Art and Church: The Missing Link

photoIt 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?

[Note: The photo above is a part of the Art & Soul Gallery, a small year-round rotating gallery at my church, Oak Hills.]

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13 thoughts on “Art and Church: The Missing Link

  1. My experience in North Carolina has been frustrating to say the least. Living in a rural, super-conservative region of the state I cannot say my frustration is unexpected. Classifying oneself as an “artist” or even generalizing yourself as a “creative” carries a stigma that you must be counter to the church. I present myself subtly enough, sitting among the congregation with a sketch pad and pencils in hand, spontaneously interpreting the words from the service in visual form. The drawing does not leave the property without the pastor having the opportunity to view it and, at times, keep the piece for themselves. I receive a lot of private praise for my talents or my creativity, but I’m not drawing to earn a pat on the back. I share my drawings in a blog which expands their reach outside the church walls, but popularity in a virtual world is not my goal. I send my work out to ministry leaders around the state, asking for just a few moments of their time to hear me out, to consider the value of the visual art in worship……I rarely receive any response. Not only is my desire to share the gospel though art received cynically, it’s apparently not worth the time to consider.

    All an artist needs is a platform, but providing that platform requires risk; a risk few are willing to take.

  2. Looking forward to hearing more…our group has dwindled,yet I believe God is faithful to fulfill His purpose for this group…Thanks for continuing to inspire…

  3. You make some excellent observations and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I find that as individuals in congregations or “Christian” groups, we seldom speak of the arts and creative pursuits to one another. I am often surprised to discover the talents of those with whom I attend church. Not until I see them somewhere else during the week, stumble across their blog, or am invited to their home for an event or Bible study do I get a glimpse of their creativity and talents in the arts. And when they get to talking about it, their whole countenance changes!

    My pastor will occasionally ask me if I am using my gifts to build the church, not necessarily
    our church, but THE church. The answer is usually no. And that spurs me on to do something about it.

    And as for the blues harmonica player… BEST worship music on a Sunday ever was when our worship leader tweaked all of the songs to be performed as blues. So much life, so much fun! It reached out and grabbed people.

  4. WOW. Manuel you are right on. I think I am fortunate here, reading others’ posts, in that I have members of my church in leadership who have encouraged mentorship between artists in our Christian Church. For me I feel that that very personal encouragement and appreciation for who I am from my church leaders has led me to have a bigger vision of this “mentoring” or discipling of Christian creatives beyond our physical church walls and into our community. But it took stepping out and doing what I would have liked to have seen giving to me. God met me there with support. When I give an “art lesson” I’m also mentoring a student beyond our classroom, not just with art but with love and life and endless possibilities on how to do the same for others themselves. I’m hoping that those who aren’t understood in their churches can grasp that we can be educators of our craft, His love, His presence in all we do including our creative process, and encouragers to Christians creative in our community. Build a presence and they will come. God once pointed out to me that my ministry isn’t just between me and my church leaders but between me and God and those around me within hearing and seeing distance. So until the world of Church and art is perfect I want to take steps in that direction, knowing that if I’m on the right track He will be my encourager. Moral of the story???? DON”T GIVE UP!

  5. If local churches will welcome expressive thinkers, minister to deep feelers, embrace beauty and splendor, and foster a safe, inclusive environment in which to create, while teaching artists to be open to inspiration from the Lord, hold onto your hats. In these conditions, people can’t help but become more and more artistic. I don’t mean that everyone will become professional artists; I mean the church will see a much higher percentage of artists in their number because the local church has spiritually fostered artistic growth in its artists, and artistically fostered spiritual growth in its congregation.
    It’s not about Making Art For Church, although this certainly happens as a side effect. When church leaders let the practical idea of serving with art take a back seat to loving artists, the healing and creativity in the place explodes off the charts.
    I had no idea how deep and wide our arts ministry would become, how many lives it would touch, or how many artists it would set free to serve the Lord. When we started, I figured we would just be making posters for Sunday School or something. But it’s turned out to be so much more: artists who are being discipled spiritually and artistically, so beautiful in community. Messy, but worth it!

  6. Reblogged this on The Lonely Art Minister and commented:
    My heart is singing. I love the way Manuel takes all the mashed-up gooey colors and mysterious smoke and gears and ice cream sprinkles that constantly swirl around in my brain and heart regarding art in the church, and he articulates it exactly. I might have to jump up and click my heels together.

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