Should art have a place in the church

I was having an interesting conversation with a friend about art and should it have a prominent place in the life of the church. One of the questions was why should art have a place at the table when mathematics, sports activity and other things don’t. Obviously all work that we do are to be done to the glory of God but is there something uniquely different about art that makes particularly suited for life in the church?

I think that the answer is yes. Art is uniquely suited and it should have a place of prominence in the life of the church. There are at least three things that support the importance of art for the church. There probably are more but I want to focus on these three: reflection, illustration and illumination.

Reflection – The first thing we encounter in the Bible is the reality that God reveals himself aslet there be lightcreator. The earth is formless and void and God creates. He brings things into existence out of nothing. “And God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” Over and over God creates life out of nothing. Over and over we see that God restores and renews what is broken. He creates new life in all of us. God is a thoroughly creative being.

We as his image bearers are made to reflect his nature. The artist is a great conduit for reflecting this fundamental characteristic of God. The artist creates beauty out of nothing and in their work reflects what God is like.

Now the mathematician reflects God’s character in their pursuit of math. Math is consistent and certain two characteristic attributes of God but some how these things aren’t as equally suited to reflect God widely in the church. So what makes art different. I think it has to do with the next two areas: illustration and illumination.

Illustration – Art has a tangible way of making reality knowable. Biblical truth, the nature of God, the real working way of love, the brokenness of sin, the fragileness of life, the futillity of life lived apart of dependent obedience trust  can be know by all when they are illustrated. By illustrated I don’t just mean drawn but written, sung about, performed, sculpted and photographed.

I’m a big fan of books and when I read I am drawn into the story. A good story has a way of illustrating truth and reality clearly. In Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Selfish Giant” the boy clearly intended as a Christ figure I’m able to understand the mercy and transformative power of God. In the boy I understand the reality that Christ has changed us and because of his wounds we are assured that when death comes we will be with God. Or think of Aslan the great lion in CS Lewis the Chronicles of Narnia in his death for aslan we understand substitutionary atonement in a way that makes sense. In church this Sunday we sang It is well with my soul. The song clearly illustrates the dependence and certain confidence that believers have in both peace and trouble. Or think of a photograph of impoverished and orphaned children living in Kenya. Doesn’t the photo illustrate the reality of the fall, the pain of death, and the dehumanization that oppression brings.

Art has unique ability to illustrate Christian truth, beauty and reality in a way that an outline or simple recitation of facts can’t and the illustrate it in a way that makes sense and that we can connect with.

Illuminate – Art is uniquely suited to illuminate Christian truth, beauty and reality. I want to define what illuminate means in a very narrow and specific way. By illuminate I mean it lights a path where we can hear or see God and where we can respond as he reveals himself and calls and draws us to him. Art creates space for God to work in us. I was reading a great anonymous article posted by Michael Winters on the Sojourn Visual Arts website on whether or not art can change us. He says no but he says that art creates a space for God to change us. I think he is right. Here is a quote from the article (Read the rest here) :

“Then for any who would express themselves creatively, there is the realization that our art can’t bring change, that our art isn’t the source for change.  But also there is the challenge to create beautifully, intelligently, with such passion, such deliberation, such obedience that we may create a space, a physical space or a pause in time, in which God can draw us and draw near to us.”

Art is uniquely suited to illuminate our path and create space for God to change us. As I think back over the singing of It is well with my soul this Sunday I have to admit that the song completely wrecks me everytime we sing it. Through our singing God reveals my sinfulness in doubt and in letting my circumstances drag my confidence away from him as the good, faithful and merciful God that he is. Singing the song illuminates my brokenness and brings me to my knees hoping for God’s mercy and transformation to turn my doubt into confident trust. It also creates space for me to hear the gospel and to find hope in the mercy of God. God doesn’t just illuminate my brokenness and sinfulness but he also illuminates my only hope “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

photograph by me: let there be light

9 responses to “Should art have a place in the church

  1. Good thoughts.
    I think the title of this post puts the bar way too low though, and it shows the church’s strange relationship to art.
    It’s not a question of whether it should or not. Art IS a part of church life, so the question is what kind of art should be a part of our local church life. People aren’t opposed to art in church. Almost every church sings songs together and the majority of churches have their own space which they have chosen to design in a particular way that is representative of their beliefs. Instead, what people are opposed to is the garish setting up of art that makes a name for itself rather than serves the church. Of course that is a subjective line and there will be disagreement about what serves vs. what is art for its own sake. I think that if artists can make work that truly serves local churches (and hopefully the community outside the congregation) then local churches will embrace artists and artmaking as an integral part of their community.
    Also, the sojourn visual arts article quoted here was written by another member of our church, so I can’t take credit for that. I just posted it.

  2. Thanks for responding Michael. I changed the info on the article to reflect that it came from someone else.

    Good response. I agree with you that art is already in the church and I presupposed that in my post. Yet most churches wouldn’t recognized the songs they sing as being works of art and that the set up of their space as being artistic as much as functionally and astetically pleasing. It seems that for a lot of churches art isn’t embraced or recognized. In fact for a lot of churches art is decried as being secular and godless. Probably one thing that needs to happen is the question of art and its place in the church needs to be raised even before we talk about what type of art should be part of the church.

    My thought is that art should have a prominent role and that it is an important role in the spiritual formation of the church. My thinking was to try to show that importance by talking about three good traits of art that make it uniquely suited for the life of the church: refection, illustration, and illumination.

    I would love to hear what you mean by art that serves the church.

  3. Great post, Jason…

    I think it’s important, as well, to understand the role of an artist as a worshiper. Romans 12.1 makes it very clear that when we offer our abilities (the works of our bodies) as living sacrifices, that is worship. So, it’s essential that the songwriter, painter, actor, dancer, photographer, etc has the opportunity to offer these gifts in service to the church. Not only for the sake of the church, but for the artist as well. A church that stifles the opportunities for anyone to use their gifts and talents has strayed from the path…

    And think about the construction of the Temple of Solomon or the wilderness Tabernacle… Both were lavish examples of art and architecture… Leviticus tells us that God gave the talents necessary for the decoration of the Tabernacle to specific artisans and moved their hearts to serve by creating the beautiful furnishings…

    Great thoughts… Sad that we have to continue beating this drum in the modern church…

  4. Pingback: Art and The Church… :: Worship On Purpose·

  5. Thanks for you comments Tim. I think you are right when you mention the importance of the artist as a worshipper and the importance of the church in providing a safe place for them to practice a life of worship.

    Both you and Michael mentioned the concept of the artist as one who serves the church through their art. I would love to hear some practical ways that you or anyone see that being worked out in community. To be honest my church and my leanings for corporate worship are guided by the regulative principle of worship so I’m not sure that I envision too much use of artistic expression in corporate worship but I do think that there are lots of ways that art and artists need to be included and valued in the overall communal life of the church.

    • One of the things that we’re committed to at WOP is exposing artists to innovative ways to serve through art there’s a synopsis of our ideas from our previous featured artists here:

      Another thing that we’re starting in our church is a photo database to provide our media department with images to use in promotional materials and presentations… We have 3 or 4 amateur photographers that collect images at our church events that are being mentored by a pro portrait/event photographer…

  6. One of my favorite phrases found in Scripture is “for beauty’s sake”. I love knowing that God is most certainly concerned with aesthetic pleasure.

    The trouble I have is knowing when “art” overwhelms it’s God given place. Did the Sistine chapel glorify God or Michelangelo? I don’t really know.

    I have been to churches where the worship team is technically exceptional, but the worship seems artificial, more like a concert. But I have also been to churches where the worship team needs a whole lot of practice, and their lack of skill gets in the way of an authentic time of praise.

    I do not believe it is a question of balance. I believe there is an actual path that can be fully committed to in order to accomplish high art and high worship at the same time… but I don’t know what that is!

  7. Tim thanks for the good suggestions on how artists can serve the church.

    Miguel thank you for your thoughts. That is an interesting question about when does art overwhelm its place. I think it is a real danger for the Christian artist. Art is made to be admired and praised. I know that with my photography it is very easy for me to lose sight of God in it and start to admire my photos or even worse admire myself. I struggle to not worship the creation or the secondary creator (me) and keep the focus on the God who is the ultimate creator. As you say isn’t about balance but about walkng a different path that creates high art and high worship at the same time. I’m not sure what the answer is but I am sure that it starts with humility and prayer.

  8. Good thoughts, Jason. Good move in contrasting Arts with Math. However, I think we need to have a bigger view of Jesus when it comes to all the disciplines, Science, Art, Literature, Language, etc. Jesus is Lord of All.

    Math and other disciplines are equally valid for the Church, we just haven’t spent enough time thinking them through and integrating them with theology. Math holds our buildings together, sustains our websites and social networking, our calendars, and so on. If we put more thought to it, we could celebrate the glory of God’s order in the Church, as well as outside, for the worship of the Trinity.

    I agree with Michael, art is a part of church (and so are artists). But what kind of art? And what kind of artist?

    At Austin City Life we have a lot of artists but we are not an “art church.” They like our community and are a significant part, but they are only part. Very often, churches define themselves by the Arts or Beauty, which I think is unhealthy. Even the “beauty of Christ” as a theological center for the church falls short. If we make the beauty of Christ central, we will end up aesthetically driven not Christologically driven. Christ is beautiful, but he is much, much more. What we need, who we need, is the Christ of beauty…and the Christ of creation, redemption, new creation. The Christ who is Lord of All, every discipline and every atom. It is only that Christ that can address the needs and is worthy of the art of every artist. Christ alone is sufficient for our failures and strong enough for real successes.

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