Why Do Churches and Artists Need Each Other?

Ryan Lister, Brett McCracken, and Thomas Terry discuss artistic gifting, creative voices in the church, artistic inspiration, and the value of guardrails in art.


The following is a lightly edited transcript provided by a transcription service. Please check video before quoting.

Ryan Lister: One way the church needs artists is they need them to use and serve their gifts for the good of the church and for the good of the gospel. So the Lord has created people with certain gifts to exercise those gifts within that body so that what they’re doing is helping others in the church, caring for others in the church, and leading them through their gifts to worship, ultimately. So that’s one way, I think, that the church needs artists.

Another way is I think artists and creatives at large sort of help give a different perspective, in a sense helps maybe knock down some walls that don’t necessarily need to be in the church and allows beauty to break in to areas that otherwise have been sort of cut off from it historically. So what it does is it opens up conversations. It diversifies the body, allows different types of ideas and thoughts to come in under the authority of the gospel in order to help shape one another. So that what happens is the creative is strengthening those who wouldn’t classify themselves as creatives or classify themselves as artists. And simultaneously, those who are on the other side of the aisle, if you will, are talking back to them, strengthening them, challenging them, helping them with their conception of what it means to be a Christian and an artist under the lordship of Christ.

Brett McCracken: I think something that comes to mind is artists play a role in any culture, any society, any community by asking questions that humans ask. They’re attuned to the existential questions. Artists tend to have a pulse on things that are in the air in society. And it’s helpful for churches to be aware of those, pastors to be aware of those. And sometimes artists can be that bridge to the wider world and just the human longings. Art is so much about giving voice to human longing that everyone feels. And churches and pastors really should not be detached from that experience.

Another thing is beauty. Churches need artists and the value of beauty that they bring. In our day and age, the gospel, if it’s not delivered beautifully, is going to fall on deaf ears. We can’t just deliver it didactically through stale, tired, old words. There’s power, in the gospel however it’s transmitted. And God, of course, can use anything to save someone. But in Western culture right now, I think we need artists to help us beautify the message in theology.

Ryan Lister: Sort of reignite that imagination that brings different perspectives and understanding of the gospel as it extends to all areas of life.

Brett McCracken: Yes.

Thomas Terry: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So, why do artists need the church then?

Ryan Lister: Yeah. Well, first and foremost, they need the church because that’s where the gospel is declared. And so artists need the gospel like we all need the gospel. So, the reality is that the gospel is being announced, and so they need to be in church to be reminded of what Christ has done for them and what Christ has done for all of them, what Christ has done for their identity, removing it, as you were saying earlier, removing it from that “I am a creative,”but ultimately putting in into Christ himself, that “I am in union with Christ.” So that’s the biggest reason. That’s the biggest reason.

A practical reason, sort of a side reason, is when you get into the church, you come face to face with people who just aren’t like you. And though it’s not, this is a byproduct of it, that will ultimately help your art. Because what you’re doing is you are hearing different stories, you’re hearing different narratives, you’re hearing different ideas. And that’s going to push you to sort of expand your palate, if you will. It’s going to be something that says, “I’m just not hearing the same things over and over again.I’m hearing different people talk about different ideas.”

And it’s pushing into our own stories, so as we write, we have somebody else’s voice in our head. Or as we’re doing film, we know how to capture this person’s perspective because they’re in our church, they’re talking this into our ear. And when we’re singing, we’re understanding who is in the audience, what they need to hear, things that are bigger than us, and how that lands in people’s laps in different ways and in different emphasis.

Brett McCracken: I think that’s so good. I think artists have a tendency to live in bubbles. And that doesn’t produce good art. Bad art comes from bubbles, and good art comes from artists who are mingling with all sorts of people. And there’s a reason why cities historically have been the sources of the great art. Because in cities and urban areas, there’s so much intermingling of cultures and ideas, and it’s a fruitful environment for art. And so the church can function in a similar way as a microcosm for an artist to be around people who aren’t like them to kind of get inspiration from the messy intermingling of the soccer mom and the 70-year-old retired veteran, and everything in-between. The spectrum of human existence is in a good healthy, diverse church, and that can be a great inspiration for artists.

The other big thing I would say is limitation and boundary that a church provides accountability. You guys have talked about how we artists talk about artistic freedom being so important. But actually, a free-for-all is not freeing. That’s kind of stifling. So I think artists thrive most when there are limitations. And not to kind of couch the church as one giant limitation, but in a sense it is, in a good way. It kind of closes off other things and says, “This is the truth. For all the questions you ask, for everything you might explore as an artist, you know that this much is true. The Bible gives us this.” So it kind of focuses artists and gives them guardrails and boundaries that, actually, counterintuitively, are more freeing and inspire artists to expand their horizons.

Ryan Lister: Yeah. Yeah. And it demands people to be open. Like, when you go into the church, you need to be open to coming across things that are going to cut across your bow, that are going to challenge you. You need to have that openness. And you need to have that openness to being what obedience can actually produce in you, that this truth really matters, and that it matters to your art and it’ll actually help inflame and help it be bigger than just what the world is telling you your art can be.