Use of Christian decor finds favor and debate
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sep. 8, 2002
Gayle White – Staff
Sunday, September 8, 2002
The phrase “Christian decorating” means which of the following?
a) A velvet “Last Supper.”
b) A ceramic rooster imprinted with the Bible verse “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning.” — Lamentations 3:23.
c) A “crown of thorns” wreath to represent the crucifixion.
d) A tasteful, orderly, welcoming home filled with favorite possessions.
Of course, the answer is all of the above.
The fuzzy imitation of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is the stereotypical icon of Christian kitsch. But the field of evangelical interior design has come a long way from the parking lot art gallery as retailers attempt to grab a larger share of the $600 billion home furnishings and accessories market.
The gift and decor sections of some Christian stores these days look like a Bible exploded in a Bed Bath & Beyond.
Customers at the Family Christian Store on Lawrenceville Highway in Tucker, a branch of the country’s largest Christian retailing chain, will find the rooster, along with a whole selection of canisters, candles, photo frames, lamps, vases, flowerpots and coffee cups with Bible verses and spiritual phrases.
They can also pick up a crown of thorns.
“It’s one of our best-selling items in the chain,” said Renee Sangsland, who is in charge of purchasing gifts, home decor and framed art for the Family retail family.
Sometimes churches buy the crowns to use at Easter, she said, but many people use them in their homes “as a personal reminder of what Christ went through for us.”
As the number and variety of Christian-based home products increases, even the name of the national trade group has changed to embrace the variety. The organization formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association is now simply CBA. They’re not just booksellers anymore.
A 2001 survey conducted by CBA showed that $1.5 billion of the industry’s $4 billion in sales were in gifts and other products, including home decor.
And retailers expect the trend to continue. They ranked art, prints, wall decor and home furnishings among the products that will grow most in the next year, according to the July edition of the Christian industry magazine Marketplace.
A question of comfort
Yet some of those same retailers are selling books whose authors say Scripture verses plastered around the house may be counterproductive in winning people to the faith. Those writers are from another school of Christian decorating — one that says family and hospitality should drive decisions about furnishing a home.
As an author, Willits has been to the annual Christian retailing show several times. She’s seen all the decorative doodads.
“It’s gotten way out of hand,” she said.
She and her husband, Bill, a minister at North Point Community Church, want their home “to be a place anybody can come and not feel threatened,” she said. “If we have Bible verse plaques all over the place, it might make an unbeliever uncomfortable.”
Guests entering her Louisiana plantation-style home have to look hard to determine her religious leanings. There’s a small Bible verse on her desk in her green-apple-colored kitchen and a prayer on the wall in the master bedroom, among the soothing colors of sand and sea. Both are there “as reminders to us to be keeping the main thing the main thing,” she said, not as religious tracts.
After graduating from the University of Miami in Ohio, Willits, 43, was an interior designer for the Marriott hotel chain before going into private practice. She advocates a purpose-driven home that suits the furnishings to the family mission.
“To me, relationships are the priority,” she said. “We’re creating a place for people to come, for lives to grow.”
As a professional designer, Willits has been into many houses that are more monument than home, others that are totally cluttered and chaotic. She advocates balance — maintaining order and creating a pleasant atmosphere by using “the five senses God gave us” to fill a home with pleasant sights, sounds, scents, touches and, yes, tastes of warm soup or cookies and milk.
“The main thing I tell women is that there’s no such thing as a perfect home on this side of life,” she said. “Get over it.”
Making house a home
What a Christian should not do — after all, it’s one of the Ten Commandments — is covet thy neighbor’s house. Not only is it a sin, it’s unrealistic, she said. “In someone else’s house we see what’s done. In our own home, we only see what needs doing.”
Christina Adams, 44, a stay-at-home minister’s wife from Atlanta, attended a workshop Willits gave at her church several years ago. They’ve since become friends.
“Terry’s approach is unique,” Adams said, “in that you can have all the elements, you can have the perfect paint color, the right upholstery, the right carpet, and if your home is devoid of love and making others feel valued, you have a house, not a home.”
Adams has tried some of Willits’ specific techniques, including a boxwood and apple Christmas table arrangement. It was simple and inexpensive — and her then-18-month-old daughter, Joanna, took a bite out of every apple.
Joanna’s now 5, and her mother is a bigger believer than ever in Willits’ approach.
“Her ideas make everyone within the walls of your home feel cherished and very special,” she said.
Willits’ home is often open to parties, meetings, neighbors and daughter Bailey’s young friends. She bought a second couch for the family room so she could seat more people at Bible study.
That’s the ministry of hospitality and one of the main purposes of a home, said Karen Mains of Wheaton, Ill., a mother of four and author of “Open Heart, Open Home: The Hospitable Way to Make Others Feel Welcome & Wanted.” “Historically, according to Scripture, hospitality is really a sacred act,” she said.
Mains makes a distinction between hospitality and entertaining: The former is a way of attempting to serve people, the latter a way of trying to impress them.
Does Mains greet people with Bible verses?
“I always have Christian symbols that don’t hit you between the eyes,” she said. “I have a collection of angels — odd angels, not cute angels. I have a lovely old cross in an iron grate by the front door. I don’t have an ‘Are You Saved Today?’ sign in the bathroom. That would be a breach of hospitality as far as I’m concerned.”
‘They have their place’
But Christian pieces in a home can help children understand “who we are and what we stand for,” said Chris Childers, owner of Macon Christian Bookstore, the industry’s 1995 Store of the Year.
And, he said, they can be conversation-starters with guests.
Childers decorates his house with Christian products. He has framed prints, sculpture, bookends, even a settee with fabric depicting Bibles.
A particular favorite is a picture of a father praying over his little boy at bedtime. Childers, who has sons 8 and 12, has looked at the picture for inspiration since he learned his wife was pregnant. He can’t even say what Bible verse is underneath, but the image sticks in his mind as a “gentle reminder” to pray for his sons.
Overdone, verse-plastered decor is “a little like bumper stickers,” said Georg Andersen, author of “Silent Witness — The Language of Your Home.“
Andersen is not opposed to items with religious significance as long as they’re tasteful and not too obtrusive. He and his wife have embroidered Bible verses and the name of Jesus in personal spots in their home.
“They’re not ‘in your face,’ ” he said. “I think they all have their place.”
If there’s tension between the philosophy of some Christian designer-authors and the marketers of some Christian home decor products, so be it. The country’s Christian retailers are happy to sell the products of either or both.
With an average of about a third of a Christian store’s sales space already given over to gifts, including home products, chances are the number of objects is only going to grow. Sangsland of Family stores promises newer, more mainline products every season.
Look for a line of toile in time for Christmas.
Some of those new designs may even become classics of tomorrow. It’s happened before.
Centuries ago, Christians adopted the fish as a symbol to signify their faith to each other when they could not openly acknowledge it. Those fish show up on car bumpers today.
And as for that velvet “Last Supper” . . .
Wasn’t the original a big piece of Christian decor?
TIPS FROM THE PROS
Here’s what some experts say about Christian home and hospitality.
FROM TERRY WILLITS:
> When starting from scratch in a house, remember how God created the world. Take it a step at the time, beginning with the foundation — floors, walls and anything attached. Bring in the big pieces of furniture first, then smaller pieces and finally accessories.
> If you’re trying to improve a home that’s already decorated, start with organization. “Get the bones right and the clutter cleared away.”
> Let the home reflect the personalities of all the people who live there, whether it’s a bit of golf or tennis, or toys and dolls.
> Remember that people are the priority.
FROM KAREN MAINS:
> Pray in your home. It fills the house with the sense of the Holy Spirit.
> Greet people warmly at the door.
> Be able to laugh about ruined dishes or decorating disasters. It’s the company that matters.
> Bring children into the conversation, or provide activities for them so that they know they are welcome.
FROM GEORG ANDERSEN:
> For inspiration, visit the collections of great museums. Classic designs last for good reason.
> Graciously accept family hand-me-downs. They may become “treasures of the heart.” Conversely, don’t be afraid to pass heirlooms on to other people who will appreciate them.
> Use the beautiful things you have. Don’t stick them out of sight to protect them.
> Remember you are the steward of the home God gave you. Enjoy it and share it with others.