Why would a church be interested in a giant paint-by-number project?

Imagine an 18’ x 10’ canvas, divided into twelve 3’ x 5’ panels. Now imagine that each of these canvas panels is covered with random shapes, drawn in sharpie marker. Each shape has a number written inside of it. It may be the largest paint-by-number project you’ve ever seen.

Now imagine that every time you come to worship, a panel is sitting out in the narthex or lobby and you are invited to pick up a paint brush, dip it into a color, and paint in the shape with a number that corresponds with that color’s number. Each week there is a different panel sitting out. You have no idea what the picture is, but there is a lot of energy buzzing around as people of all ages playfully chat and giggle and wonder as they apply the color to the canvas. Slowly an image emerges, if only in part.

This is what we are currently doing at Easter, the church where I serve as an associate pastor. This was an idea I had one day as we were thinking about the Lenten Journey and our time of intentional interim leadership and transition to a new call process for a lead pastor. An artist/pastor friend of mine, Paul Oman, told me about this community mural process last summer. He had done it with a church, and it sounded fun. The idea has been rattling around in my mind since then. This moment, I thought, is the right time to try it at Easter.

Here’s the big question you may have right now:

Why?

Why would a pastor (me) spend hours creating a mural, breaking it down into outlined shapes,  spending a day priming the canvases, then spending two more days drawing the mural onto massive canvases? Why would I ask our custodial staff to spend time building wooden frames and stretching canvas on them? Why would I ask a team of volunteers to invest time in setting up painting stations and cleaning brushes during every worship gathering in Lent?  Aren’t there more important things a pastor and staff should be doing?

Allow me to reflect on why I think this is an important experience for our congregation at this moment in our story.

First, it demonstrates that each person should bring the best of who they are to every moment and offer it to God and the Community. I am an artist. I am not the lead pastor. I am not in charge of the transition process. I tend to get frustrated and anxious when I don’t know the plan or don’t feel like I can contribute to the process. So, I bring what I can. I bring creativity and art.

Second, it demonstrates that not one person can do anything completely. This project is way beyond my ability to accomplish. I knew, from the beginning, that the only way this project would happen is if we built a team to do it. I know what I do well. I have the vision, and I can draw. I also know what I don’t do well. I can’t build with wood. I can’t figure out how to hang a massive canvas. I can’t recruit a  team of volunteers to staff the weekly painting stations. I am not good at managing a group of volunteers to staff those stations.

So, I recruited people who were passionate and gifted in those area. Butch and John (our “guys” on the custodial staff) cranked out those 24 canvas panels like pros. I reached out to Sheryl and Brenda, because I knew they were passionate about art, loved Easter, and were good at recruiting and managing. They are completely in charge of the process. My job was to form that team and get the design onto the canvases. Even then, I couldn’t do that by myself. My daughter, Micki, helped me draw the patterns on the canvas. Go team!

Third, the process of creating the mural is symbolic of what it means to be a community in discernment. Let’s break this down…

The mural itself is a symbol of God’s Dream for our world and our church. God has a vision for a preferred future outlined as a promise, but it is not complete. It comes at us in sections and we don’t know what the final result looks like. It will not be completed unless we take action, pick up a brush, and actually apply the color. Without our action, the mural remains an incomplete potential, but never an accomplished reality.

Everyone can participate in the process of bringing the mural into completion.

Some participation is specialized. Butch and John built the frame. I wouldn’t ask a five-year-old to do that. Sheryl and Brenda recruited the team to staff the stations. The team has specific responsibilities to set up the paints each week and clean up after each session. This is like a church staff.

Yet, these specialized tasks don’t actually complete the mural. They exist to empower every person to participate. Children, with the guidance of their parents, can pick up a brush and color inside a shape. Various kinds of people can gather and participate, even if they don’t know exactly why or what the final picture will be. Some people may paint one shape, one time. Other people may paint many shapes, every week. The preschool familes took a panel. The Homework help crew is painting some panels. Yowies is painting on Wednesday nights. The painting process takes place on the Hill on Sundays and Wednesdays during worship and at the Lake on Sundays. It takes many people, in various contexts, to fully participate in the vision.

The final product will be revealed on Easter morning during worship and we’ll final see the big picture. It will stand as a symbol of community cooperation and co-creation. It will stand as a symbol of new life and the hope of a future that is pulled into being by God’s ongoing creative promise. It will be a moment where the congregation can say, “WE DID THAT!”

Image what God can do with us and through us when we work together to dream, to play, and to create. Our lives together are the process of participating in God’s work of art as we co-create God’s preferred and promised future.

That’s why we’re doing a community mural project this Lent.

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