It is an exciting time to be an artist of faith. We’re seeing the arts being expressed more in many different churches—in services, programs, events. There’s a new sense of corporate approval in the use of the visual arts, dance, film and media, and other forms in services, and creative people are sensing permission from their congregations to express the arts in more ways. Outside the church walls, we’re beginning to see some authentic and unique expressions by different artists of faith unencumbered by the preconceptions of what “Christian art” is supposed to be, unleashed from the message-oriented kitsch that was normative only a decade ago. And I’m beginning to see glimmers of people who “get it”—that there are real and substantive theological underpinnings behind what it is we do. From the bedroom songwriter who began to play at open mics, to the oil painter who is now booking some prestigious galleries, to the professional choreographer who is creating moving expressions of the Gospel in a very secular context, I’m seeing more and more amazing artists of faith expressing who they are and how the world can be.
Certainly we, as artists of faith, have a long way yet to go. But I am hopeful.
Still, there is something missing. When I travel and speak to churches and arts groups, or when I sit and ponder with other worship pastors and artists, or when I think deep thoughts with champions of the arts, I still see something amiss, or perhaps simply awry. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. And I think it may be this:
The church still really doesn’t know what to do with most artists.
If an artist is a musician or perhaps a graphic artist, it’s easy. Put them in the worship band or let them run multimedia. If they are a dancer, then perhaps you ask them to be a part of the Christmas program. Perhaps a painter can paint during the services if you’re feeling adventurous. But outside of the narrow bounds of the church’s services or events, the church usually ignores the artist. Poets and fiction writers, dancers and choreographers, sculptors and mixed media artists, actors and other theatrical artists, fashion designers and fashion photographers, classical harpists and blues harmonica players, and on and on—often feel adrift or marginalized or at least misunderstood in today’s churches.
It’s not on purpose. It is simply that the church knows how to use artists, but the church generally doesn’t know how to encourage and disciple them. Put more specifically, the institutional church knows how to use artists to further the agenda of the church, but it generally doesn’t know how to encourage artists to further the work of the greater Kingdom. And artists can be a real nuisance to the church when the church doesn’t understand them.
There are theological forces at work behind all this. The evangelical church, seeded with generations of pragmatic modernity, generally still sees the arts as a means to an end, as a way of luring and titillating an already entertainment-saturated culture. It doesn’t see the arts in its fullness as a true and essential expression of the body of Christ, and thus, the church doesn’t see painting or musicianship or other artistic disciplines as a part of—and a means of—discipleship. In other words, the church doesn’t understand that encouraging an artist in their art is a subset of discipling them in their faith.
But talk to any artist of faith, and you will quickly find that their journey of spiritual formation and their journey of artistic craftsmanship are inextricably enmeshed. And this should not surprise us artists, because God initiates, inspires, moves, and speaks to us through our art.
I am not advocating that the church needs to be the place where education in the arts needs to happen (though I think we can find lots of Biblical and historical precedent for this!). What I am saying is that the church needs to learn how to teach and encourage artists how to engage deeply with God and relevantly in the culture with their art—music, film making, dance, poetry, sculpture, and on and on. The church needs to see itself more than a commodifier of the arts, but as a community that disciples and encourages and sends great artists out into the world.
The three examples I mentioned above—the songwriter doing open mics, the impressionist painter who has become quite involved in a number of high-end galleries, and the dance director who is designing spiritually uplifting choreography in her secular studio—these are all real people I know. They are “out there” in the world because they were encouraged from within the church to boldly express their art to the world. And what they’re doing is amazing.
I’ll be doing a follow-up blog on some of the ways that we can practically see this happen in our churches. And my caveat is that I’m still in process as it relates to thinking this through. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share your thoughts on this subject. If you are an artist, how are you (or how are you not) being encouraged by the church to express yourself? How are you being validated as an artist by the church? How are you being equipped to go out into the world with your art? Do you feel marginalized or ill-fitted with your art form in the church? What needs to change?