Beauty n. state of being pleasing to the senses • Liturgy n. work of the people
by Dr. Kevin D. Washburn
I grew up in an ugly church. A former dairy plant had been converted via 1970’s “wood” paneling, Kermit-green carpeting, and fluorescent lights in a tiled dropped ceiling. Blonde wooden pews, no padding, completed the sanctuary. It always gave me the feeling that the walls and ceiling were moving, threatening to crush anything between them. The church believed in “saving money” on facilities to send more of it to missionaries. (At least that’s how acceptance of an unsightly meeting space was justified.)
The sanctuary at the high school I attended was a contrasting experience. Arched ceilings, a massive stained glass window at the front, and stained glass lighting throughout created a sense of awe. I remember saying “Wow!” the first time I stepped inside. It was my favorite place in school, especially in the afternoon, lights off, sun streaming through the front. Leave me there with the grand piano, and I was in heaven—almost literally as it felt like God was near.
Beauty elicits a response. It may not always be “Wow!” but something stirs inside of us. And the response may not always be “positive.” I recently visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. It’s beautiful, but I felt like I had been punched in the gut during my visit. Beauty elicits a response.
The most studied sense in our perception of beauty is sight. Scientists discovered that about 90% of our brain’s subconscious processing system is dedicated to making sense of what we see. And it begins its interpretation within 13 milliseconds. (For comparison, processing each word you read here takes about 400 milliseconds.) When the mind perceives beauty, we are more willing to invest—not just money, but time, energy, attention—any of the resources we have to give.
What does this mean for worship? Beauty elicits response. Our visual surroundings can influence our willingness to invest time, energy, and focus in worship. The quality of our auditory experience can move us to think, to feel, to respond. The acceptance and care of those around us can attract us to new connections. The more encompassed we are by beauty, the more our minds are primed for response.
Scientists are still searching for a “beauty center” in the brain. Is it something we all process in the same neural regions? or is it something we process in disparate cerebral places—more like beauty networks? We don’t know (yet). What we do know is that beauty matters, especially when a response is desired. Creating beauty is an act of worship; experiencing beauty is an invitation to it.