How Churches Can Support the Arts
I often hear this question from elders and pastors who have heard me speak, “How can Churches support the arts?” They may have begun to see God’s heart for these things, but many churches are entrenched in a way of thinking that is hard to get out of.
Churches & Cathedrals
Have you visited the great cathedrals? From the enormous Cologne Cathedral, to visiting the Duomo in Florence, Italy. I have had the joy of walking through the architectural wonder of The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul many times, as well as St. Peter’s in Rome. There is something special about these buildings designed for worship. That is why it was a joy to take my kids to see St. Pauls’ Cathedral in London, to see the contrast between most American churches and the awe-inspiring design of a St. Paul’s.
These churches and cathedrals are beautiful and impressive. Entering them can take your breath away. They present a snapshot of a time when churches hired artisans, valued art, and inhabited the center of their cities, and therefore the culture. I do not believe in nostalgia, and I do not pretend all was well. Sin and suffering are never absent, just as Christ told us the poor are always present. Yet, the church had something beautiful and lovely to offer the world.
Medium is the Message
The late Marshall McLuhan gave us the phrase that fits the impact of these ecclesiastical monuments, “The Medium is the Message”. These amazing feats of architecture and expressions of artistic excellence stood at the center of the town, village or city. The beauty and artistry of the buildings spoke volumes about God as the source of beauty, and the one who gave us the gift of art and craftsmanship. Art was not ancillary but central too life, and central to the gospel. One could stand before a cathedral and read aloud “He makes all things beautiful” (Eccl. 3:11) and it would resonate with your experience.
But where is the beauty today? We now go to churches (if we can during quarantine!) in strip malls and giant prefab concrete boxes. Church planters have to use whatever building they can find, and I applaud those who try to dress up the public-school gymnasiums and cafeterias to bring in whatever beauty they can. There is a place for efficiency and practicality, but can we be honest?
Budget for Art
Consider church budgets. They are combed through by finance committees, elders, deacons and even members, if you are a congregationalist. But how are decisions made? Are they made based on biblical principles, or cultural preferences? Does the church itself tithe by designating 10% or more to mercy ministries and outreach? There are other interesting questions we could ponder here, but the one I want to ask is this: if the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temples were extravagant places of worship. Why would our budgets not reflect the same principle? I am not arguing for massive, gold covered buildings, but…
Our theology has been dominated by modernism and utilitarianism. Here’s the problem: God is not a utilitarian, a modern thinker, nor a mere pragmatist. His love is radical. His New Jerusalem is extravagant. His forgiveness is breathtaking. Jesus was constantly surprising and unpredictable because he did not share the legalism of the pharisees, nor the pragmatism of the Romans.
No wonder the church is uninspiring,
and artists are not running to Christianity for inspiration.
God is not a Pragmatist
Mere pragmatism is not what Jesus preached. If God were a pragmatist he would have rebuked Mary for breaking the jar of nard worth a year’s wages and pouring it upon her savior (John 12:1-8). He would have joined the Pharisees and Judas in condemning lavish worship. Such expense would be an offensive waste to a God of efficiency and pragmatism. Too many elders and deacons create church budgets as if Mary’s actions were foolish. There is no money for beautification or inspiring the congregation or neighborhood through artistic means. Like Judas, it is seen as too lavish. Have we not wandered far from the economy of God?
God is not a Utilitarian
Thankfully, our God is not a utilitarian. He is a God of extravagant love, grace and mercy. He gave us animals of all shapes, sizes and colors. He gave us people of all shapes, colors, and dispositions. He uses the little things when everyone else chooses the powerful and grand. He welcomes the humble women to sit as his feet when no other Rabbi would. He praises the heart when everyone else is focused on the external actions and behaviors. He calls the first to be last, and the last to be least. If you are never surprised by God, you are not paying attention.
If the church is going to speak to the world, we need to return to the use of art, creativity and artists. No one is inspired by boring architecture, boring walls, or boring sermon illustrations. Sure, God can overcome these obstacles, but our job is not to create obstacles but to remove them.
Practical Ways for Churches to Support the Arts, Encourage Artists and Creativity
1) Affirm Creativity and Beauty are from God
Start with Genesis. In the beginning it describes God as a creator (Gen 1), and then we are made in His Image, male and female. Before we know much more about God than the fact that he creates amazing things, He designates us as sharing our very nature with him. If you have ever been moved by the majesty of a lion or the stunning beauty of a sunset, your heart has already testified to the beauty of God’s creation. God gave us the ability to enjoy beauty and to create more beauty and art. That beauty ought to be illuminated in our sermons, our lives and our church buildings.
2) Teach about God’s Artist, Bezalel.
When God rescued his people from Egypt, and led them into the wilderness, God spoke to Moses about two things on Mt. Sinai. First, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-21). Second, God told Moses that he had chosen one artist, Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-5) to create the ark of the covenant and everything in the tabernacle from priestly robes and the incense to the ark itself.
When God chose to create his own nation, he started with the structure of the law that pointed to God’s goodness, and the artistry of the Tabernacle that pointed to God’s beauty. If we understand this text clearly, we will see God’s template from the beginning, included art and beauty.
3) Teach about the Art used in the Bible
God created beautiful scenery, birds, beasts, fish, and humanity. Then he called us to use our gifts to communicate creatively and create beauty in our everyday life. Life is to be enjoyed, according to the Westminster Confession. We are specifically designed to enjoy life and enjoy the giver of life in all we do.
To that end, God shows us in scripture over and over, examples of how art and creativity foster this joy and celebration of life. God gave us examples of everything from music and dance to the performance art of the prophets. Here is a very brief set of examples:
Primary Worship Models
• The Tabernacle : furniture, Clothing, incense, anointing oil, golden angels wings, etc.
• The Temple : Golden panels, precious stones, carved cherubim (2 Chron. 3:7)
• Music: Thousands of musicians employed (1 Chronicles 23:5)
• Drama: Acting out the words of God (Ezekiel 4:1-3)
• Dance: “let us praise his name with dancing..” (Psalm 150:4-5)
Art in Heaven
• Architecture, dance, singing, etc. (Revelations)
“Art does not stop at the gate of Heaven. Art Forms are carried right into heaven.”
4) Affirm the Various Uses of Art
Art is a form of communication, and as such it has an endless number of variations in purpose and content. In a previous video I compared the artist’s roles in culture to the roles of Christ: Some tend to be more therapeutic and priestly. Some tend to be more provocative, and calling us back to the gospel like a prophet. Others tend to be more like kings who use their skills in design, ergonomics or other functions to bring order and meaning out of chaos. (watch that video HERE)
Some parts of the Christian community have insisted on art that is only didactic, because it is to be used to teach. Others have required art to be specifically about Christ. But if art and creativity are an echo of the creativity of God, we need to follow the model God himself. God did not make beautiful landscapes, animals, weather and people only to teach.
Furthermore, John 3:16 is not written on the leaves of the trees, nor in the sun rays of a sunset. God himself is quite content with art that implies his nature, without making it explicit. We should not burden artists with laws God himself does not state, nor behaviors He does not model. We need to encourage the freedom of the artist to honor God in unique ways, and to speak into the world with new methods and techniques.
5) Support Artists
This is the most obvious. If you believe God cares about beauty and art, that should be evident and obvious in the preaching, the worship, the church building and the influence of the church body in the community and culture.
If you value art, you will express that by valuing artisans and artists. This includes paying musicians to help with worship(if they are excellent), adorning parts of your church with beautiful artwork (not trite slogans or kitsch), and encouraging artists in your midst to make great films, dances, plays, video games and novels to speak into the darkness of our culture in a way the pulpit cannot.
If your church has the money and the space, it is a great opportunity to incubate artists like the patrons of the past. Get practical: Give them a stipend or commission them to make art that speaks to life of Christ in your particular community.
6) See Beauty as a form of Evangelism
One of my board members took an artist’s friend to church at the strip mall where they met. The people were lovely, but the artist shared afterwards how hard it was to worship the God of the universe in a space that was so barren of beauty and inspiration. So our board member took her friend down the street to a cathedral that afternoon. Immediately, this dear friend took a deep breath and expressed – This fits the God of all creation which I have read about in the Bible. The beauty of the Cathedral spoke more clearly to the aesthetic sensitivities of this artist. That is what God used to draw this woman to himself. Never underestimate the power of art used by God.
Final Thoughts on How the Church can Support the Arts
Life was not necessarily better back in the days of the Cathedrals. Yet, we cannot afford to be chronological elitists. God spoke to his people back then, and he is speaking to us now. Each generation has something to offer as they listen to God’s voice and seek to honor his word.
I’m not saying every church needs to be a cathedral. Every church has its own resources, as well as its own unique community and cultural context. There are beautiful small churches with a simple aesthetic that speak to God’s intimacy with his people, as well as grand cathedrals that speak God’s transcendence. What I am saying is that each church should be seeking ways to express the very character of God and to give people a foretaste of heaven. When we invite people to join us in worship, it should reflect the beauty and joy we long to experience in heaven.
Artists are uniquely gifted as members of the body of Christ to help make church more beautiful, more inviting, and to point our imagination toward heaven. Like the Old Testament Temple, God wants to use singing, sacraments, worship, and the speaking of God’s word, all in a context of beauty. It may be simple. It may be extravagant. It may have abstract art or representational art. There is no book of Leviticus prescribing what the art in the church must look like.
If you really want to get into all the details – check out our Arts & Entertainment Institute Online, but for now it is sufficient to emphasize the freedom we have in our artistic expressions, and the importance of beauty and art within the church, and among God’s people. So support artists because creativity is part of the Imago Dei. Support art in the church because that is the model and template given to us by God.
Let us know in the comments if your church supports the arts or not. If they do, how do they? If they don’t, how do you think they should? We’d love to hear from you!
Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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