What is it like being an artist in the local church today? If you are musical, you surely have an honored place in the worship team, but if you are a visual artist, a dancer, an actor, or write for TV or movies, how does the local church view your work? What if your work as an artist is not inside the local church. Creative professionals at times are lost in our church community. I have friends who produce music for video games, write books, and design illustrations for a living. We all readily appreciate the engineer, the dentist, or business man at church. They are the majority in a way. We can identify their work and quantify its relevance to our daily lives, but if our young people want to be creative professionals, often parents feel they didn’t raise their child properly. Try having a boy tell his dad he wants to be in a band and tour and you might hear the “get a real job first” and “something you can fall back on” speech.
He who sings, prays twice.
Art And Creativity In The Local Church: Why Being A Christian Artist Is A Double Blessing!
Like most kids, I loved riding my bike. That changed when I was hooked on piano. As a musician, I have supported my family for many years, but I always had the thought that what I did was not “real” work. Even as a pastor of worship and a worship leader I was told at times that my “real” work was not the music, but that everything else I did was the real job. However, try explaining to your leaders when the music lacks. You won’t be employed as a worship leader for long. We all appreciate the part that we see that creatives and artist provide for us. However, the cost to learn and hone the craft are hidden. No one sees the vocal warm-ups or the agony of a failed performance. We all start at the beginning. That impressive artist you know was not always so.
It Is A Painful Life For Artists Inside The Local Church
In talking with artistic types over the years, the pain has been in the misunderstanding of the skills and work of the artist as well as the way an artist thinks. I used to work for one pastor whose IQ likely was in the 140 range and whose photographic memory meant he never took notes. In one indelible meeting, he put his arms in the air and sat back as he frustratingly said, “Rich, you usually come to the right conclusions, but you think backward!” This incredibly gifted man could not pin down the power that artists wield, and for that, he was miffed. People like that are not often confused as such. So, even if you are getting the results desired it is the process of being an artist that trips the institutions we work for. The local church is no different. Thinking backward is a problem when control is valued more than empowerment. Like any other people in the local church, artistic types need encouragement and empathy.
So, is being a Christian artist really a double blessing? Like St. Augustine wrote, “He who sings prays twice.” When we create the joy of accomplishing our God-given design to create, a part of us fills up. Added to that is the deep satisfaction of seeing what is created as part of God’s redemptive work–telling and sharing the story of the Gospel through the word and act of creativity. Write a beautiful piece of music, and you have fulfilled part of your design. Tell the story of the Gospel with that and your life, and the circle is complete. Write for a TV show and not only entertain with creative storytelling, but do so with the lens of what a loving God has promised to a lost people. Whatever the art or craft, the creative Christian potentially is double blessed! So, unlike what some may think, the work of art is “real” and worthy work.
Creating Culture Is The Artist’s Calling
The center of art was the church in the past. In fact, education and the sciences were supported by the Church. Today, our churches may not build cathedrals, but we are surely a place where you will hear music, see produced media, and experience the gifts of communication of all kinds. Whether it is liturgical chanting or modern praise and worship, the Church is full of music as well as visual art. One may have stained glass. The other may have theatrical lighting automated through high-tech gear. Today, unlike any other time, we can reclaim our place as a center of creativity. At the very least, we need to have our voice in the town square–amongst the people we, by our calling, love. Our neighbors deserve good art and we are the ones who can offer it to them, but do we in our local churches see beyond our Sunday programming when we look at artists? Do we value beauty as well as utility?
If the world is to change, the artists will be part of it. In history, we see that when a new regime takes over, the leadership is wiped out and so are the artists. If you conquer a land, you don’t want the storytellers around loose reminding people of how it used to be. The level of influence on the world we live in by what we create cannot be underestimated. Much of what we do as creatives is hidden. We prepare for that one moment to take our turn on a stage. The reality is that no matter how small the platform, ripples grow from what we make. This is why much of the most popular church music today–both old and new–comes from local churches. The ripple effect of what a local church creates can be felt around the world.
In Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, the idea of creating culture is set against the other options before us. Basically, we can protest culture and be against it, attempting to change it by criticism. This mode of living leaves us in a contentious relationship with anyone as the mission to present the gospel has an enemy and that is the “culture” of the world. Another option is copying the culture. I liken this to the cheesy Pepsi ripoff t-shirts that say, “Jesus is the real thing.” We can sound and look like the culture, adopting the form to plug in our message. The best of these is the choice to create culture. Instead of borrowing a musical style, why not be native to who you are and create your own? This means we see the competition of culture really as our fault. We have been silent too long, passively observing the decline of popular culture as we lob stones. The double blessing of being a Christian artist is that we can love God and love our neighbor in one fell swoop.
A Too Low View Of Man And God Confuses The Gospel
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet
The Hebrew word in Psalm 8 for God is “Elohim, ” and we could read it like this, “God (Elohim) made man a little lower than (Elohim) himself.” The primary word for God was incorrectly translated into “angel” because our human nature is to put our way of thinking above God’s way of thinking. We truly are the pinnacle of God’s creation. All that he has made is given to us as a sandbox to create with. We glorify God by showing to the universe the image of God. Sin’s curse strips us from this design. The lie is that we are God or far lower than God. We diminish our God when we have a too low view of man. The one who made us should be the one to determine our identity and purpose. Our praise of God must come from our understanding of who we are and why we were put on this planet.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
–John 14:12 (NRSV)
John in his gospel shares the stunning words of Christ in regards to us doing even greater works than himself. Do we believe this to be true? If we take this as truth, we must see that our purpose is that the “Father may be glorified in the Son.” God is glorified by sending his Son, Jesus, who then empowers us to do more than he did. The laws of physics constrained the person of Jesus to one place at a time. Today, he dwells with us all over the planet in every corner imaginable. As Christian artists, we are included in this scheme. Our work is true work! The purpose of God’s glory through Jesus lives in what we create. Again, a double blessing!
Admittedly, I have trouble believing that I am personally made a little lower than the Creator himself. The doubts go even deeper when I consider that Christ calls us to do even greater works on earth than he did! He resurrected the dead, healed the lame, gave sight to the blind and atoned for our sins. What is greater than that? How about that story being told over and over again all over the planet! We participate in that in ways that may seem small to us. Nevertheless, Christ is magnified in the process of the Gospel being lived, preached, and shared. As artists, the double blessing is the inspiration to others to tell the story. As storytellers, our role is to model the act of sharing and living the story prophetically.
Winds Of Heaven And Stuff Of Earth
In 1988, Rich Mullins released Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth with songs that to this day rocked American Christianity. His song “Awesome God” next to personal songs like “If I Stand” which shared the personal journey of faith and doubt–we can stand on the promise when nothing else is there. This heaven and earth coming together is a very powerful picture of the Incarnation. I also have to let you in on his song, “Boy Like Me, Man Like You” where the human side of Jesus is portrayed poignantly. Mullins got it. As an artist, he was a prophet and his lifestyle, as well as his words, brought together the sacred and secular and the heavenly and earthly. Jesus is clothed in the same dirt we are. What kind of creator jumps all into his creation like that? As if the cross was not enough as an act of love, as a man, Jesus knows what people feel. He has smelled, tasted, touched, heard, and seen the world in real time.
Why is this important to us as artists (and Christians in general) to contemplate? If we do not see that heaven and earth are joined, we will not understand the artist’s role in helping that connecting whether it be in worship leading or the design of an amazing business complex. That warm and deep feeling of heaven we get when a sunset captivates us is also there in the beautiful works we accomplish. God’s glory shines and when we allow such beauty into the world, the darkness only allows the beam of light to be a beacon where it otherwise would be deathly quiet. This is why some say they feel God in the most interesting places, whether it’s from a forest trail or when a painting speaks for the first time. For us to devalue art, is to put our candle under a bushel. We need to let it shine. Create beautiful computer code, clothing, homes, business distribution models, and yes—art!
As people of faith, how do we create an environment that empowers the artists in our midst? I’ve listed five behaviors to improve the success for artists in our churches. When we support those who create, we then become double blessed, ourselves.
1. Stop shaming artists: they do real work!
If we view the work of an artist as merely a utility, we hamper our mission. Creativity that solves problems gets most of the press, and in our culture, we have innovated business and technology better than any other nation on the globe, but we have lost the ability to tell our story, and if we lose our place in the dialog about life and faith in the town square, we lose our mission. The gospel requires us to share the story of Christ and how our stories reflect Christ. Art is about telling a story and real work. The writers, actors, musicians, and painters in your church do real work. Being “on stage” as an effective performer requires years of investment into the craft. Value the creatives, and you will value the story.
2. Become patrons of those who create content.
Being an artist is a lifelong calling. Whether or not one is a professional or amateur, mastering a craft takes time and money. My parents bought our family a piano, paid for lessons, and spent time driving me to music teachers. As an adult, the sacrifices to purchase lessons and pay for music school were only the start. Hours of practice and trial and error over many years allowed me a level of competence as a musician. While we are born with talent, working on our skill is what releases talent. I had patrons who made my career possible–from a personal loan from a music teacher to a spouse who supported me during leaner times. We must become patrons of those whose talents need releasing and developing.
3. Disciple artists to be prophets and missionaries.
We export literature, movies, video games, as well as music to the entire globe. It would be foolish, in my opinion, to not see the mission potential of our creatives. Whether a church raises up a worship leader or a secular filmmaker, we have an opportunity to extend our faith in dramatic ways. Prophets are needed to shine a warm light in a society that grows cold to the poor and powerless. No other group of people in our midst know how to tell the story of the least in our world. Do we invest in the spiritual formation or our artists? Before we launch our creative tribe, their calling should be proved through the creation of a community that loves and challenges them to be a better version of who God made them to be.
4. Start young, developing creatives as early as possible.
Our mistake is forgetting that learning how to make a pie ends and begins in the kitchen. A toddler stirs flour in a bowl while mom watches how grandma gets that perfect crust. We may see that small child on the floor as a waste, but he is learning how to cook! Before long, grandma watches mom and the little boy is now old enough to help form the crust in the pie tins. We pass on craft, as well as faith, in the most personal way. After all, the best analogy for a church is a family and the younger one learns to unleash their gifts the better. A concert pianist starts playing “Three Blind Mice” before a Chopin piece. Create venues in your church to train and give access to your youth. Before you know it, you will have a huge tribe of creatives wreaking the best kind of havoc in your church!
5. Teach servanthood: artiste versus artisan.
There is nothing more painful than working with extreme talent in a person with poor character. The idea of the idolatry of self-expression seduces many in the arts. While expression of self is part of being a good artist, that is not all of it. The idea of an artisan is one who creates to serve others. In a very real way, the performer who draws thousands still is serving his audience. If we make art about ourselves, we lose. We lose creatives that have self-restraint and soft hearts to ones who take more than they eventually give. Serving others is part of our Christian tradition. Christ himself wore the apron and washed feet. How do we teach our creatives to follow suit? Celebrate the joy of giving!
Double The Blessing From Double The Work
The double blessing of being a Christian artist means double the work at times. Community completes the activity of creation, but takes an incredible effort to achieve. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the universe in community. Their perfect shalom should inspire how we create. The double effort of loving and participating in a community is the double effort of being an artist and a follower of Christ. It is just the way Christ brought together the First Commandment with the Second–love God and love your neighbor. While this is the ideal, in reality, we will not help our creatives if we allow them to leave our tribe and create their own or find it elsewhere. The tragedy of our young leaving the church should motivate us to be better at keeping our family together. While we may be beyond the need to build breathtakingly beautiful cathedrals, the fact is that the story of the Gospel has many generations yet to hear the good news. How can your church be a thriving place for the next generation of artists?