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Birmingham Is Not New York: 5 Cautions for Arts Ministry

A growing number of churches today have some kind of “arts ministry,” ranging from hosting film discussion groups to funding artists in residence. Even more ministry workers are asking how to “engage the arts.” But confusion over “how to engage art” continues to concern me. As a humanities major at a conservative Bible college, I was troubled by questions about “Christian artists,” the second commandment, and art in heaven. After working in a church for a few years, I pursued a masters in modern art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As my time in Chicago took me deeper into art institutions of all kinds, I began to look upon efforts among evangelicals to enter the art world as needing some guidance from “the other side.” I don’t have all the expert answers, but here are a few points for reflection for those engaging the art world in a church setting. This commendable energy deserves a few words of caution.

1. Define Your Terms

Words like art, beauty, arts, and aesthetic are not self-explanatory. You don’t need a PhD in art history, but you should read at least a couple books on art and art theory, especially those outside the “Christian Imagination” genre. Having to define your terms will inevitably force you to clarify your intent. What kind of art are do you hope to include in your “ministry”? Performance? Installation? Painting? Costume design? Glitch? Quilts?

If your definition of “good art” is something like “that which shows the beautiful,” you’ve got a lot of work to do. There is no end to the books on “art theory,” but starting with something like Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? and the Cynthia Freeland’s Very Short Introduction to Art Theory will help give you some vocabulary to think through issues surrounding art in the 21st century.

Rather than Francis Schaeffer, reach for current contemporary writers on art. Schaeffer understood art as a zeitgeist of a given culture for his missionary efforts—-no small accomplishment. However, by his own admission, Schaeffer was not an art historian and did not do the hard work of understanding the nuances and complexities of modern and contemporary art. Dan Siedell is a contemporary art historian and curator whose book, God in the Gallery (2009), is a lone voice in this wilderness. The church needs more voices thinking through these issues with the same kind of careful nuance Siedell brings. For those who feel certain they want to work in this sector where art and ministry interact, they might be more helpful with an art history degree rather than an “arts and theology” degree from a seminary.

2. Get to Know Some Contemporary Art

If you cannot name five contemporary artists, you need put all your plans on hold and get educated. If you intend to help artists think through how their faith relates to their work, you will need to have more examples in mind than Fujimura, O’Connor, Tolkien, Rouault, Bach, and Rembrandt. There are more than enough resources out there to help (see below). The excellent PBS series Art21 will introduce a wide variety of contemporary visual artists. But there is no substitute for experiencing art firsthand, so go to museums, galleries, performances, and discussions as often as possible—-but please, be slow to speak and quick to listen.

3. You Will Not Win at the Art-World Game

If you dream of creating a gallery that ArtForum will gush over, stop. The art world is a conflicted tangled market that plays by its own rules. In the art world, you score points by making “good art”—-that is, an object that strikes the balance between shocking and profitable and will be featured in major international collections. So if you are a hosting an art event at your church and believe it to be full of “good art,” you need to go back to my first point, because you have misunderstood the game. You are trying to score a touchdown when you’re supposed to be going for a try. They may look similar, but to anyone who knows the two sports, they are very different. Arts ministry workers must learn to be content to host events that will never qualify as “good art” but may achieve a different set of goals.

4. You Will Not Redeem Art

The language of redeeming art has become ubiquitous within the evangelical blogosphere. Evangelicals seem to possess a collective zeal combined with an even stronger confusion about how to “redeem” or “engage” art. I do not think it can be, but if you insist on attempting to “redeem art,” be as painfully clear as you can about what that means. If you want Christian artists to find clever ways to communicate the Christian message in their works, then say that. If you want to find contemporary bronze serpents that point to Christ, then say that. The grandiose language of redeeming art is unhelpful at best.

5. Birmingham Is Not New York

Start with where you are. If your church is in a region with a strong history of quilt making, that should be the starting point for your arts ministry. Don’t open with a white cube gallery space. Take a lot of time to listen to the artists and designers in your church to understand the history and legacy of the creative process in your region. Think outside just painting and architecture. Contra dancing, shape-note singing, and street art murals are a few of the examples of regional art that you ought to spend time thinking about and participating in. Before turning your narthex into a gallery, why not ask experienced woodworkers in your congregation to make a table for communion? Before trying to create a concert space where touring bands can play, support already existing local efforts to promote music.

Starting Point

This is just a starting point for anyone looking to participate in arts ministry. Hopefully these cautions will expose common blind spots and help you earn credibility for artistic pursuits inside and outside your churches.

Here are a few further resources for your consideration:

Art Theory

What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

A Very Short Introduction: Art Theory, Cynthia Freeland

Contemporary Art

Art21 (video and website)


ArtForum (magazine and website)


Christians and Contemporary Art

God in the Gallery, Dan Siedell

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins

Matthew Milliner (art history professor at Wheaton College)