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Where Do Artists Fit In the Church?

shadow-play-2I recently sat down with my pastor for a conversation and, among other things, asked him where I can best be used in the church.

My writing did not come up.

I don’t blame him for not seeing an immediate place for a fiction novelist in the Body of Christ. I mean, if you have the gift of teaching, evangelism, hospitality, or helps, there is a place for you in the Church. If you have administration skills, musical talent, or simply like to serve, there is a place for you in the Church. But if you are an artist, a writer, a poet, or an actor, you’re out of luck.

Makoto Fujimura, founder of International Arts Movement, believes that:

Christians often misunderstand the role of creativity. Few churches get involved in the arts, and as a result, many creative individuals feel separated and alienated from God and His body of believers.

That’s how I’ve been feeling lately — “separated and alienated.”

Interestingly enough, many Christians feel “separated and alienated” from their church because they DON’T know their spiritual gifts. Which is why teachings on the “gifts of the Spirit” are so important and fairly common. For the artist, it’s just the opposite:

The Christian artist often feels alienated from the Body not because they DON’T know their spiritual gift, but because they DO.

shadow-play-1Perhaps it’s a stretch to call artistry a spiritual gift. Just don’t tell that to the artist. She feels her “calling” as passionately as the preacher or missionary. God used the best craftsmen and artisans to build His temple in the Old Testament. But where is the New Testament equivalent? I mean, where do artists fit in the Church?

This Good Friday, our church staged a shadowplay of the Passion (you can see some of the pics here). It was quite good. There was a narrator, actors, and set decorators. It reminded me how important a role creatives play in the Church.

The problem is, there’s very few active roles for artists in the Church. Other than being a musician, writers, actors, painters, designers, seem rather ill-matched to the real needs of a local congregation. The church needs people to man the nursery, host Bible studies, organize social events, plan outreach opportunities, visit the sick, counsel the hurting, and recycle bulletins.

But… poets? Seriously. What practical purpose do poets serve in the local church?

It’s a conundrum. On the one hand, if God “calls” some members of His Body to write fiction, direct theater, sculpt, or paint abstracts, how do those callings practically relate to the local church? If they don’t, are we prepared to say that writers, artists, and actors are peripheral to the real mission of God on earth? Maybe they are. Maybe it’s self-importance that is driving my query. However, if they’re not — if artists actually serve an important role in the Body of Christ — why isn’t there more of a practical place for them?

Either way, there are creatives in your church who feel deeply called and gifted by God to use their talents. However, many of them also feel “separated and alienated.” The completion of Solomon’s Temple required sculptors, metalworkers, glassblowers, architects, painters, fabric designers, and carpenters. I’d like to think that today’s Church is equally incomplete without the service of the artist.

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{ 30 comments… add one }
  • Megan DiMaria April 8, 2013, 7:47 AM

    This post really resonates with me, Mike. I’ve always felt compelled to tithe my talent (writing). I’ve contacted the churches I’ve attended, three in the past 15ish years, and only one took me up on the offer. It’s frustrating to be so marginalized when you want to participate in the manner that best suits your calling.

  • Lisa Godfrees April 8, 2013, 8:15 AM

    I think the key is to figure out how to use your talents in the context of ministry. Do you like to write plays — talk with the youth director and see if it would be helpful to their ministry. Do you enjoy painting? Work with the children or youth ministry to employ those talents in a creative way. Play writing and painting can also be used creatively to take the gospel message into the community. Volunteer to organize a mural or put on a play for the community.

    I volunteer on our church’s production ministry where I program lights to go with worship music. It fills my need for creating in a technical capacity. I also volunteer to write for many of our church ministries — discussion guides to go with the services, book reviews for our book store, devotional projects for our prayer team. On my own, I like to adapt Bible stories into sci-fi fantasy settings hopefully one day someone will like them enough to publish them.

    I think the key isn’t for a creative to wait for an invitation to be used in ministry or a place to be created for them. The key is for the artist, poet, writer, etc. to find a place to use their talents in the church. The church administrators aren’t necessarily creative. They may not be able to envision how to use your talents. Brainstorm how you would like to be used, asking God for guidance, then use your gifts to accentuate the ministries of the church. I think God gives us creativity to help the church stay culturally relevant so that the gospel can be shared with people where they are at. I know not everyone agrees with my view.

    Just a thought. 🙂

  • Nicole April 8, 2013, 8:20 AM

    Know the feeling well. Several years ago in a church we’d attended for many years (and my husband was on the board) I asked and received permission to start a drama group. I wrote a play which was approved, but then through a set of circumstances involving health issues with the “star”, we couldn’t do it. I took contributions and put a skit together involving many members of the group. It was powerful and evangelical. Well, the pastor thought the ending was too stark and asked me to change it and make it more digestable. I declined, and the group dissolved.

    Honestly, Mike, I think the fear factor has a lot to do with it. Pastors have a lot on their plates and they’d rather deal with one disgruntled “artist” and choose to placate them with a minor perk here and there than risk offending a larger portion of the congregation with art they can’t control or explain because it might be outside the box of accepted churchy art.

  • Jim Williams April 8, 2013, 8:47 AM

    There are some notable example of artists using their craft to promote the Church, Mike. Kirk Cameron comes to mind, producing and acting in the Left Behind movies, and of course the authors of the original book series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

    I will never forget chalk artist Jerry Zwall coming to Bible Camp when I was 11 and drawing meaningful and beautiful chalk drawings for us, with hidden phosphorescent details that he then used a black-light to bring out. All the while preaching a cogent sermon, using his art to illustrate the Word.

    It seems to me you might be asking two questions. Where does your art fit in THE Church, and where does your art fit in YOUR Church….

  • alykev April 8, 2013, 8:54 AM

    this probably says more about my failed attempts at casting a creative vision while I was a pastor, but I always found it ironic that most churches that proclaim to worship the “Creator” are locked into the most non-creative process when it comes to building the Kingdom of God. I found creativity to be a foreign concept when talking about worship and liturgy…and the weekly schedule. thankfully, i am seeing more blogs and articles and seminars on Creativity in the Church, so the future looks bright…indeed, it always has.

  • billgncs April 8, 2013, 9:01 AM

    I heard someone speak on radio and they said that art and children are the two enduring legacies we leave.

  • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 9:37 AM

    As a Christian artist, I understand this post. Yet I come at this from another standpoint: the Christian artist has just as much a place to fit in the church as the Christian plumber does.

    Ok, you can stop throwing things.

    1. Yes, that means that I do not view art as a spiritual gift. This results in interesting conversations with my mom, who does and who was the primary influence for my entrance into the arts. We can talk about Bezaleel and Aholiab later, because they may just be a rabbit trail. I really want to talk about….

    2. Just as the Christian plumber rarely is called on to fix the church pipes, so the Christian artist is rarely called on to practice his specific art in a ministry context.

    3. However, does that limited nature of our work limit our ministry? Paul was a tent-maker. I doubt if he had hard lines differentiating his sewing time and his preaching time. I rather think that they overlapped a bit. Can we proclaim the gospel outside of our specific occupation? Of course we can, and this blog proves that. You minister through your writing. You go to your church. Though perhaps unsanctioned by your pastor, your blog and your books are an extension of your church’s ministry in your community and the greater world.

    4. Within your church, you minister to your brothers and sisters in ways that Christian artists and plumbers and tent-makers and morticians, etc. have ministered throughout the centuries. Just yesterday I sat down with a young man (who wants to make movies) in our church who is struggling through Romans. I also washed the tables after the family meal, and helped break them down. These are very important aspects of our ministry here on earth, and we should not look down on them, just because they aren’t in our specific expertise. We are called to be servants, after all.

    5. Often artistic talents are more showy than plumber, tent-maker, mortician or ornithologist talents put together. People will ask about and get excited about books–which they probably will never read. But they are excited about them. You have some flashy special talents that people appreciate. And when you do something that does get put on by your church, they usually really enjoy it, no matter how awfully it went over. When the pipes burst, hopefully the plumber does his job so well that folks don’t notice. In some ways, our servanthood is more difficult, because we have the added pride in what we have done–pride that others are happy to bolster. And I’m not talking about the satisfaction of a job well done: I’m talking about pride. I think we like fruit that we can see here on earth as opposed to eternal fruit reserved in heaven.

    Conclusion: Let us rather be grateful. We, who are so wracked with human frailties, overlooked by some, lauded by others–we have been chosen by God to be a part of His family, fellow heirs with Jesus! Oh, what a wonderful treasure. And at times He blesses us with service in His kingdom. Building up the brethren, serving the saints. Because at the end of it all, I think that when we die to ourselves and serve others, as Christ did, hell shakes and heaven becomes a little nearer.

    • Jon Mast April 8, 2013, 1:07 PM

      Well said! I was all gearing up to answer as a Pastor who endeavors to help people use the talents God has given them to serve — but you reminded me that every occupation is a vocation — we serve wherever we’re put, whether we’re plumbers, doctors, artists, stay at home parents… whatever!

      So, thanks for keeping me from saying more than I should. 🙂

      • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 3:25 PM

        Thanks, Jon. I wanted to tell the truth. Glad to take a load off your task list!

        Mike, if you get to this with all of your reading (and you do a lot of reading), I don’t mean to hurt you. As a creative, I know that sometimes its hard to be us. Especially when we work so hard for very little that this world calls profit. And then those closest to us forget that we are special. And sometimes we get to the middle of the week, where we are pressed on all sides, and we pray those hurting prayers in front of everyone. Yeah, it’s difficult. I don’t mean to dismiss any of that.

        But then I was talking to a mechanic yesterday. He was sitting by himself—feeling like an artist! It felt good to be able to minister and listen to him.

        Hope you are doing well.

  • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 9:41 AM

    PS. I love Napoleon of Notting Hill. I’ve tried imagining a version in the modern day. It might make a great graphic novel. I like it almost as much as I like Chesterton’s [i]Return of Don Quixote.[/i]

  • Jason Brown April 8, 2013, 10:34 AM

    Something else to consider- there are some churches/denominations that see creative gifts from God as a form of idolatry. I knew a man that had been in jail who, while in jail, discovered he had a gift for painting. Using a certain color schematic, he would draw different things and have certain themes to draw on. A small church group once came to the jail he was in and saw something he was painting and condemned him for “creating and worshipping an idol,” which he retorted that he was using a gift from God as a form of worshipping Him. That stunned the church group into silence.
    So, it’s not always about where creativity fits in, sometimes it’s about a denominational/church’s view on certain gifts. And, sometimes, those views are unfair and even flat-out wrong.

  • Kat Heckenbach April 8, 2013, 10:35 AM

    This is one of the reasons I left my last church, and one of the reasons I love the one I’m at now!

    At my previous church, the pastor basically said during a sermon one week that he’d been approached by someone from the congregation who had a particular talent and offered to use it to serve in the church, but the pastor told him NO. Sorry, you don’t get to choose where you serve. We need people in the nursery and parking cars–you don’t do one of those two things, too bad, see ya.

    At my current church, I am on the “artistic team.” I’ve worked on multiple projects that utilized my talents as an artist and writer. And the pastor is wanting to create a way to feature the artistic talents of the church members, be it painting/drawing, crafts, photography, or writing of any kind. I also know of other churches that have artist nights, where artists and writers gather to showcase their works.

    Anyway, I know it’s unusual. Most churches focus on the practical rather than artistic (other than music, of course) and I’m really grateful I found one that’s an exception to that rule.

  • Jill April 8, 2013, 10:59 AM

    I’ve always been ambivalent with my status as an artist, I think because I was relegated as a child to a creative type when I felt more like an analytical person who had trouble with creativity. At some level, though, I am an artist. I just am. Yet, without musical or songwriting abilities, I don’t feel my creativity is for a church building, even if it might be worthwhile to other Christians. In the church building, my talents run more to cleaning or being my selfsame critical self. This becomes one of analysis and an attempt to rightly divide the word of truth. I know; I know. Women aren’t supposed to have such a talent (cleaning, yes; the other, no) in the church, and I, no doubt, bother the string of visiting pastors who give us services while we search for a permanent pastor. They would probably like to expel me from Sunday school, but they’ve been patient so far.

    As far as artists in the church, they don’t belong for a multitude of reasons. I think there’s an element of fear involved. Artists like to speak the truth, and they are generally passionate about what they perceive to be the truth. However, the 20th C took artistry far away from the church and into other life philosophies such as secular humanism. What we’re left with in Christianity is people whose talent is sentimental or driven by theme, which subverts hard truth, even if it isn’t necessarily wrong. That’s glossing over a lot of art history. Still, there’s some truth in my observation.

    I haven’t really worked all this out in my head. I’d been planning to write a blog post on this topic, but only have scattered thoughts at this point. As an afterthought (because my mom was just over drinking coffee with me), my parents used to go to the Vineyard music conferences. Vineyard is not only producing some good praise music, but the people also seem willing to explore the arts. Even at the music conferences, all manner of artist workshops occur simultaneous to the larger musical one. p.s. In my youth, I attended a church where they tried allowing the dance teachers to lead their students in dances up and down the aisles while everybody sang. It was kind of distracting, so it didn’t last very long.

  • Nicole April 8, 2013, 12:18 PM

    Matthew, I think you make some excellent points, valid and important regarding servanthood in and to the body. However, I don’t think it’s unusual to feel some alienation in the body when that creativity which is God-given and used outside the church for His glory or for transmitting the gospel either overtly or by actions is essentially ignored within the body where it could inspire other believers in some way to spread or give fresh insight(s) to the gospel message.

    Alykev sums it up for me with this comment: “but I always found it ironic that most churches that proclaim to worship the “Creator” are locked into the most non-creative process when it comes to building the Kingdom of God.”

    • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 3:43 PM

      I think you are right, Nicole. But I think that “normal” people also feel this isolation, but may not know quite how to deal with it like we artists do. Maybe we have more of a societal grace bestowed on us, because our alienation is more well-known, more discussed.

      As to being appreciated outside the church and ignored inside the church, that might be because we are dealing with different sample sets. We can always find people who like us somewhere out there, but in a small group close to home… it’s a smaller sample set. We need to appreciate others and they need to appreciate us, but it can be a lot of work. Just like getting along in a family.

      Perhaps Alykev is right though. Perhaps we do need to me more creative. Let’s pray about this and seek, individually at first, and then in groups (using the same collaborative skills we use outside the church, lol!) to come up with new ways to present the old truth to our world.

      • Nicole April 8, 2013, 6:10 PM

        I didn’t want to give the impression that I’m “isolated” in the church, although I think many are as you suggested. I know it’s difficult for those who “serve” in the more traditional ways to understand the desire for creative service within the body. Most mature Christians serve in their churches. It’s just that for those who create with words, drama, painting, etc., there are few opportunities within many churches to express their desires to minister in these ways and even less understanding of how beneficial this could be to believers and unbelievers.

        • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 7:39 PM

          Don’t worry, you seem like a very healthy person who is involved in traditional ways in your church. (So does Mike.)

          I’m usually not this talkative on the blog. I think that Mike hit a nerve in me, me being an artist, and, oddly enough, something of an iconoclast. My church believes in the regulative principle [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulative_principle_of_worship] which basically says that we should only worship God in ways that He has prescribed. (This is as opposed to the Normative Principle [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative_principle_of_worship], worshiping God in any way other than what is specifically prohibited in scripture.) So all that means that my church doesn’t really believe in me using my artistic skills in ways specifically for worship.

          I think as an individual I’m ok with that. However, if I wasn’t such an iconoclast, I think I might understand Mike and your feelings a little bit better. As Van Gogh wrote about Gauguin that fateful winter of 1888: “Gauguin is very strong, very creative, but precisely because of that he must have peace. Will he find it elsewhere if he doesn’t find it here?”

          (I’ve been reading letters from Van Gogh of late. Very interesting stuff.)

          • Jessica Thomas April 9, 2013, 8:43 AM

            “Normative” versus “Regulative”

            I’ve been a Christian for quite some time now and I still don’t understand why Christians have the need to create all these silly definitions. Scratch that, maybe they aren’t silly, maybe they have some use, some value at least in our discussions amongst ourselves. I’m pretty sure the hurting world doesn’t give a hoot about our definitions, though, they just want the true Jesus.

            btw, I’m a Normative Arminian. Who knew. (There’s probably a more “proper” way to state it…)

            • Matthew Sample II April 9, 2013, 7:38 PM

              True that, Jessica.

              Oh, yeah, and I go to a Reformed Baptist church, but I’ve been to so many other kinds of churches in my life, I’ve got a healthy respect for the body of Christ abroad. I think I might be my church’s token “Arminian,” though that’s not quite right, because I don’t really know what Arminius believed other than the simplification. I’m pretty sure that most people who are labeled that may actually disagree with him as much as with Calvin. But that’s another conversation.

              So, don’t worry, as I’m spouting these words, I know what they mean, but I’m not looking down my nose at people. At least, I don’t think I am. Am I?

              • Jessica Thomas April 10, 2013, 5:47 AM

                No you’re not. I’m just thinking randomly. And you are right. I’m not totally in line with the Arminian points. The idea of being able to lose salvation can be particularly toxic, at least it has been in my life. It’s caused inner paranoia, focusing too much on works, far to much doubt in God’s love for me…in that case I may as well be Muslim.

                • Matthew Sample II April 10, 2013, 12:48 PM

                  Oh, good. Yes, I went to a church for a while that believed in losing salvation. Very small denomination: Pilgrim Gospel Lighthouse Churches. Been around since the late 1800’s. Very freewill. Sometimes I still struggle with that. Maybe that’s why I find the other extreme so refreshing. And often they read an entire chapter from the Bible as part of their worship service…. I really enjoy how much Bible they have in their services. Great stuff. Very helpful when I’m struggling with feeling God’s love vs. trusting Jesus.

  • Cherry Odelberg April 8, 2013, 12:59 PM

    Thankfully, the emerging church gives place for canvas artists, poets and the like.
    Also grateful for the years I attended a church in Texas that accessed my writing skills for dramatic skits and children’s musicals.
    Over the years, I have had pastors who were visionaries with regard to gifts and talent of all kinds. One pastor / teacher believed that the musicians (ie: song writers) were prophets. That was their gift. Francis Schaffer pointed out that art and music are the first of the disciplines to articulate where the culture is headed. The arts must be allowed to LEAD not expected to TRAIL and do music or visual the “way we have always done it.” It can be a scary undertaking for those who perceive themselves in control.

  • Marcia April 8, 2013, 2:57 PM

    What Matthew said.

  • Mary Kay April 8, 2013, 3:16 PM

    Interesting, thought-provoking topic, Mike.

    Some thoughts explode as I’m reading. Is artistry a calling? I’ve heard a number of talented writers declare their writing is not a calling. They are called, as we all are, to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and share His story, His love with others. Writing is their chosen avenue to do so.

    In centuries past the church was the main forum for artistic expression. And while we are obviously light years away from creations such as The Sistine Chapel, the church needs to embrace artistic expression, I believe, in a sense to redeem it. Otherwise we abandon it, allowing the enemy exclusive use of a powerful communication tool.

    Thanks to Cherry O. above for reminding us of Francis Schaeffer’s views. Whether we use our artistic talents within the four walls of the church building, or outside, they are all still offering for edifying the church (people) and spreading the Gospel.

    I think we should pray, ponder, offer suggestions (as many of you said you did) but not be discouraged or take it as personal criticism if our local church doesn’t decide to start an art’s festival, drama ministry, poetry reading… Perhaps we are meant to move on, and perhaps, as Matthew mentioned above, we are to join the ranks of the plumbers and serve in another way within the church building. When God gave directions for construction of the Tabernacle, artisans worked hard in their areas of skill. But I imagine many of those silversmiths and bronze or wood workers did other tasks as they traversed the wilderness. And I suspect that God’s path for each of us will take us on unique journeys. Blessings to you, brothers and sisters, along your way.

    • Matthew Sample II April 8, 2013, 3:47 PM

      “When God gave directions for construction of the Tabernacle, artisans worked hard in their areas of skill. But I imagine many of those silversmiths and bronze or wood workers did other tasks as they traversed the wilderness. And I suspect that God’s path for each of us will take us on unique journeys.”

      That’s a beautiful thought that I haven’t considered before. Thank you.

  • J.S. Clark April 9, 2013, 6:12 AM

    I’d say art is a tool of spiritual gifts. Look at the prophets, most of them delivered a message by acting out a message in addition to words. The sculptors and metalworkers of the tabernacle were putting together images based on the image of the true in heaven. Art is a part of prophetic revelation. Prophecy is a spiritual gift therefore, art is part of at least one spiritual gift.

  • D.M. Dutcher April 9, 2013, 2:05 PM

    I don’t think everyone is called to serve within the church except as a normal layman. If anything, creatives need to consume more than others, as a way of remaining spiritually centered. We need not to be isolated from normal, human things as we do our art, and maybe that’s more important than the use of our gifts in another venue.

    The only worry I have is that I’d be in a church where no one understands art if just to talk about it. Especially if it’s a reflexive “fantasy and magic is the devil’s work.”

  • Heather Day Gilbert April 9, 2013, 5:18 PM

    As someone who grew up surrounded by women who served others in church, especially through the gift of helps and hospitality, it’s easy to feel like a failure for staying home and writing instead of helping at many events.

    BUT. I finally did a gift “analysis” on myself, and it repeatedly brought up the gifts of prophecy and discernment. I realized that in many ways, what I write incorporates those gifts. Doesn’t mean I’m preaching at people in my books. Doesn’t mean I can’t use those gifts in other ways, which I do. But I am comforted that writing, something I’m throwing tons of energy and prayers and hopes into, might be the very best fit for me in the church. My stories are my ministry. That’s how I see it.

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