The Art of the Worship Altar

Zaccheus Altar created by M’Liss Heps. Used in Open Skies Worship. (Photo by Chris Crabb)

(Note: This is a guest post by M’Liss Hepps, one of the lay worship design artists at First United Methodist Church, Missouri City, TX. M’Liss and her family attend the Open Skies worship service at FUMCMC, which is held in our Fellowship Hall at 8:30 am. I asked her to write about her process for the creation of altars for worship.)

Where does one begin to create an altar that serves as a center of worship, a focal point for church members to connect with God’s Word?  What items are essential? What visuals will convey the intended message?  Is there is a specific focus, or a recurring theme in a sermon series?

Keep in mind there are days when an altar simply adorned with a cloth, a cross and candles will be the most effective. But, what about creating a place where people and visual art allow for a special connection with the Holy?

Obviously, an understanding of Scripture is first. I read and reread the Bible verse(s), maybe in different versions. biblical footnotes, or Life Application notes can be useful. “Googling” the verse sometimes yields helpful results.

Next, how do I depict the message? There are days when ideas easily come to me; others when my creative limitations are realized and I come up empty. Using a website like Textweek.com might “jump start” my creativity.  Talking it over with someone can add insight.

Once I have a plan, I gather the materials.  If there is nothing in our “Holy Hardware” closet, where there is an assortment of cloths, candles, crosses and other objects, I might visit Hobby Lobby, which has a variety of “holy” things, as well as great “objects d’art.”

The Holy Hardware Closet

For example, I was assigned the verse about Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector – the biblical story of a man who had to climb into a tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). I put gold coins on one side of the altar table, a tree-shaped cross in the center, food on the other side and a small tree on the floor.  By themselves these objects might not depict the story of Zacchaeus, so I printed and framed two pictures, one with Zacchaeus in the tree, the other showed Z with Jesus at his home.

For the story of Naomi and Ruth, the message was about their relationship with each other and with God. How do you depict two women in a field of wheat?  After struggling for days, I finally realized that the altar was for February 12, close to Valentine’s Day.  Voila!  The message was about relationships and love. I used “love” plaques, stalks of wheat, a picture of Naomi and Ruth and a subtle red cross.

Recently, I created an altar based on Paul, the tentmaker. After researching tents in biblical times, I wanted to show the tools a tentmaker would have used. I enlisted the help of two family members who made the stakes, mallet, and a cross out of a tree branch. I found animal-like coverings at the fabric store.  A little more work involved, but it was fun!

I love it when the altar is expanded with two small side tables or the floor around the altar table is used.  Imagine an altar table covered in several shades of green cloth, a cross, candles, seed packets, gardening tools, a watering can, and one or two small plants. On the floor in front of the altar are full-grown plants or flower . . . beautiful!

Creating an altar was never something I ever imagined myself doing.  I’ve had to slowly learn to pull out the focus of the scripture needed for that week. But during that process, I know that I have grown in my faith and I can see that others are touched by God through the art I’ve had a hand in creating. What a blessing to be able to say that!

— M’Liss Heps

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