’s worth mentioning that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but is objective. The undue popularity of Picasso’s paintings does not make them beautiful works of art. They are garish and unnatural. Perhaps a good rule of thumb for decorating a church building is to use natural things, such as wood, stone, woven fabric, silver, sunlight, flowers, and not artificial things, such as concrete, plastic, felt, or theater lights. Avoid projection screens at all costs (which should be easy since they’re expensive). Projection screens are eye sores, and demand to be the focal point of whatever room they’re in.
Purchase or make nice paraments for the altar, pulpit, and lectern. Damask has been the fabric of choice for paraments for some time because of its beauty. Make sure the pastor has vestments. Use candles on and around the altar. Get communion vessels that make the viewer think, “Wow, something important must be in there!” Pick up a nice crucifix for the altar. Most of our congregations already have these things, and if not, it’s worth saving up for them. On a somewhat larger scale, a congregation might consider installing stained-glass windows or hiring a good artist to paint a mural on a wall or part of the ceiling. And yet the fact remains that beauty doesn’t have to be expensive. A few nice pieces of fabric can go a long way in beautifying a sanctuary.
Fourth, pastors should show the beauty of God’s Word by speaking with good rhetoric. This does not mean tickling the ears with humorous anecdotes, making modern cultural references, or saying things for their shock value. Good rhetoric means forming the sermon into a cohesive whole, whose parts all belong, naturally flow from one into the other, and build on one another. Good rhetoric means making the point of the sermon clear without having to say, “This is the point of the sermon.” Good rhetoric uses delightful turns of phrase, fitting analogies, repetition, alliteration, leading questions, and a host of other devices. It varies sentence length, word order, and the tone, volume, and pace of the voice. Good rhetoric also involves making eye contact.
Good Christian rhetoric means drawing words and phrases from Scripture so that preaching does not flow from the poverty of man’s wit but from the richness of God’s Word. Christian rhetoric also means relating all things to the saving work of Christ in a natural way, not inserting the crucifixion into the sermon merely out of obligation, but because the argument of the sermon demands it. An easy way to enhance one’s rhetoric is to read sermons by the Church Fathers, such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, or Leo the Great. A pastor can also greatly improve his rhetoric by reading the sermons of Martin Luther or Johann Gerhard, who were trained in rhetoric and used it well in the service of proclaiming Christ Crucified.
There are likely other ways of making the beauty of God’s Word apparent to the senses, but these are the main areas on which to focus. Such adornment of sanctuaries, services, and sermons does not make the Word of God more effective. Such adornment merely shows the Word for what it is: our greatest and most beautiful treasure.