This week, I read an email from a colleague who was wrestling with the role of artists in a church that is actively ministering to the poor. He felt uncomfortable with his role of preparing songs while there were families coming into the church off the street who were looking for food and clothes. I felt compelled to respond to his wrestle because it’s a wrestle that I’ve had to deal with also.
Sometimes, I start to wonder how my salary is actually justified when that money could be added to meeting the basic felt needs of the poor in my community. Wouldn’t it be better for me to give up my salary to the other ministries to the poor and then get a job teaching music and tithe some more of my cash to the meeting felt needs? We all know that art and beauty are important and valuable, but if we do art when our neighbor is starving, we have to seriously consider the verses like 1 John 3:17 “if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
With that being said, here are some of the things that I have learned to give me the right perspective on this stuff.
1. Development vs. Relief.
There’s a difference between meeting the immediate felt need (a meal for today) and working to end the systems that create that need. Worship musicians in the church (and all artists) fit into the place of development and not into relief when it comes to doing justice. We point the poor and the rich alike to the gospel and the kingdom in a way that will heal the broken parts of the community which are the root causes of poverty. Find the purpose and value in your role and don’t be ashamed that you are not doing relief – especially because development is the more difficult and long-term process of doing justice. (I learned this from reading the book “When Helping Hurts” but it’s also classic John Perkins stuff. Read more about that process here.)
2. Stay involved in meeting felt needs outside of music.
My wife and I are foster parents. It’s a very practical way that we can love kids and their families when they are in deep crisis. This ministry has helped my music and worship planning because it keeps me out of the ivory tower of arts appreciation and in the mess of real broken situations. I don’t think that an artist who is part of the kingdom can pursue the vision of romantic genius who creates art in a vacuum. I’m not saying art needs a moral justification, but rather that artists (like everyone else) are image-bearing humans who have to stay in community – connected to the needs of the poor.
3. Do justice in your music ministry practices
Are the poor welcome in your church to participate, lead and share gifts in your ministry? Are you using just practices in how you spend the churches resources to equip the ministry? Are you actually inviting the poor and powerless or are you just singing about it? Are the songs and styles representing the voices of the poor in your community or just the powerful?
Some practical suggestions:
1. Invite a deacon to come to rehearsals
If this happens every time you have a rehearsal, maybe the folks with needs are just being drawn in like a moth to a flame by the sounds of your worship. You could have a deacon or someone who is on site during your practice to connect with them as they come in.
2. Lock the doors
Post hours when the mercy ministry representatives are available. Maybe include some emergency numbers. Don’t be ashamed of getting your work done – you have a job and a responsibility that has been delegated to you to fulfill.
Some books I’d recommend:
Evangelism – Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn
Beyond Charity – John Perkins
The Dangerous Act of Worship – Mark Labberton