How to Discourage Artists in the Church

Crestfallen doll with another push to encourage

I recently read How to Discourage Artists in the Church by Wheaton College president, Philip Ryken and he graciously agreed to offer it as a guest post here on Art, Life & Faith. You’ll be encouraged to know that not only as a pastor and college president is Ryken a lover and supporter of the arts, he is also the author of Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts. This is a wonderful essay about understanding how artists are discouraged in the Church by other Christian’s lack of artistic understanding and what do with those of us who have creative callings.

If we desire to see the arts thrive in the Church and create life-giving culture, we must help others understand what it means to support those who have the creative calling of “artist”.  I hope you’ll share How to Discourage Artists in the Church with your family, friends, and church leadership today.

How to Discourage Artists in the Church originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website. Ryken writes…

Many Christian artists live between two strange worlds. Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community—almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church. Yet Christians called to draw, paint, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to honor God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel. How can pastors (and churches) encourage Christians with artistic gifts in their dual calling as Christian artists?

As a pastor and college president, I have made a sad discovery: the arts are not always affirmed in the life of the local church. We need a general rediscovery of the arts in the context of the church. This is badly needed because the arts are the leading edge of culture.

A recovery of the arts is also needed because the arts are a vital sign for the church. Francis Schaeffer once said:

For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God—not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.

In this article, I am taking a fresh and somewhat contrarian approach by seeking to answer the question, “How do you discourage artists in the church?”

In preparation, I asked some friends for their answers to my question: an actor, a sculptor, a jazz singer, a photographer. They are not whiners, but they gave me an earful (and said that it was kind of fun).

Here is my non-exhaustive list of ways that churches can discourage their artists (and some quotes from my friends).

Treat the arts as a window dressing for the truth rather than a window into reality. See the arts as merely decorative or entertaining, not serious and life-changing. “‘Humor’ artists by ‘allowing’ them to put work up in the hallways, or some forgotten, unused corner with terrible lighting, where it can be ‘decoration,'” David Hooker told me.

Embrace bad art. Tolerate low aesthetic standards. Only value work that is totally accessible, not difficult or challenging. One example would be digital images and photography on powerpoint as a background for praise songs. Value work that is sentimental, that doesn’t take risks, that doesn’t give offense, that people immediately “get.”

Value artists only for their artistic gifts, not for the other contributions they can make to the life of the church. See them in one dimension, not as whole persons. Specifically, discount artists for leadership roles because they are too creative, not analytical, too intuitive.

Demand artists to give answers in their work, not raise questions. Mark Lewis says, “Make certain that your piece (or artifact or performance) makes incisive theological or moral points, and doesn’t stray into territory about which you are unresolved or in any way unclear. (Clear answers are of course more valuable than questions).” Do not allow for ambiguity, or for varied responses to art. Demand art to communicate in the same way to everyone.

Never pay artists for their work. Expect that they will volunteer their service, without recognizing their calling or believing that they are workers worthy of their hire. Note that Old Testament artists and musicians were supported financially.

When you ask them to serve through the arts, tell them what to do and also how to do it. Don’t leave room for the creative process. Take, for example, a children’s Sunday school mural: “Tell them what it should look like, in fact, draw up plans first,” David Hooker said. Discourage improvisation; give artists a AAA road map.

Idolize artistic success. Add to the burden artists already feel by only validating the calling of artists who are “making it.”

Only validate art that has a direct application, for example, something that communicates a gospel message or can be used for evangelism. Artist Makoto Fujimura answers the following question in an interview at The High Calling: “How then do you see art as evangelism?” He says:

There are many attempts to use the arts as a tool for evangelism. I understand the need to do that; but, again, it’s going back to commoditizing things. When we are so consumer-driven, we want to put price tags on everything; and we want to add value to art, as if that was necessary. We say if it’s useful for evangelism, then it has value.

And, there are two problems with that. One, it makes art so much less than what it can be potentially. But also, you’re communicating to the world that the gospel is not art. The gospel is this information that needs to be used by something to carry it.

Only, that’s not the gospel at all. The gospel is life. The gospel is about the Creator God, who is an artist, who is trying to communicate. And his art is the church. We are the artwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works. If we don’t realize that fully, then the gospel itself is truncated and art itself suffers.

Do not allow space for lament. The artist’s call is to face the darkness while still believing in the light, to sense God’s silence and sorrow. Ruth Naomi Floyd asks, “How can artists of faith trace the darkness and pain of Good Friday to the joy of Sunday’s Resurrection?”

I could go on. Here are some more ways to discourage artists in the church:

  • Not setting reasonable boundaries.
  • Not allowing artists to experience creative freedom.
  • Asking the input of artists and deciding not to use it without an explanation.
  • Not giving artists the gift of real listening.
  • Not preaching and teaching the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ.

But the last item on my list is, in general, make artists not feel fully at home in the church. Most of the items on my list reflect a failure to understand art and to let art be art as a creative exploration of the potentialities of creation. This is a crushing burden because artists already know that as Christians they will not be fully at home in the world of art—they don’t worship its idols or believe its lies. N. T. Wright comments:

In my experience the Christian painter or poet, sculptor or dancer, is regularly regarded as something of a curiosity, to be tolerated, humoured even, maybe even allowed to put on a show once in a while. But the idea that they are, or could be, anything more than that—that they have a vocation to re-imagine and re-express the beauty of God, to lift our sights and change our vision of reality—is often not even considered.

So will you make a home for Christians called to be artists?

Please do what you can to accommodate them, because they are pointing us toward eternity. As W. David O. Taylor writes in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts:

Whether through paint or sound, metaphor or movement, we are given the inestimable gift of participating in the re-creative work of the Triune God, anticipating that final and unimaginable re-creation of all matter, space, and time, the fulfillment of all things visible and invisible.

* * * * * * * *
Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College and a Council member for The Gospel Coalition.

Questions: As an artist, how have you experienced discouragement in the Church? How have you experienced encouragement in the Church? In what way do Ryken’s words resonate with you?

I’d love your comments and questions.

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  • Rusty

    My daughter sent this to me a couple weeks ago. I immediately reposted it on FB making note how I felt every pastor in the world should read it. Just can’t tell you how many folks have been blessed in learning how much a vital part of the body of Christ they are by being an artist, we deal with this in our Drawing in the Light of Scripture Workshops. The seeds of this body of study started when we lived in Italy and a friend would stop by on her way to and from L’Abri where she worked with Francis Schaeffer (sp?). You can imagine the wonderful discussions we would have over a plate of hot pasta!

    I believe the Church has missed a great opportunity for ministry to creative hearts by often shutting them down. By marginalizing. By glorifying certain art forms (you can perform music and sell CDs in church) yet not other art forms (no dance! no drama! and selling artwork in the church is like bringing in second class animals to sell in the temple!). Some of this I have felt personally. most of it. But the really great thing is when positive reinforcement comes, healing comes and great growth and blessings results. Thank the Lord.

    • Joey O’Connor

      When pastors and church leadership recognize the power of the arts to draw people into a deeper relationship with God and awaken their appreciation for Beauty, Truth, & Goodness, we will see people experience a deeper expression of worship in their daily lives. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Rusty…I recently read how Genesis 1-3 outlines how the very beginning of this world began with creativity and communion with God…what a beautiful dance.

      • Rusty

        Amen. Frank & I have just found a church to attend, we’ve been prayerfully looking for a while now. This fellowship has an art group and a coffee shop where they display members artwork. Artist’s work they have painted during sermon time is displayed in the sanctuary. During worship, I cried. At lunch we called our daughter to tell her about the church, she cried. It’s not that we are a bunch of wimpy cry babies. It’s because we all are a family so profoundly committed to worshiping God and not leaving our creative hearts at home – that we cried. BTW, one of the guys in the band said they could use a sax player too. Frank smiled.

        • Joey O’Connor

          That’s wonderful Rusty…it’s nice to find a church home where you don’t have “to leave your creative hearts at home.”

  • CristinaHaines

    Great article, Joey. I like that you’re educating non-artists about what it’s like to be an artist. Most people simply don’t understand what it means to have a career in the fine arts—both inside and outside the church—so like anything, if they don’t know how your job works, they don’t know how to deal with you. The fine arts are either seen as just a hobby or people assume you crave recognition above everything else.

    I’ve experienced this lack of understanding in my own church. I’m a professional violinist who is part of a Church of Christ—the denomination that doesn’t allow instruments in worship. There is little to no music education in Churches of Christ. I’ve heard musicianship denounced and ridiculed from the pulpit. People generally assume I want the limelight, or that I’m self-centered, or stuck up or bent on achieving fame. I’d like to be able to use my gifts to serve the kingdom, but I’m already enough of a target when I’m “off duty”! Talk about being discouraged! But I’ve found other ways in which I can serve the church, and people will generally leave me alone once they see I’m normal.

    I’ve had the opposite, too, as a church musician: people did tend to see me as unidimensional. You can’t get someone to talk about so much as the weather with a musician. It’s all, “My youngest sister’s cousin’s niece started the violin last year and she’s seven” and “Hi, we’re glad you’re here…for rehearsal.” I have a life, a relationship with God, and a need for fellowship time too (as well as a need to worship by singing). I remember enjoying a break every now and again so that I could get to know some people in the congregation without a musician name tag on. 😉

    • Joey O’Connor

      Thanks Cristina for sharing your story. My heart breaks to hear some of the struggles you’ve been through, but it sounds like you have a good attitude and a healthy perspective. I think one of the most important aspects of our Grove Gatherings is simply giving encouragement to artists. Yes, people will always have their limited perspectives and understanding of what artists are all about…one of the challenges is their are so many art forms and each has its particular characteristics (musicianship vs. visual art vs. screenwriting, etc.). I hope you have a group of fellow artists to share your highs and lows with…keep pressing on my friend.

  • Chris L

    I’m so glad this book exists, and thank you Joey for blogging about it! I learned of it a few weeks back when someone else wrote about it on FB and posted the list of “discouragements”. It’s been on my mind ever since! We are part of a very small church body that, thank God, does encourage the dancing, the singing, the flag-waving, and even (especially) the prophetic spontaneity. There is a congregational mic available so folks are allowed to come up and sing a prophetic song, give a word of encouragement, etc. For this, I am thankful and blessed by.

    However, there is a part of me that aches and winces at times. {I’m still trying to figure out if this is my flesh or something else.. maybe I can get some thoughts from others?} … As one of the worship leaders in a team of rotating w-leaders, I do not consider myself a “professional” musician by the defition of it; however, I have grown in my life by being surrounded by very fine artists, trained — as well as naturally-God-gifted– people who are technical in their craft (whether it be music, visual arts, writing, video, etc.,) and who pursue excellence in fine-tuning their skills FOR the purpose of more excellently serving God. There’s a saying that I like which indicates that in order to challenge/grow yourself in something, hang out with people who are better at it than you are….

    Church is not always going to be like that… it is a body.. and sometimes the body has imperfections.. mis-aligned spine, achy joints, flabby arms, weak knees, feet with bones sticking out (like mine)… and so the voice that comes up to the microphone may not be the best voice, or may not even be at all pleasant to listen to. That’s quite alright.. we embrace that in our church because we value the heart, the Spirit that prompts that voice.

    But here is where I sometimes wince or ache.. and it has to do with the concept of “embracing bad art” or “telling an artist what to do and how to do it”, as described in Ryken’s book. By promoting that “the whole church is the worship team”, or that “we are all artists”, does that DISqualify those who HAVE committed much of their life and their time to develop their art? I’m not leading worship so that I can be recognized, I’m doing it as a response to a Calling and a passion that God has cultivated in me to worship Him and to bring others along in my adoration of Him. But when I spend the time to create a song list, rehearse, and prepare my heart, only to be told to let whoever comes up to the mic have a turn, what does that communicate to the “leader” or the “artist” who has actually PREPARED for that sacred time?

    My heart is gladdened when people who feel that they are “ordinary” or that they don’t have good singing voices –or even who are not technically versed in a musical instrument– find the courage to voice the Holy Spirit’s prompting in their own hearts; yet, there is something in me that no longer desires to “fine tune” the various artistic giftings in my own life when “just anything” is now considered acceptable. Is my sentiment another form of worshipping the created thing over the Creator? I know that the OT describes the artists who created pieces for the temple were SKILLED, and I know that God does value excellence.. But I fear there is a restricting and legalistic spirit in me. I guess I’m just trying to sort out my frustrations…

    Very sorry for the long post. This topic… um ***struck a chord***… if you will. :o)

    • Joey O’Connor

      Christiane, you’ve brought up a number of very good points. I hear you on the cringe factor and I think it’s something every church needs to think through.

      Too often we want to be nice when it comes to people sharing their gifts or what is clearly not a gift, thinking it’s unloving if we don’t give everyone a fair chance. If we applied the same standard to preaching as we do to the arts, I thinking we’d see a lot of people leaving one church in favor of another because of bad preaching.

      It is more loving to say someone doesn’t not have the gift of singing instead of helping them pursue a lie or illusion. No matter how hard someone tries, he or she may never become an accomplished or gifted singer. Myself included. I love to sing, but I do not expect anyone to give me the platform to hold an entire congregation hostage.

      Excellence in all the arts and doing the steady, unseen work of practice to develop competency is the standard we need hold high, giving our all in worship to God. One’s heart may be pure and right, but if they aren’t gifted artists, they never will be. If everyone’s an artist, then no one’s an artist.

      One may be not necessarily gifted in the arts, but enjoy, practice and pursue growing in their given art form. The key issue, like any talent, gift, or interest, is to have a realistic perspective on the scope of our gifts. This is where the counsel, mentoring and feedback from others more experienced than us can help us arrive at a healthy perspective. A heathy check on one’s ego also helps.

  • Beth Shook

    As an visual artist active in academia and the arts community in our city, I feel little support from the church. Unless, of course, if the work is liturgical-ish. Honestly, I believe the church’s response/reaction to the visual arts is but a symptom of the abandonment of the arts to the world. I would love to see the church drive culture.