A few weeks ago at small group I got to talking to a friend of mine working in theater. He was saying how few Christians work in the arts and how antagonistic his co-workers (people he loves and who very much love him) could be toward his faith. I shared about the years I spent teaching in the Liberal Arts department of a state university and the almost universal derision directed toward the Christian faith, my faith, even as I personally excelled and made friends.
Neither he nor I were complaining. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” Trouble is fine. Instead we were musing--musing on how we could be SO much like a group of people--have the same wiring, talents and interests--and yet not fit in, not really. But then we could go to church where we were so much unlike most of the people around us, and find acceptance--more than that--belonging.
My friend and I attend a beautiful church, a church that speaks our language (at least some of the time) and welcomes us to use our gifting and unique ways of seeing to bless the body. Not all churches are as welcoming to artists, and when artists struggle to belong at church they find themselves stranded, torn between two communities, neither one home, both requiring change before offering acceptance.
Too many churches (meaning the people who comprise local bodies of Christ) have required artists to become something other than what they are or function in ways they don’t function in order to belong. The result is a steady decline in the number of artists serving in the kingdom of God.
The more artists leave, the fewer who’re left behind to enact change. Possibly the single greatest reason artists aren’t sinking their teeth into the mission of the local church is that so few artists are still around to model and campaign for a more artistic approach to worship, teaching, community, and service.
This is a huge topic; one to which I cannot do justice. So, I won’t try. What I do want to offer are three ways churches often fail to connect with artists (and a few suggestions for doing better). In a future post I’ll suggest a couple ways artists can be more intentional about connection themselves.
Let’s get to it…
#1 Churches fail to connect with artists when they assume artists think, learn and worship in the same ways as their more analytical brothers and sisters.
While analytical and logical thinkers appreciate straight-forward delivery of facts and information, artists tend to require a less linear delivery system.
- Artists want to figure things out on their own. They very much dislike pre-digested content (no mama-birding, please).
- They like circular communication, story-telling, parables, and poems--all of which include the opportunity for interpretation and mental wandering. Give an artist a simple, fully fleshed out argument with three practical application points and they’ll likely spend the time you’re talking drawing a picture of a dragon in the sermon notes spot on the bulletin.
- Too, artists often prefer visual communication to verbal (especially when the verbal communication is highly literal).
- They often require physical movement to learn.
- And, artists prefer questions to answers--meaning, they find excitement and interest at the beginning of an adventure and have no desire to just jump in at the end when the discovery is made.
- They highly value discussion so long as the questions are legitimate questions without pre-decided answers.
As you may have noticed, this isn’t the way we set things up in church world--not usually. Most sermons are highly literal, linear and directive. Most churches do not regularly include rich metaphor expressed in poetry, film, preaching, etc (our songs may be the respite here, though modern praise songs often strip away or over simplify the metaphor). We use very little visual imagery (beyond PowerPoint imagery, rarely created by an artist). We spend the majority of our gathered time (in worship, Bible class, small group) seated. And we can be guilty of seeing questions as markers of opposition or doubt.
In children’s environments we teach a lesson instead of empowering kids to learn the lesson themselves through student-directed discovery. We offer prescribed crafts with universal bottom lines instead of encouraging kids to explain what they’ve learned in a more personal expression. We ask kids to sit still for an hour or more, a monumental task for kids who’re artistic.
All of this works fine for most of the body. But for a healthy portion, these methods are not working.
In an effort to connect with and educate our artists, we need to be willing to change up our methodology on occasion, teaching in parables, through images and in a more participatory context. We need more room for discussion, more movement (even in Sunday worship gatherings) and more opportunities for personal discovery and expression.
#2 Churches fail to connect with artists when they dismiss wonder and mystery.
I recently asked a few artist friends to share any examples they had of being misunderstood or underrepresented in church. My friend Brad shared this story:
“I remember as a young boy sharing something in Bible class and talking about how wonderfully mysterious it is to be alive. The teacher then told me there was no mystery… That’s stuck with me and I share it now because it speaks to what might be at the heart of churches not knowing what to do with creatives. There is mystery. Some of us are maybe more comfortable with it than others.”
Brad said later, “Some want their Christian [art] to be safe, simplified images of what a life of faith looks like. I want wonder. I want to be challenged. We should be able to explore and ask questions and imagine.”
Artists like a good fog. As seers, uniquely gifted in terms of observing and understanding the world around them, they require mystery, places where things still need figuring out, where all the questions aren’t answered, where they can sit and look and in looking see new things.
If we tell artists everything has already been figured out, everything about Who God is and what He does and what it looks like to be His people, they’ll walk away--either because they know we’re wrong (in which case they’ll seek out other faith traditions or try worshipping God on their own) or because they think maybe we’re right and our God is too small to be real.
And when they walk away we’ll be the ones missing out, continuing to live as if we know all the answers, totally blind to what we can’t see, without the eyes God gave us and knew we’d need.
#3 Churches fail to connect with artists when they value product over process.
I was talking to a friend recently about what seems like a new boom in “church art.” What we meant was the new proliferation of visual images in church (high quality posters and signage, lovely websites, not-tacky images behind song slides) combined with a greater prevalence of Christian storytelling via video, poetry, and film.
He said, “I like that everything is getting more beautiful, but I wonder if it’s art or if it’s advertising.”
Here’s the difference, advertising uses images to convince you of a pre-decided message or prompt you to a predetermined action. Even before advertising is made, the creator knows the “point” of the work. Advertising is agenda-ed.
Art is not. Without an agenda, the artist spends time and energy figuring out what’s true. He or she is not beholden to a client, but rather beholden only to the truth they uncover. When you interact with art, you often walk away having gone on a journey yourself. You’re not trying to figure out “the point” or “the lesson” or what soap you should buy. You’re simply struck by beauty and truth, hopefully in a way that inspires you to wonder and explore on your own.
Art results from and inspires process. It makes you ask questions and go on quests and pray real prayers and read your Bible to discover.
It’s not advertising. And it’s definitely not decoration.
Too often what we want from our artists are products:
I need a picture of a person who looks happy for the website.
Can I get a t-shirt design that’s a tree that looks like it’s planted in the Bible? Can it be blue?
Would you mind writing a poem for our service? It needs to be two minutes long and happy and about how much God loves moms and based on Proverbs 31.
This work needs to be done at times, perhaps. But it is far too prescriptive to bring artists joy or give them a sense of purpose.
How about we start asking our artists to do the work they’re best suited for, encouraging them to set out on a process?
Next year I’m teaching a series on grace. Can you spend a few months exploring whatever metaphors for grace you think are most powerful? (Or better: what are you wondering about that might make a great sermon series? Wanna partner up?)
In a few months our church is transitioning to two services in order to reach our community. Can you join the brainstorming team for the roll out and explore how we might inspire our members and answer/uncover their potential questions through visual messaging?
We want to reconsider how we’re approaching communion. What could we do to better express the meaning behind it on a regular basis? Could you think through a few possible options?
The teenagers are going on a retreat this fall. We want to talk about their identity in Christ. Could you think through some ways we might explore that in art?
Artists are process people. It’s the process of choosing and seeing and wondering and exploring and sorting and describing that makes them come alive. They don’t want simply to execute your vision--not in some precise, fill-in-the-blanks, connect-the-dots way. They want the chance to be visionaries.
Side note: Process requires time and room to fail. Artists need the freedom to wander down a trail with no “results.” Or with results that vary greatly from the original plan. I talked to a friend recently working with a church that measures all his efforts in terms of local baptisms. “How many people were baptized as a direct result of this poem?” is the kind of question that kills creativity. It’s a good thing no one measured Jesus’ success by how many people responded in faith to His extended metaphor on eating flesh.
The bottom line is this: our body is diverse. Let’s remember that in order to be the full expression of Christ God intends, we need to welcome and embrace different ways of learning, expressing and being.
I don’t blame the church for artists leaving, but I know the church can do much more to help them stay. Let’s do what we can. I promise, we will be immeasurably blessed by their presence and kingdom work.