The Most Creative Thing I’ve Ever Seen

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I was recently on a school trip with my son to the East coast. It was an amazing tour of the early settlements, our nation’s capital, and the history of how our nation began. One of the most impressive things I saw is actually one of the most creative things I’ve ever seen…and it’s from 1883!

If you ever get a chance to visit Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where the Battle of Gettysburg took place, it is an incredible experience. I thought it would be just some rolling hills with monuments on it. But it is so much more than that. One of the must-see things is the visitor center located right outside the battleground. In it there is something called The Gettysburg Cyclorama. This amazing experience is basically a 42 foot high, 377 feet circumference painting of the famous battle of Gettysburg. Originally created back in 1883 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, this cylindrical painting was intended to immerse the viewer in the battle scene. The painting surrounds you on all sides, putting you right in the middle of the famous battle. In the visitor center, life-sized replica models and foreground options are added to enhance the experience.  Lighting, haze, and sounds enhance the scene and create the full sensory experience.

When you first walk in, it takes a moment to gather your sense of direction. Then a voice comes over the sound system and starts to explain what you are looking at by giving you some visual direction markers. It doesn’t take long and you are fully engulfed in the middle of the action. The detail and intricacy are quite stunning. That, coupled with the real life pieces in the foreground, captivate you. Everywhere you turn, soldiers engaging in war surround you. A famous quote from one veteran, pointing at the painting, said to his friend: “You see that puff of smoke? Just wait a moment until that clears away, and I’ll show you just where I stood.”

I read more about the artist Philippoteaux’s work. He became interested in cyclorama painting and created several famous battle scenes using this technique. The intended effect was to immerse the viewer in the scene being depicted, often with the addition of foreground models and life-sized replicas to enhance the illusion.

This was so inspiring to me because it immediately made me think of edge blending and environmental projection in the modern day church. But more importantly it showed me how, even in the 1800’s, they understood how ambience was important for the experience. Here are a couple of things I learned.

  1. Detail is the last 10% of solidifying the experience.

We have all heard the stories about Disneyland and the incredible detail that goes into rides and experiences. For example, the Dumbo ride at Disney World has embedded peanuts in the cement around the ride. Most people miss this small detail, but the detail freaks like us love it because it’s that extra 10% we appreciate most. The Gettysburg Painting is full of small details and images that add so much more to the experience than just the initial wow.

Think of our worship services. They’re often overwhelming when we focus all of our attention on God and fully engage with Him. But imagine opening your eyes after the experience to see an unfinished stage with equipment piled in the corner. For me, it would distract and even ruin the experience—all because it might have taken someone the extra hour to complete.

Are there things in your service or around your church that just need that last 10% and can solidify the experience you are trying to create in a worship environment?

2. Design matters.

Such a large-scale piece required tons of planning to lay it all out. It took Phililppoteaux and his 5 assistants a year and half to create it. The scene completely surrounds the audience and each image was carefully placed to put you in the middle of what’s going on.

It’s funny how easy it is for us to plan big things in our services but hope the little things just “come together”. Are we spending enough time on the all the details of our weekend experience?

I know I have failed to spend the time I need to lay out all the details. And shouldn’t the weekend service get more attention than a simple Gettysburg piece? That’s about history, but this experience with God is about your congregation’s future.

Let’s focus on the details and design that matter in our services.