My last blog post, 81 Things You Can Do To Be A More Artist Friendly Church, is easily one of the more popular to date. Many thousands of you hit that post, and I appreciate the many reposts and comments and likes. I think it’s because it hit a nerve for many artists of faith, as well as those who lead them, both inside the church and out.
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a short list of principles and practices that drive the list. I’m not big on “How To” books and articles without also understanding the deeper, more substantive “Why” issues. Because without a proper understanding of the foundational tenets, you can just as easily misunderstand, manipulate, and abuse the artist of faith instead of encourage, disciple, and applaud them. So here’s a short list of driving principles and practices behind becoming an Artist-Friendly Church.
1. Don’t Treat Artists of Faith Like Commodities
I was talking to a friend recently and I mentioned that I often mow my neighbor’s lawn. We both agreed that it was a good thing to do, one of those simple acts of being Jesus to those around us. But then he added, “So do you think you can get him to go to church?” I replied kindly, “I don’t mow his lawn because I have an agenda for him. I mow his lawn because it’s the right thing to do.”
The evangelical church, steeped in centuries of pragmatic modernism, is utilitarian by nature. It is often results-oriented and agenda-driven—which are not necessarily bad things in and of itself—but as a result, it has a tendency to value the arts not for the sake of beauty and as an personal expression of faith, but as a vehicle for a message. In other words, the arts are seen as a commodity to be used, not as an expression of life lived in Christ.
If art is commodified in the church, so then is the artist. Too often, the church treats the artist of faith as someone who can be put to use. As a result, artists often feel used, taken advantage of, or valued only for their ability to further the agenda of the church. Musicians and visual artists are valued only to the degree that they fit into the worship service. Theatrical artists are only valued when the Easter or Christmas play comes around. And poets, dancers, sculptors, etc. often find no place at the table. Clearly, something is askew when artists of faith aren’t able to express themselves in their own faith communities.
But something different happens when you simply validate the artist that God made him or her to be, and encourage that person to dig deeper into that calling. Acceptance and approval is the two-faceted language which speaks to artists of faith. The Artist-Friendly Church accepts artists for who they are, not for what they can do for the church. (Hit it here for a more in-depth discussion of this.)
2. Create and Lead Authentic Arts Communities
The calling of the Artist-Friendly Church should be threefold. One, be a venue for the art (a place, a way, and a time). Two, be an audience for the artist, for the church needs artists to fulfill their God-given role in the body of Christ, to reflect, to interpret, to express, and to inspire. And three, be a Biblical community with the artist, offering friendship, encouragement, training, and discipleship.
I really do believe that you must have all three of these to have a fully functioning arts community in your church. It is important to allow your artists to express themselves to the church, to give them venues and opportunities and audiences. At the same time, you can’t give artists carte blanche in your congregations either—That would be disastrous. Artists can be temperamental and self-absorbed and be quite demanding of your time. Artists are messy. But then, simply living in community is a messy thing.
Artists need grace-filled leadership in order to thrive, both artistically and spiritually. The Artist-Friendly Church has leadership that patiently and lovingly validates and encourages as well as grows and disciples the artist. Such leadership understands the importance of inviting artists into inclusive and authentic Biblical community.
3. Understand and Teach a Theology of Beauty and Creativity
When you think of the word “Creative,” do you think of God? For most, the answer is yes. Now, think of the word “Creative” again—does the word “church” come to mind? Why not?
Deeply imbedded in the DNA of an Artist-Friendly Church is a foundational understanding of our place before God as creative beings. The first five words of the Bible describe God as the Eternally Creative One, and as we are made in His image, we are both endowed with a creative disposition and charged with a creative mandate. There is far too much here to cover in a blog like this, but let’s simply say the the Artist-Friendly Church has a well developed theology of the arts, and it undergirds all of it’s programs and ministries, from what happens in children’s classrooms and youth assemblies to what goes on in the worship service to what adorns the walls of the lobby. The Artist-Friendly Church indwells a vibrant expression of this theology, teaches it from the pulpit, models it in the services and programs, and spills it out into the community.
4. Uphold Excellence While Ruthlessly Ridding Perfectionism
No one doubts the power of the arts to emote, elicit, and engage. And sitting here at the beginning of the twenty first century, the modern church is once again beginning to see the importance of Excellence in the Arts. (See this link if you want to read more on the dangers of Christian art being mediocre, derivative, out-of-touch, overly sentimental, or propaganda-driven.) “Excellence,” as stated by Willow Creek Community Church, “honors God and inspires people.”
But there’s a huge difference between excellence and perfectionism. Excellence is an understanding that you are doing the best you can with the people and resources God gave you. Perfectionism is the unrealistic drive to try to attain an unattainable standard. Excellence honors those artists of faith who seek to be excellent. Perfectionism dishonors artists of faith by creating unreasonable demands. Excellence is fueled by grace; Perfectionism is fueled by legalism. And some artists of faith, those who are already driven by these demons, often find themselves in an abusive relationship with the church when the church strives toward perfectionism.
We need to understand what the true product of ministry is. The product of a creative arts ministry, just like any other ministry, is the hearts of the people. Great art then is a by-product of hearts which are growing in Christ. The Artist-Friendly Church focuses on the hearts of the artists, not the art. But here’s the thing—it’s only when you focus on the hearts that you have the potential for ridiculously great God-honoring art.
5. Encourage Artists Of Faith To Go Out Into The World
One of the questions often asked to me when I speak on faith and the arts is this: “What do I do if there’s no place for my art in my church?”
And my response is typically not what they are hoping or expecting—for me to criticize the church. Instead, I remind that person that the church is not the end game. In other words, as Christ followers, we should always see ourselves as being called out to make a difference in the world, and that extends to our roles as artists as well. If that is the case, then we should also view our artwork as subversive expressions of the Kingdom of God.
Writer Andy Crouch rightly asserts that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it.” In other words, it is not enough to critique or copy or consume our culture. To change culture, to make a difference in the world, we must also create culture. (For a more in-depth discussion, I encourage you to read this blog, Being IN the World.) So one of the roles of the Artist-Friendly Church is to be outwardly focused—to encourage artists of faith to boldly take their artistic expressions out into the world and let them shine.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Risk
Churches are often hotbeds of criticism. You can never please everyone, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for senior pastors and elder boards, who naturally just want everyone to get along. So some churches adopt an unspoken culture of risk aversion. They avoid things that might elicit controversy or change. But a culture of risk aversion is a killer to the Artist-Friendly Church.
Artists are risk takers by nature. Whether it’s in the way they dress, or the way they express their art, or how they see the world, or even how they make a living, many artists are risk takers. Artist-Friendly Churches create a culture where it is safe for individuals and ministries to take calculated risks and originate change.
At the expense of appearing self-promoting, much of this is discussed in greater detail in my book, Imagine That, which I recommend as a resource for the Arts Leader, Artist of Faith, and especially for Small Group Study.
Also, I only had Six Habits, but I thought that sounded strange.