In the last century, evangelical Christians have emphasized a lot of things. Art-making and arts patronage are not among them. Evangelicals have also been increasingly on the losing end of “culture wars”—their values ever more maligned by a secularizing society.
Could it be the two trends are related? By deemphasizing culture-making as a crucial aspect of Christian mission, has the church left a void of massive formative power that secular creatives have readily filled? Is the marginalization of Christian values today a natural downstream result of decades of hearts and minds being primarily shaped by non-Christian artists? And if this is true, could a renaissance of Christian art-making set the stage for a revival of Christian vitality in the West?
The organization Renew the Arts—and its president/CEO Justus Stout—believes it’s possible. But it must start with a recovery of an old practice that used to be a hallmark of the church: patronage. I spoke with Stout about why patronage is important, how art fits into Christian mission, and everyday ways Christians can be involved in unleashing creativity for the cause of Christ.
Patronage has a rich history in the church. But not in recent history. When Christians or churches have resources to allocate for mission these days, the arts aren’t often atop the list. Why is that?
One reason for the lack of patronage in the church is practical and extends beyond the church: there are few points of entry for people to start becoming “patrons of the arts,” whether in the church or elsewhere. The world of art and culture has many gatekeepers, and a pecking order that helps people know where to place each other in the hierarchy of “cool.” This is, of course, self-destructive if artists and current taste-makers hope to welcome new fans and supporters, since a potential patron won’t exactly look or speak or dress like an artist. Ultimately, Christlike hospitality is needed in the arts sector (like any other sector) in order to cultivate relationships and practices that lead to mutual benefit, generosity, and creative restoration.
What’s the difference between patronage and philanthropy? Why is Christian patronage of the arts your goal with Renew the Arts?
Philanthropic giving is usually focused on proof of impact. There is merit to this kind of giving, but it can be difficult in the context of making art and culture, which has a very slow process of impact and is incredibly difficult to measure. A patron gives in a different way—because of a personal connection to the work, a relationship with the artist, and a peculiar insight into the goodness of the project at hand. This could be called discernment—perhaps the greatest characteristic of a patron.
Tell me about the Porchlight network. How does it work? What’s your long-term vision for it?
Porchlight is an “arts + hospitality” network we co-launched with UTR Media in October 2020. We realized COVID-19 made it basically impossible for musicians to play live concerts in typical music venues because they’re indoors and rely on large numbers. So we decided to launch a network of alternative spaces (with an emphasis on outdoor spaces at the start) in order to enable musicians to hit the road and play live music again. More than 130 hosts have already signed up across the country, and we’re confident the value of this network will outlive the pandemic.
Here is how it works: hosts sign up by filling out a form. Hosts are then alerted (via email, and eventually an app, once we finish securing the funding) when a band is passing through their area. If the host thinks it’s a good fit and is available for that particular day, they volunteer to host. There is never an obligation for hosts to commit to any particular concert: they decide on a case-by-case basis. After agreeing on a show, we exchange logistic information, and introduce the band and host to each other. We guide the host at every step along the way to make sure the event is a success.
Porchlight is essentially a house-show network, but instead of being a network of homes or venues, it’s a network of hosts. The entire operation is framed around the role of the host and radical hospitality. As hosts and audiences meet musicians, they have the possibility of creating genuine and mutually beneficial connections. We have a 30-year vision of cultivating unique experiences for people to grow these relationships with musicians they have met, and ultimately to become patrons of artists to whom they feel a special connection and camaraderie.
How can a Christian who loves quality music and wants to support Christian artists be involved in Porchlight?
There’s nothing like hosting an amazing night of beautiful music. I would really encourage folks to sign up to host. Or if you’d rather attend a Porchlight show, at least at first, you can check out events by clicking “Interested in Attending?” on our website.
What other small steps can individual Christians and churches take to move more in a direction of arts patronage?
If you are a part of a church that has a worship leader, think of them as more than just a Christian-radio cover band (I’ve heard church worship music called “Christian karaoke”). If creative communication has the power to teach and shape (which it does), worship-leadership positions should be treated like teaching positions. This will come with increased responsibility and increased accountability—good things for artists trying to create within a church context.
Another thing: pay for art. If you find something beautiful that serves you, it’s worth buying (versus streaming). I recommend the platform Bandcamp for music. After about three free listens of an album, it halts streaming and recommends you buy the music. This is a great compromise to give listeners a chance to preview music but also challenging them to support the art they keep coming back to.
The smallest step is the local step—ask local artists about how you can support their work. The first and easiest support is simply giving attention. Our undivided attention is precious to artists, and they rarely get it.
The first and easiest support is simply giving attention. Our undivided attention is precious to artists, and they rarely get it.
I like to echo Michael Pollan, the popular food advocate, in saying: “Eat less, and eat real.” When it comes to art and culture, we can most likely drop our amount of daily consumption by a lot. And the art we do consume should be healthy for our souls, our families, and our culture. Make a concerted effort to support and receive more edifying and substantial art, and consume fewer “empty calories” (art made merely for diversion). For most of us, this will require a disciplined change of habit.
Investing in artists can seem like a hard sell for some Christians, especially when the kingdom impact seems more direct with other causes. What are some of the valid concerns behind this, and what are the reasons (in spite of the concerns) for still investing in beauty and art?
Investing in artists is certainly risky, but not nearly as risky as not investing in them. We can invest in lots of ministries (as we should, and do), but if churches continue to push artists to other communities for support, we will continue to feel like we are fighting culture instead of creating and cultivating it. Artists shape the way we see and understand the world. If we let our collective imagination be shaped into a form that is not true and good and beautiful, then all our other efforts will be sewn into a cultural fabric that is threadbare and tearing apart.
We already feel this, in some sense. Christians involve themselves in a lot of really great work, yet we feel like we are in a constantly uphill (perhaps even losing) struggle. If we also invested in artists, we might begin to see how artists can blaze paths ahead of our other efforts. Perhaps our efforts could produce more fruit if the desires and affections of audiences had already been shaped—by the arts—to savor the truth. But if imaginations are instead being shaped by secular or even anti-Christian trailblazers, we will feel the pain of having not invested in artists—the artists who will paint, sing, and imagine God’s promised future.