Every Wednesday at Trinity, an intergenerational group uses the church’s art studio at the church to paint, sketch, play card games, and fellowship. I visit every now and then, sometimes joining in the fun or crafting a bulletin for a special service.
One time, however, I was caught off guard. When I arrived, I did not see anyone painting or drawing or talking. Rather, people were coloring pre-printed pages from a coloring book. These were no mere children, and the pages were not from a coloring book intended for young audiences.
The coloring pages consisted of elaborate designs and wildflowers. One lady–an octogenarian whose original artwork adorns Trinity’s hallways–was coloring one such page of a floral design.
I always enjoyed coloring with my children, and the fresh smell of new crayons and feel of a new coloring book always brings back childhood memories. This, however, was a craft entirely intended for adults. It was more than art or recreation, the group colored for the sake of worship.
Trinity is not alone in offering this type of artwork; in fact, several articles published in the last year–one from Baptist News Global and another from Religion News Service–outline a new movement in creative churches that utilize coloring books in its liturgy and special services.
Leslie Miller quoted well-known Episcopal priest, author, and spiritual director Lauren Winner in Winner’s declaration that coloring (or, “prayer by color”) has been a significant spiritual discipline in her life.
The medical community is finding the act of coloring to have both spiritual and therapeutic benefits. Cathy Malchiodi, writing for Psychology Today, claims that coloring is reminiscent of the Tibetan practice of mandala art and ancient disciplines that incorporate the fine arts, liturgical movement, meditation, and centering prayer.
It taps into a basic spiritual longing that connects people across cultures and time–from those who value iconography in the Christian cathedrals to our earliest ancestors who drew crude sketches in the caves of France and Africa concerning battles against the elements and wild beasts.
The discipline of coloring also crosses generational lines. Ministries similar to Trinity’s provide safe spaces for older members and children of a church alike to express themselves without fear of “staying in the lines” that make too many worship services formal. (How many of us spent time doodling on tithe envelopes in the pews during service as kids anyway?)
Coloring benefits older saints by improving concentration, decreasing anxiety, and mimicking the effects of meditation, according to Priscilla Frank writing for the Huffington Post. It benefits children in helping them feel included in an otherwise esoteric service largely intended for adult audiences.
As anything else in the Christian community, coloring will have its critics. Controversy surrounding the place of fine arts in church is nothing new for Christians; and, like the iconoclasts of yesteryear, many will claim that coloring strange patterns in general and mandalas in particular will have an adverse–even satanic–impact on the Christian mind.
For others, it will invoke adolescence and will be too juvenile to incorporate into any “serious” worship service in which the soul should focus on God, the heart on worship, and the ear on the proclamation of God’s Word.
My guess is that the groups who utilize coloring as a way of prayer and worship will be in the minority, but will greatly benefit from it. And for churches searching for creative ways to engage young and old alike, it may provide an activity that brings people together, opens up informal times for the sharing of testimonies, and affirms churches as adventurous, artistic sacred spaces in local communities where resources for art have all but dried up.
At Trinity, my hope is that the arts will continue to play a central role in the life of the congregation, not to detract from the traditional worship experiences for which the church is known, but to broaden the mission and ministry of a God who is our Creator creating still.