Are you interested in how visual artists can serve the church?

My buddy, Mark Taylor, has been talking with me about how to empower the gifts of visual artists for service in the church. Mark is an artist, a teacher, an adoptive parent, and a hip-hop enthusiast. He studied at SCAD and ended up at New City Fellowship as he and his wife were looking for a multicultural church where their trans-racial family would find a home. We’ve been talking a lot about the use of art in the church. I’ve found that my church in some respects has been a bit aesthetically challenged. Part of the reason for this is a commitment to meeting the real physical needs of the poor. We’re not going to prioritize the use of our resources to create a swanky worship space instead of meeting basic needs of food, shelter, jobs, education, etc. This is why despite having a relatively large budget we still worship in a gymnasium on rusty, old folding chairs. But, applying some of the basic core values of our church, we know that the kingdom is not about how much resources you have, the kingdom is about small acts of love and grace. So how do artists in the church demonstrate small acts of love and grace. How do saints who are gifted in aesthetic skills put 1 Peter 4:7-11 into practice?

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.  Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Some churches invest these gifts into actual galleries or artist in residence programs. Some churches have artists in the worship service splashing paint on a canvas during the songs or the sermon. Some churches employ artists in the process of creating “sacred spaces” in which design and architecture are used better facilitate the experience of worship. I’ll be attending a conference next week that deals with just that.

For myself, as a liturgical musician, I have to confront these particular issues of the kingdom:

Is my art an act of service to the community? – I believe that “art for art’s sake” is not a kingdom value. Can music or art that is made without “love God, love your neighbor” as a central goal be a work of the kingdom? Beautiful sacred spaces are an offense to the Lord if they are lacking justice and mercy (Jeremiah 7). This comes from the Spirit and is a gift of grace.

Is my art a redemptive, salt-and-light instrument in my culture? If art is engaged with the culture in a way that takes the symbols of the culture in order to redeem them, then we are doing kingdom work. If our art is always sub-categorized into “Christian” art and left out of the market place, then we are no longer speaking into the culture.

Is my art a demonstration of humility? Artists have a sin tendency toward being self-absorbed. Humility is not an abstract concept; it’s a reality that has to be walked out. Art of the kingdom must reflect humility through cultural and economic reconciliation.

I’m still wrestling (or “wrassling”) with this stuff and I’d love to hear my sister or my cousin weigh in on this stuff as well. Neil, any thoughts?

If you are interested in joining in the process as we build a team of artists at New City Fellowship give me a heads up and I will pass your name on to Mark.


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  1. #1 by Rob Hatch on March 24, 2011 - 3:42 pm

    Great reflections Kirk. I’ve always wished we could better involve the visual arts in the New City experience. In both cities there are such wonderful visual artists in our congregation and yet we so rarely ask them to use their gifts. (and we muddle along putting out visual shlock). When I ran a few missions conferences here in Chattanooga, I got great results by challenging some of our artists to produce work used to advertize the conferences.

    That experience has led me to think about building a visual arts collective, where needs could be made known, and work encouraged. I don’t want to limit art to marketing, but its so effectively used there. Electronic media is also a great (inexpensive) way of publishing visual art. Make our websites open to members work. Incorporate the visual arts in our song displays. Etc etc. Its all good thinking.

  2. #2 by worship360 on March 28, 2011 - 12:34 pm

    As I read your blog, which I think was right on and a good call for me to get back at encouraging/pushing/pleading/loving the artists here to tell the better story through art, I thought of a few things I already had on paper b’c of my classes. I’m going to condense and edit, but sorry in advance if it turns out a little long…just some humble thoughts…anyway…here goes…

    God is usually associated with words. Christians regularly refer to the scriptures as “God’s Word.” Harkening back to John’s gospel intro, we talk about Jesus as “the Word” or “the Word made flesh.” We don’t, however, commonly refer to Jesus as the “image” or picture of God, but the idea is found in scriptures itself. In the Old and New Testaments, God uses visions (sight) to speak to his people, to bring about change. When this happens, the experience is just as powerful as speech. God’s words AND his visions are both powerful. Moses had more than one of these powerful visions and writes in Deuteronomy 4:35, “You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God.”

    The ultimate example is Jesus who not only is the Word of God, but also the “Image of God” as seen in Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Hebrews 1:3.22 When Jesus told his first disciples, “follow me,” he invited them to see what both salvation and new life looked like. Jesus, who was God in flesh, acted out what it meant to be truly human. The ramifications for artists in the church are vital. The incarnation is an amazing event that stands in the middle of history for never before and never since has God taken on human form to live with us. As Robert E. Webber states, “The concept of the arts now, as in the days of the early church, is rooted in an understanding of the implications of the Incarnation, implications which too many people readily ignore.” Artists attempt to give “flesh” to ideas via imagination and creativity. As we worship and tell the old story, we use the arts to make the telling physical and in the process come closer to our transcendent God. By examining the incarnation of Christ, there are a few ramifications for artists that I see…

    One of the first concepts of the Incarnation is that Jesus humbled himself and gave up his place in heaven for a time while still remaining God. This continues to be a mystery: as John writes, “The Word became flesh and lived for awhile among us…” And not only lived among us, but Philippians 2:7 (NAS) tells us he “emptied himself” to do so. If the impact for Christians is foundational, it’s doubly so for believer actors because it also offers a framework for understanding how one takes on a character without surrendering your spirit.

    What happens in the inner workings of an actor when they take on a role? This is an ongoing discussion. From the Greeks onward, there have been different theories and ideas. Without going into them all here, suffice it to say they all agree that the imagination and inner person is involved in creating a role. As an actor, I must surrender myself to the purposes of my character by taking on their physical characteristics and giving believable motivation to their actions. However, in the same way that Christ retained the aspect of being God so to we retain the unique aspects of our spirit/person. To give up that aspect of being a unique creation of God rejects the work of the Creator. For the believer this goes even farther for our identity is in Christ as a new creation and nothing has a higher claim on us. (There are ramifications for the other visual arts here as well?)

    Secondly, Jesus emptied himself as God to become fully physical meaning he was completely man with limitations. He no longer was omnipresent since he was confined to his body. In the Transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9), we see him setting aside his limitations for a moment so a glimpse of his glory was seen, but becoming man meant that his unlimited potential was confined.

    An artist has limitations of the physical too. While the imagination might be unlimited, the artist works to enflesh a character using the limited physical elements only. While in college, I was cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” as Tevye the main character. Tevye is traditionally a heavy set, bearded, middle aged, Russian, Jewish milk man who is also a husband and father to a large family. I was none of these. I could study the accent. I could study Jewish traditions. I had been raised milking goats and could try to apply that to the life of a milk man. I could glue a beard on my face. I could try to do all this and yet my physical body/experience limited me. Artists have limitations, but that is part of the creative process.

    Our third concept is found in Jesus’ dynamic growth and ongoing ministry. It seems obvious, but while becoming man was an event, Jesus went through the same development stages you and I do. He grew out of his clothes and learned Torah with the other boys in his village. His ministry also grew as he called the disciples, taught them, died, rose again and was glorified. Not only that, Jesus’ impact continues to touch and change lives through out history. Luke hints at this in the beginning Acts 1 when he writes, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…” The implication is Jesus’ time on earth was only the beginning of his ministry, but that he is still doing and teaching through the power of his spirit and the truth of his stories in the lives of believers…an in their art…

    So to sum up…
    We have an example to follow in the Creator. As we work to be more like him, we are able to “image” him through our art and bring him glory. Not only that, God used story/art/visuals to share his truth with us. Jesus gives us the ultimate example in making our art/thoughts/imaginations physical so the world sees that God is with us. The New Testament presents a new paradigm for worship, which fits with visual art/drama and allows us to edify the body in the faith and tell the better story.

    • #3 by Kirk Ward on March 29, 2011 - 10:24 am

      great stuff, Sam! I especially like the idea of the artist embracing the limitations of a medium. A painter has to limit themselves to a 2D rectangle. A songwriter is limited to a 3 minute time space and a set number of ensemble pieces. No matter how grand the scale of an art work, it is always a dim reflection of the infinite scale of time/space and the power of it’s Creator.

      Images get a bad rap in our tradition (Reformed). The Word is so strongly emphasized that the image gets wiped away. Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah. The Passover Feast, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Lord’s Supper are all examples of image and tactile experiences through which our faith becomes manifested. Not only that but the pure religion of caring for the poor and doing justice is a dramatic action that bears the signature of the Father’s love, the Kingdom of the Son, and the indwelling of the Spirit.

      My desire is to see the arts go beyond pretty pictures, skits to set up the sermon, or inspirational songs and stories. It’s so much more.

      • #4 by worship360 on March 29, 2011 - 9:47 pm

        Ah yes, the Reformed tradition and it’s phobia of image/theatre/art…sad, but true. While the Reformation was needed and a work of God, I believe, it did throw the baby out with the bath water and created a number of other problems for the church that we’re still dealing with today.

  3. #5 by Heidi Harbin on March 31, 2011 - 6:50 pm

    Hey Kirk! I would love to be a part of conversations about the arts and New City…Heidi

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