The Church and the Arts: Some Common Ground and Some Common Sense

The Church and the arts have had an on-again off-again relationship for a couple millennia.  At times, the Church has been a patron of the arts, supporting and encouraging sculptors, painters, and musicians out of its largesse.  At other times, the church has been standoffish toward the arts, seeing them as a waste of time, or worst, an expression of hedonism and sensuality.

Today, although many churches could hardly be called artist-friendly, there is a resurgence of interest in and advocacy for the arts.  In the under-40 church crowd, loving the arts is like loving your grandma, as in, only the most backward philistines don’t.  There are two things no young Christian dares to be against: social justice and the arts.

The passion for encouraging the arts is understandable and in large part commendable.  Not only does the Church have a long history of commissioning art, but the Bible speaks highly of those with gifts of artistry and craftsmanship (see the famous pair, Bezalel and Oholiab).  And let’s be honest, many of our churches are not exactly a haven for the artsy crowd.  Church culture is usually more conducive to the bourgeois than the bohemian.  So it makes sense that we would have to go out of our way to welcome artists and encourage their work.

Before I go further, let me make clear that I am not about to offer a theology of the arts.  I am ill-equipped to do so.  For those interested in a fuller treatment of Christianity and the arts, I recommend Philip Ryken’s little book Art for God’s Sake.  I am not an artist.  By that I mean, I am not a painter, sculptor, poet, or dancer (you don’t want to see me dance).  I have been in choirs and received some training in voice, so music is the closest I come to artistic excellence.  But for the most part I think I am a pretty average Christian when it comes to the arts (I work hard at the “art” of writing and preaching, so I guess I’m thinking more of the fine arts in these reflections).  I like some of it, find some of it boring, and some of it I just don’t get.

As a pastor I think a renewed emphasis on the arts in our churches can be a very good thing or a very bad thing.  It all depends on whether the “art is the answer” crowd and the “art is weird” crowd can find some common ground around some common sense.  Toward that end, let me suggest several theses on the Church and the arts.

1. We must allow art to be art. Sometimes Christians make the mistake of thinking that for art to be valuable it must share the gospel or try to point people to Jesus.  Such an approach usually makes for bad evangelism and bad art.  Art is valuable because it can be beautiful and full of truth.  We should not expect art to communicate in the same way that discourse does.

2. Art is valuable, but so are a lot of other things. Christians don’t always know what to do with art.  We think, “Is there really any value in a beautiful dance or a hard to follow poem?”  But done well, the fine arts can inspire us, comfort us, disturb us, and cause different parts of our brain to start firing.  Art reminds us that “usefulness” is not the measure of worth.  But art is not a god, nor is it God’s favorite major in college.  There is nothing intrinsically better (or worse) about being an artist than being an accountant, a computer programmer, or a cashier.

3. Art can do some things, and it can’t do some other things. Christians often struggle with art because it can be so ambiguous, so open to interpretation.  It doesn’t traffic in propositions.  It encourages us to think, but also to feel.  It forms more than it informs.  In this way, art can “teach” us about our God who is creative and mysterious.  But being an engineer can “teach” us about our God who is orderly and knowable.  God is a big God and lots of things and lots of vocations can display his diverse excellencies.  We should not make the mistake–and I’ve heard this often–of thinking that “the poets, the artists, the story-tellers, they are the ones who can really teach us about God.”  Well, yes, they can.  But so can grocers and garbage collectors.

4. Our worship should strive for artistic excellence, but our worship will inevitably be “popular” and propositional. I’m always telling our people that we want “undistracting excellence” on Sunday morning (thanks to John Piper for the phrase).  I don’t want us to think that mediocrity is a spiritual virtue.  Every church will have different capabilities, but the goal is to have excellent music, excellent sound, and excellent instrumentation, just like we want excellent preaching.  The worship service is not usually the time to give little Timmy a chance to play his scales on the piano.  It is an opportunity for those who labored hard at a craft to serve God with their labors.

But, on the other hand, churches need to realize that the goal of the worship service is not to display the talents of artists.  The ultimate goal is for the congregation to be edified and to worship Jesus Christ to glory of God.  This means that the music must be fairly simple for hundreds (or thousands) of untrained people to sing it at the same time.  It also means that our worship services will deal with truth in its propositional forms.  I don’t want people leaving worship wondering what the point was.  I don’t want them exploring different interpretations.  I want the message to be crystal clear.  In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul argues for shared intelligibility in corporate worship.  We aren’t looking for individualized worship experiences.  We want maximum clarity, which means we won’t apologize for being heavy on words and light on other kinds of “art.”

5. Churches can learn to welcome artists, but artists should not expect the church to be an art gallery. As I’ve said, the church has a history of supporting the arts.  There is something unique about the visual arts (I’m thinking of painting, banners, murals, photographs, etc.) that are well-suited for inclusion in “sacred space.”  It’s hard for a mortgage lender to show his wares throughout the church, but with art it can be done.  If there are talented artists in your church, consider finding the appropriate space for their work to be displayed and “spruce up” your church.

But artists need to realize that the church is not an art gallery.  They need sensitivity to realize that not every piece can be used, and the humility to hear “thanks, but no thanks.”  Some art does not fit the context or mood of the church.  Some arts gets dated.  Some of it is distracting.  And some of it isn’t very good.  Besides all this, unless we want to return to a Christendom model of church, it is unlikely that the church will ever be able to support (at least financially) the arts as it once did.

6. Artists can help us see our idols, and artists have idols of their own too. Bankers may idolize money.  Moms may idolize their kids.  Academics may idolize the intellect.  Pastors may idolize preaching.  Artists can idolize self-expression.  What’s more, we can all be wrongfully proud that we don’t bow down to other people’s idols.  Good art can help strip away pretension and pragmatism.  Good artists will always be humble about their own limitations and besetting sins.  And good Christians will always be eager to see truth and beauty wherever they can find it.