The Christian Artist in Ministry
© 1997 by Craig Pitman
Methods whereby the artist may serve the local community
Before I begin, I must acknowledge particular indebtedness to Michael Card, Dr. Harold Best, and the late C. John Miller. I consider these saints to be "giants in the land".
Dr. Miller, in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, challenged me to be truly "Reformed" in all my theology, not just in the "ivory tower", but in every facet of ministry.
Although we have only briefly met on several occasions, Mike Card has been more than an inspiration. His example of dedication to excellence and integrity in the face of the industry "gatekeepers" should be an encouragement to every artist who truly seeks to serve Christ.
More than any other book devoted to the subject of the Christian and the arts, Music Through the Eyes of Faith by Dr. Harold Best, stands out in my opinion as the absolute best (no pun intended, but very fitting). It is the best $10.00 I've ever invested. If I had my way, I would make it required reading.
A pastor notices a new family visiting his congregation. After the service, he introduces himself and strikes up a conversation with the new visitors. The husband introduces his family and says that they have just moved to the area from another state and they are looking for a church where they can be actively involved in ministry. Upon hearing this, the pastor is outwardly reserved in his pleasure while on the inside, he is as happy as a kid at Christmas ("Advent" for you purists!).
Hardly unable to contain his glee, the pastor asks the husband, "In what ministries would you like to be involved?"
The husband responds, "Well, my wife and daughter dance, my son is a painter and sculptor, and I am a playwright."
There is a deathly silence for what seems like forever before the now uneasy minister suggests that the adult choir is always looking for eager voices.
Is this a familiar scene? What can the husband do? What should the pastor do? Can Christian artists actually serve the body of Christ with their gifts? Is there a place for a Christian artist and his craft in the life of a local congregation? If so, how can the leadership provide a nurturing environment for artists, and how can artists find their niche within the Covenant community?
The church at large (and particularly the Reformed community) has for too long neglected her artists. Much of the reason for this has been based on well-intentioned but misguided convictions about the Church and the arts. We believe that we are mandated to bring every area of life under the authority of King Jesus. Assuming this mandate is true, the question then is not should the church address the arts, but how should we go about it practically.
Historically, there seems to be a parallel between the rise of the influence of the Gospel in a culture and a rise in its influence in the arts. In the 20th century, the church has abdicated the arts, either by brazen antagonism or callused indifference. If there has been any attention given to the artistic disciplines by the Church, it is either in the form of mediocre, market-driven "copy-catting" on the one hand, or an avant-garde elitism on the other. There seems to be very little truly servant-based creativity coming from the Christian community these days.
One of the main problems the Church has with the arts is one of perception. We tend to look upon the arts in a different way from other vocations. Many artists have had to endure an undercurrent of disrespect from the least expected sources. How many times have we heard, "What do you really do for a living?", and, "Why don't you get a real job?". The idea that an artist ought to be able to make a living with his craft is foreign to many.
The results of this abdication of support and encouragement by the Church has been tragic. This is best exemplified in the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Trained for the Dutch Reformed pastorate, Van Gogh found early on that he just was not "pastor material". He longed to serve Christ with his gifts but the church had no place for him and would not accept him with his artistic idiosyncrasies. Instead of accepting, discipling and nurturing him, they just branded him as strange and cast him aside. How terribly sad, particularly when one realizes from the human perspective, what the Church lost by her own callousness.
So we are back to our question. How can a Christian artist find a place in the local church?
First of all, we must set our focus to the local community. Too many of us eye the artistic Mecca's of this world as the goal of our careers. Dr. Harold Best points out in his great work Music Through the Eyes of Faith that when Christian artists are no longer oriented to their community and set out to pursue their careers in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Nashville, or wherever the elite of their particular discipline congregate, they gut their community of their influence. Younger artists are left without anyone to serve as mentors and teachers. The impact of an artist who functions out of a Christian worldview is stripped from the people who see him without the hype and slick marketing produced by the industry "gatekeepers".
In addition, the artist removes himself from a community of support (albeit generally weak) that is more encouraging of creativity and experimentation than the elite who will invest money only in those who are sure to bring handsome returns on their investment dollars. The artistic centers are fat with those hoping to "make it" in their field, while back home, the local church and community are starving because their artists have bolted to what they consider to be greener pastures. This attitude does not speak well of people who are called to serve rather than to be served.
Now if the Lord in His providence enlarges the sphere of influence of an artist, praise God who makes His people to rise to prominence. But notice the fundamental desire of the Christian artist is not to be a star, but to faithfully serve. A Christian artist may attain stardom outside his community, but it is within the local community that faithful, efficient, and effective service to the body of Christ will be most achieved.
Look at the great artists of the past like J.S. Bach and Rembrandt. These men did not go about seeking stardom. They plied their craft patiently and quietly, blooming where God had planted them. They did not really attain their fame until years after their death. These were Christian artists in the true sense of the term; not merely because of the excellence of their work, but because of the way they approached their craft and carried themselves. So the first course of action for the Christian artist who wishes to find a place in his church is: Focus your artistic energies on your local church and community.
Be A Servant
The Apostle Paul exhorts us to do our work heartily as unto the Lord. Our Lord Jesus gave us the example of a servant by washing His disciples' feet. This must be our attitude. Much of the bad perception of artists and their callings has been brought on by the artists themselves. When many think of an artistic calling, they imagine one struggling, tormented in soul, crying to be heard, living a bohemian life, consumed by his craft. This is not the picture of a Christian artist. Our craft is handiwork, an offering of worship to the God whose image we bear. We create because He first created and as Imago Dei, we bear His creative mark within us. The motive behind our work should be the glory of God through serving, not assaulting our audience's sensibilities, nor in impressing them with our prowess.
Part of our calling is to legitimately entertain. Remember, Christian artists during the Reformation had the greatest impact on the culture by making their art accessible to the common people. These artists, out of a servant's heart, came down from their "ivory towers" and connected with the populace, and as a result, Christian art flourished. We do not hear much about the modern, avant-garde Christian artists mainly because they have succumbed to the anti-Christian view of the "bohemian" artist instead of approaching their craft as a "servant-artist".
I am not saying that a Christian should not explore new horizons of creativity, but if an artist exclusively remains in the "avant-garde mode", I must question his motivation for pursuing an artistic calling. We must not allow an elitist mentality to make us lose sight of the fact that our gifts are given by God to serve His people. If we create "over the heads" of our people, we may as well be speaking in an unknown tongue. We should challenge ourselves and our people and yet we must never lose sight of the fact that we are gifted to serve. So in order for you, as a Christian artist, to make a niche for your gifts in your congregation, be a servant with your craft. Exercise your creativity by finding ways to make your handiwork easily accessible and understandable to your community without compromising your dedication to excellence.
This part excites me the most. Much of the time, pastors and leaders just do not know what to do with an artist. It is not that they are necessarily opposed to a craftsman, they just do not have a vision for the ministry possibilities of an artist. For them, an artist (mainly musicians) are relegated to the music of corporate worship or small group meetings. But there is much, much more which may be done. We are creative people, so part of being creative is discovering ways to integrate our craft into life.
C. John Miller notes in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church that diaconal ministries will become increasingly more crucial in impacting the community for the Gospel. Miller points to Cotton Mather's essay "Bonifacious: Essays to do Good" where the deacons of Mather's church would meet regularly to discuss the needs of the congregation and community and then would "brainstorm" on how they could meet those needs. Likewise, we only need to develop the "eye" to see the needs inour community and then "brainstorm" on how we can use our gifts to help meet those needs.
Allow me to cite two personal experiences by way of example. First, we had been having a monthly "songfest" (a "singing" to the older crowd) where we pulled out the hymnals and the transparencies and informally gathered around the guitars and pianos to spend a couple of hours singing. I wanted to find a way to meet a ministry need along with enjoying a time of fellowship. I wanted to establish the vision in the people that an arts ministry (music in my case) could help serve the body of Christ and the community. We made our "Songfests" informal fund-raisers by charging an admission of a bag of non-perishable food per family for our mercy ministry food-pantry and raising money for the need of a specific missionary. This helped to turn the eyes of the people outward toward the community and the church at large, showing that the arts can truly support other ministries while providing an opportunity for fellowship and encouragement, meeting needs both material and spiritual.
Another incident occurred about the time I was struck by the story of David playing for Saul. Here was an artist using his gifts for the blessing of another in a small, intimate setting. What an opportunity to strengthen, and comfort. What if I looked out in my congregation to find members who were hurting, struggling, going through trials. What if I approached these brethren and asked if I could come over to their house at their convenience some night and sing for them, pray with them and read Scripture. My desire was not to burden them with unwelcome company, sinfully pry into their distress, nor intrude in personal issues in which I had no business; just a short visit for at most an hour, using my songs to encourage and remind them of their Savior. Would this be valuable to them? Would this serve them? I told my pastor about my idea and he fully supported it.
God then provided the opportunity. A family in the church was suffering from a tragedy, and I asked the husband if he would mind my coming over one night just to play for them. He welcomed the idea. I have played concerts all over the southeast for over twenty years, and have recorded my songs and have had them recorded by others. I have led worship services when I thought the glory cloud would fill the sanctuary by the way the congregation sang; but that night, in the living room of that dear family, God gave me the privilege of seeing real music ministry, when in the privacy of the home, tears of sorrow turned to tears of hope and hearts were poured out over the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that rose in that room.
I got to see God use my handiwork to strengthen and comfort my brothers and sisters in a way I never before had experienced. There is not a recording contract in the world nor a concert stage I would trade for that night. Brethren, we just have to be creative. In order to find a place for our craft in the congregation, we must find the needs around us and search for ways to meet those needs with our gifts.
Be a Mentor
There is a dimension of our craft which seems to be often neglected in our day, yet when used, will have the double blessing of sharpening our own skills and those of others. That disregarded dimension is one of mentoring. The word, "mentor" has received much airplay in recent years within the Christian community; and it should when properly understood. Christian mentoring is more than teaching: it is discipleship. Whereas a relationship between teacher and student may not go beyond the specific subject matter which identifies their relationship, the mentoring relationship involves much more personal contact where not only the skills are taught, but the worldview. The relationship is more one-on-one. This is how Christian artists propagate their craft in a full-orbed way.
What is so valuable about this approach is that first we have the privilege and responsibility of investing ourselves in the lives of others. For all its faults in promoting a government-controlled education system, the movie Mr. Holland's Opus clearly showed the value of mentoring. Here was a musician who, for most of his adult life, chased after the "brass ring", thinking he would be successful in his field only by composing his "great work". However, every time he was made to put off his dreams and answer the more immediate needs of his family and his job, he felt cheated; until he found at the end of his career that his great work was in the lives of the people he had impacted over the years.
Someone might say that one cannot teach without proven expertise in one's particular discipline. I disagree. One does not have to have a college degree in order to convey and demonstrate technique. They can certainly model technique to others to the level they themselves have attained. Indeed, teaching technique is one of the best ways to learn it as well. We must abandon this elitist mentality which has takenroot particularly in the more classical and traditional communities of the Christian art world, for it alienates the people from the arts instead of drawing them in to find their own gifts of artistic expression. This alienation is at home in the anti-Christian arena with its intrusive arrogance which holds in contempt the common folk. A Christian approach to the arts is antithetical to such a worldview.
Another advantage of mentoring is that younger artists, being mentored within the context of a local congregation, by local artists, learn their craft within the contexts of service and ministry, as opposed to the accolades of the stage or the art gallery. Their art serves their church and their communities. It brings joy to the nursing home, hope and comfort to the suffering, gladness and wonder to the younger faces, beauty and glory to the worship service, and glory to God. This is why God gifted Bezalel, David, and Asaph; and why He has gifted all His craftsmen.
Lastly, remember that artistic excellence is not a substitute for a vital, living walk with the Lord, Jesus Christ. What will it profit us if we gain the artistic world and lose our own soul? If our creative skills are more advanced than our godliness, then all our talent stands to condemn us because its source is the God whose grace we are spurning. If we have no real heart-love for Christ, everything we do is vanity.
One of the reasons why churches are so suspicious of artists is because of the godless reputation which has been in many cases rightly associated with creative callings. We must change that perception by proving otherwise in our own lives. This is where the Puritans are so helpful as theologians of the heart. Devour their practical works. Bathe yourself with all the "means of grace". If our craft is to have a welcome place in the church, we must cultivate godliness in ourselves and in those around us.
We have been given a tremendous responsibility and privilege with our
callings. Never forget that all we do should be an offering, by
faith, to the "Giver of all good and perfect gifts", for His glory
alone. May He bless your labors.
Updated by: Matt Bynum