How To Discourage Artists in The Church?

Just read a wonderful article online sent to several folks including myself, by a longtime friend, musician and artist Ralson Bowles.

In it, author Philip G. Ryken makes a core statement and asks a question I’d like to try at least in small part, to answer.

The full article: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/05/28/how-to-discourage-artists-in-the-church/

He writes: “[Christian artists] have extraordinary opportunities to honor God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel. How can pastors (and churches) encourage Christians with artistic gifts in their dual calling as Christian artists?”

He goes on to give answer by way of his aptly-titled piece, and there are truths here worth living out. A very worthwhile read.

My thoughts on this short snippet quoted above?

Artists, pastors and churches in general need to both face and reflect the lament factor written all through the Book of God as well as human history.

Philip Ryken wisely added: “Do not allow space for lament. The artist’s call is to face the darkness while still believing in the light, to sense God’s silence and sorrow.”

I couldn’t agree more, but think we need to go deeper on this brilliant point.

So how do we encourage artists to live out their dual call? What strikes me as obvious is that -all- Christ followers need to be biblical (see John chapter 15) disciples, not merely converts. There are plenty and obvious ways to help people who are open, to healthy spiritual growth. And yet it must be voluntary on the part of each artist.

Secondly, our call to create and share our creative offerings must include… wait for it… lament, not only nor purely, light.

Both artist and Christian community must quit expecting, even demanding the bulk of artistic offerings (regardless of art form) to -only- reflect the “grace, beauty and truth” of the gospel. You read that correctly. And I happen to be an evangelist.

Please read on.

Paul tells us genuine followers of Jesus are “the scent of death” to those who do not believe and are perishing. He writes “the gospel is an offense”, which it certainly is to many if not most in society. Christians as well as non can fall into a very human tendency to deify ourselves. We are not God but truly wish we were! And believers sin. Sin is not limited to pagans!

Jesus not only demonstrated His love, He also said “weird stuff” that pulls our nose hairs, sayings like “The one who does not gather with me scatters” and “If anyone would follow me he or she must deny self, pick up their cross and follow me”. “If they loved me they will love you also. If they hated me and my message they will hate yours also”.

I am not a morose person, but we need to “weep with those who weep”, not -only- “rejoice with those who rejoice”.

Why is it the Book of Psalms is most populated with “laments”?!

How is it that we only sense the immediate truth of the Good News when our own sense of being kissed with grace and beauty are involved… but rarely when pain, suffering and rejection surface in our life? Am I the only one who struggles with such matters? God IS good, and the gospel IS true… but does not always feel like it. How would it be blasphemous or always wrong for a Christian artist to also reflect such realities via our art?

I thank GOD this isn’t the whole picture, but there is this “both/and” in that we are both welcomed by Him as well as needing to face His “Forsake all, come and follow me”! Of course we want to camp in the “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” rather than the first part of this phrase of our Lord- “In the world you shall have tribulation…”

The whole truth of the good news is that it’s bad news on several very real levels. We can no longer serve another master, including the worst of these… self.

There is not only truth but indeed grace and beauty in this “shock of corn that must fall into the ground and die in order for it to bear much fruit”, but let’s not kid ourselves, most art that is widely acceptable to most Christ-followers could not be considered dark. It is THIS side of art (and sometimes artist) that may be as neglected as it is rejected in the churches.

As a pastor as well as evangelist and artist I find myself lamenting for so many Christian artists. Their sometimes unwillingness to sit still among church folks is only matched by the unwillingness of church folk to welcome them with all their strangeness and eccentricities. This does nothing to encourage their discipleship nor does it bring vibrant, honest art to the church.

Are some artists truly rebellious adult children acting out? Absolutely, just as some church folks are “don’t rock the boat and cause our growth by doing so with that weird ‘art’… or whatever it is!”

“Feel-good” rather than “weeping with those who weep” art may seem to shed the light of Christ, but I would argue Gethsemane, stumbling up the hill under the cross, thorns and blood do also. And of course real-world life goes far beyond strictly “Bible” story representations.

Worse than the artist or art being rejected is that those who do not (or at least do not yet) walk with the risen Savior see us as some in the U.K. say derisively, “the happy clappies”. They see our art and decide we apparently don’t suffer as they do. Or worse, that we live a pretend life on this planet. Perhaps Jesus suffered, but not us -not by the art we allow.

Yet everyone knows all is not “sweetness and light”.

I do think too many Christians (artists, pastors, believers in the churches) expect and demand “the bright side” while it rings hollow in light of the writings of Scripture from the rebellion in the Garden, Cain and Abel, Saul, the very end of the Book of Jonah right down to several accounts in the Book of Acts, Paul’s letters, the Book of Revelation and even in little letters like Jude.

IS there GOOD NEWS in the Good News? Absolutely! Ought we to be bringing uplifting works of beauty, grace and light into the sanctuary and other Christian and outreach events? YES!

But when our art only reveals light we are only giving half the message. Good News with no contrast, no everyday reality in this broken, fallen world and indeed among imperfect, sometimes sinning saints. This is less than truthful and less than beautiful.

I do not mean to say every artistic offering must focus on pain, I am simply saying too many wish our life on earth to literally reflect what it shall be in heaven.

We’re not home yet.

We’re on the road!

We live in the “soon but not yet”!

Walking, crawling or stumbling, let’s keep seeking Him and reflecting Him and His values… along with stories that at times, like those in the Bible, don’t end well.

Such may ignite the beginning of an earned credibility many outside the Christian faith have yet to give us. To me, the depth of the beauty of Jesus is in His absolute honesty. Truth encompasses beauty but also plenty of other things we often wish to toss out of mind and out of our artistry.

Last point: consider the vastness of light and darkness in the Bible stories of both Testaments! The writers were in fact artists. What does God’s own Word allow and therefore teach us?

I would encourage balance in both artists and the church in general or I suspect the good news we offer may in reality be less than beautiful, gracious and true by God’s own artistic standard.

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2 thoughts on “How To Discourage Artists in The Church?

  1. I read this and as soon as I read the point on laments, I thought of you! You have written and spoken on this topic quite convincingly already. I knew if you read the article that would be an important point.

    I have, of course, many thoughts on this article. As someone who has fought this fight and lived this struggle one of my issues (and I do happen to believe it is quite correct on just about every point) is this thinking that this is a church only problem. The title could easily have simply been “How to discourage artists” and been in just about any arts publication or blog in the US. This is a cultural and societal issue we face. Not that the church shouldn’t address it, but understand the issue extends beyond the four walls of the church, and comes into the church as people who behave and believe like this bring their predisposition with them and look for (and find) “biblical” justification for them.

    Bad art a problem in church? Well, guess what bad art is a problem everywhere, not just church. People want only happy, “family friendly” art in church? They want that outside the church, too. People not want to be challenged by art? You get my drift.

    So maybe what is discouraging is that for the practicing artist, these issues are faced everyday. The one place we would hope we don’t face these issues is someplace that should have the most solid, sound, creative understanding of art. The church should be the place where it is safe and safest to be an artist, particularly being created in the image a Creator God.

    However, in some cases the artists want it both ways. While they decry the utilitarian evangelistic use/abuse of art, how many will use their art to influence some other agenda they believe in? Political uses come to mind most easily.

    In my opinion, these issues are not rational (inside the church or outside the church) and no amount of rational thinking is going to change them. That’s like having two separate conversation at the same time. Just reading the comments after the article, many people have staked their claim and they believe they have the bible backing them. Outside the church I have come across no end of “Top Ten reasons to support the arts” arguments. I’ve not seen any list change anyone’s mind. Ultimately one of two things happen. Either the result is simply preaching to the choir or someone expounds their reasons those reasons are wrong.

    Ultimately, all is not lost. Rarely is the problem Art in general, but the problem most often is THAT art (whatever THAT art might be in any given situation). In this case, as in any case, the solution (and you’ve touched on this before when I’ve heard you speak) is intentional, genuine, humble, one on one relationship. If your an artist, take someone to lunch or coffee or take them to your studio or performance and talk to them about it. You might find you agree on many things about art. If you aren’t the artist, take the artist to lunch or coffee and talk to them about their art. You might find you actually agree on many things. Show genuine care for each other. And don’t think you are going to change them! You might find God changing you!

    I take heart that things are improving. We are much better now than even 10 years ago. But I guess the struggle continues still.

    Just some thoughts,
    Joe

    • Joe, Many thanks! I hear and agree with you loud and clear. Indeed, lack of face-to-face, interpersonal relationships are core and key. There are certainly others such as the arrogance or deep insecurity most of us struggle with that help keep us separate from those who may not accept our work and worse, us.

      Then there is the reality that many artists are poor communicators except via their artwork… which is itself confusing or perhaps unwanted.

      Such are the perils of a creative life in a fallen world. Which I will continue to create in regardless because God and people are worth the struggle!

      Thanks Joe,
      -Glenn

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