Vancouver church offers artistic illustrations with sermon

By Kay Richardson, Columbian staff writer

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The mention of a multimedia worship service these days might evoke images of a young preacher in jeans and Chuck Taylors, a backup rock band, high definition video and special effects lighting. But on a recent fall Sunday morning at Vancouver First Presbyterian Church, a very different scenario took place.

Rev. Josh Rowley, 45, stood before his congregation donned in typical liturgical vestment, Bible in hand, backed by a green-robed chancel choir, and a set of metaphors from the Book of James to share.

As he began his delivery, the congregation shifted their gaze to a figure moving before a large butcher paper-covered board. Jeffrey Thompson, 31, Rowley’s co-preacher that morning, began sweeping the surface with brown and blue painted shapes.

As Rowley counselled his flock on the power of the tongue to either bless or curse, vibrant red-orange licks of fire emerged from Thompson’s brush.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire,” Rowley stated, “and the tongue is a fire.” Thompson worked quickly, applying strokes to the surface, sometimes using two brushes simultaneously.

Eventually, by the end of the sermon, his interpretation of the passage was plain to see: A figure spewing flames that wrapped themselves around the mast of a struggling ship.

Rowley said he could not claim this preaching method himself. He said he’d seen it before when visiting other states, done with other media.

“This is the fourth time we’ve tried it. Two of the three times before it worked pretty well,” he said, laughing.

“Different people learn differently,” Rowley said. “Some through listening, others through seeing. So the more multisensory the church can be, the more likely we are to teach effectively.”

“Sometimes, it is a literal interpretation of the text and basically what you hear in the story is being illustrated, and other times it’s more symbolic, the artist drawing and reflecting the meaning of the text,” Rowley said.

For Thompson, an art teacher for Hough and Truman Elementary Schools, the idea of co-preaching was a perfect pairing for his passion for art with his faith.

“It taps into my love for art,” Thompson said. “Art has always been a personal passion and love of mine. It feeds my soul; it’s not just a hobby to fill the time. I can’t really envision my life without it. So knowing that about me, Josh said, ‘I have an idea…'”

Rowley said First Presbyterian has a long, great appreciation of the arts, especially with music, but also with visual arts.

The interior of the church holds prints by inspirational Chinese artist He Qi and a color burst tapestry wonder by Vancouver stitchery artist Eleanor Van De Water among other works by congregation members.

“This new preaching technique shows their appreciation, belief and conviction that art is a gift from God.”

Thompson receives the Sunday Bible passage from Rowley in advance, then he meditates on it. “I’ll read the passage, and from there the idea will come to me. I really attribute that to the working of the Spirit. I pray for the image to come, then I sketch it out.”

The technique has been well-received.

Mari Chopp, 19, a student at Western Washington University, grew up at First Presbyterian. “I’ve done art my whole life, so it’s really cool to see someone in this setting doing art,” she said. “It helps my mind to not wander off. I think it reinforces the message quite beautifully.”

“To me, it shows that God gives all of us great gifts, and that if we can use them in worship because some of us are very visual, it helps bring the story alive,” said longtime member Wilma Doane, 83. “If some of us aren’t sure where he’s going with his picture, it gives you something to anticipate.”

Matthew Young, 48, is a world history teacher at Heritage High School and has attended First Presbyterian for several years. “There may be a lot of people who get a lot more out of it that way than simply the spoken word and vice versa. Art is such a powerful thing and using arts as a vehicle for them to understand a concept — you could see the enthusiasm.”

When the service was over, Thompson enjoyed the positive remarks from members. “It makes me happy, because I feel like it must have enhanced everyone’s worship experience in a major way. If I can do that, then I feel like I’m using this gift to its fullest effect.”