The church's role in art

Artists, pastors, and theologians offer advice for church art patronage.

May 27th, 2011

For the past year, I have been interviewing artists, asking them to describe current trends in North American arts. One of the themes that has emerged from this "Where are we now?" series is participants' desire that the Church would take a larger role in patronizing the arts.

The director of an arts academy said she would love to see North American churches taking inspiration from the way "Europe used to be. Artists were sponsored and were encouraged to do their craft. It was not a hobby. Now the arts are a hobby and are secondary. I would love to see the churches be able to support, as the secular community supports, their artists."

There are many obstacles preventing such support. The history of Protestant denominations shying away from visual arts for fear of idolatry, distraction, or idiosyncratic interpretation is well known. The "worship wars" over music have been bitter. When churches have dared to include drama, painting, sculpture, or literary arts, the results have often been tacky at best and heterodox at worst. What's a church, or an artist, to do?

A lively, profound, sensitive conversation based on these suggestions might be a step towards healthier church-artist communication. Here is some advice.

1. Develop relationships.

Artists: before trying to get a church commission, become an integral part of the community. Worship there, make friends, and serve before trying to sell your art. Matt Whitney, an artist with an excellent working relationship with University Presbyterian Church, says: "Trust, trust, trust! Relationships, relationships, relationships! You have to start with relationship building, as an artist within a community or as a pastor working with artists. Having a foundation of trust between you and a pastor is fundamental." Drew Zuehlke of Hope Community Church advises artists: "Join a church. Build relationships with the people in the church. Create out of your response of the gospel and share it with your church community." A variety of relational arts can emerge in community. The congregation can be included in the art-making process, or at least in observing its creation. Relationships can develop beyond one church family for collaborative projects, such as Kansas City's Set Apart or Seattle's By/For Project.

2. Churches: be willing to pay for art.

When I asked creative people if they had been commissioned, the most common response was, "I wasn't commissioned, but I did some art for my church." Sometimes churches cover the cost of materials or time; sometimes they simply assume artists will donate their work. Those who work in the church—preachers, musicians, counselors, and so on—are typically on salary. This is a biblical principle—if a church wants to add art to its ministry, it should pay what that art is worth. Matt Whitney remarks, "That trust relationship comes into the forefront when working with costs and reimbursements . . . a church should not expect that artists are just hobbyist volunteers desperate for an outlet for their craft."

3. Artists: be willing to donate your art.

On the other hand, artists should occasionally donate their time, skills, and products. Shane Cooper told me, "I don't feel entirely comfortable accepting money for 'worship.'" Matt Whitney said, "Sometimes I believe it's appropriate to 'tithe' your services as an artist." Imagine what glorious places of beauty churches would become if artists gave every tenth painting to hang on their walls and every tenth sculpture to stand in their halls; if composers, poets, dramatists, and choreographers premiered every tenth work in their spaces. The Church would become a primary venue for artistic culture, and artists would no longer feel marginalized in Christian communities. Artists, then, should consider donating their work to the church while the church is considering paying them a competitive price.

4. The building can be an artistic space.

Rosie Perera, a photographer, told me that in her home church, "the church is a gallery!" However, warns Whitney, "A church is not a commercial gallery for selling work, so don't approach it that way." Painter Ryan Jackson navigates the financial question by hanging his work at Calvary Chapel, selling the paintings, and donating the proceeds. Pastors and artists need to discuss this deeply and considerately, understanding that they may differ on how, where, and why to show art in the church's space and how to handle sales.

5. Integrate, integrate, integrate!

Whatever and however arts are used, they can never be tacked on. Art is not just stuck onto church to placate the creative people. If it does not facilitate worship, fellowship, or cultural engagement, it is probably not being used wisely. As one example of integrated work—University Presbyterian commissioned Matt Whitney to paint a piece during Advent services, "and the early studies for this piece served as our graphic for our bulletin during Advent. Matt took the themes of our sermon series for Advent as his inspiration and painted a triptych that now hangs in the church" (Dave Rohrer). The painting was used in four interconnected ways, all integrated with church life.

6. Move beyond music and visuals.

Most churches use music and many use film clips or pre-packaged graphics. But art is so much more! Drew Zuehlke advises, "Look within your church for people creating. Encourage people to respond out of the gospel in creative ways. Celebrate all kinds of creation." Blackhawk Church "just came off of doing an artist showcase this past March where we 'commissioned' music, visual, and spoken word artists to come around a particular theme in the life of our church. We then had a concert/gallery night and a full weekend that featured these works" (Joel Hassenzahl). Worship leader Tara Ward of Church of the Beloved and her team create and perform a quarterly event that thoughtfully combines music, silence, film, prayer, and art installations at churches in the Seattle area. My church, Living Hope Orthodox Presbyterian, occasionally includes an interpretive sign language song by Sharon Barshinger in its services. There is a wild, beautiful variety of arts out there that might be tried in the church.

7. Study the historical traditions.

But before jumping into some crazy worship combination of belly dance and origami, become educated in the arts of the past. In comparing American and European churches, British arts theologian Jeremy Begbie said, "You have (generally) more money, a philanthropic culture, seemingly endless enthusiasm and energy, and a refreshing 'can-do' attitude. All this has made the U.S. a vibrant arena for artistic innovation and engagement in the Church. In Europe, on the other hand, we have a richer historical heritage staring at us on practically every street, and we are far more aware of tradition. This means that the arts in the Church tend to be far more historically alert." Each has its possible dangers. In North America, we need to avoid innovation for its own sake and study the wisdom and technical prowess of the past.

8. Never sacrifice quality for message.

"Church" art does not need to wear a Bible-verse name-tag. It can simply be beautiful. Or excellent. Or troubling. Matt Whitney noted, "Art objects are not always going to be overtly 'religious' but can provide critical exercises in 'seeing' in an Incarnational world. I think the Holy Spirit can stretch and discomfort us as well as comfort, if the result is that one may come a little closer to understanding the Kingdom." And yet . . .

9. Never compromise theology for aesthetics.

Interestingly, not one artist or pastor I spoke with mentioned this topic—and it may be the most serious danger of church patronage. Artists often say it is notoriously difficult to remain orthodox while creating radical works. Christian writers struggle to use language that is neither heretical nor clichéd; Christian painters teeter between idolatry and iconoclasm. It behooves pastors to set a high doctrinal standard. Any decent artist will find a way to be expressive within the boundaries of theological truth, just as sonneteers or composers of fugues express themselves within the strictures of their form. There is no reason to be heretical, obscene, immoral, or even cheesy just to be new. Dante and Bach managed the balance; so should we.

10. Host gatherings.

Finally, pastors should get to know artists, while artists (along with every other vocational group) should feel safe, loved, and appreciated at church. Joshua Banner's chapter in For the Beauty of the Church contains valuable counsel on such relational nurturing. Redeemer Presbyterian's InterArts Fellowship can serve as a model. Churches and artists can become involved with The International Arts Movement, Christians in the Visual Arts, The Church and Arts Network, The Christian Artists Network, The Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture, or The Opiate Mass. Pastors: support artists' workshops. Listen to your artists. Artists: talk to your pastors. Show them your work. Everyone: involve each other in your quest for beauty and truth.

 

Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English at Penn State Lehigh Valley and at Lehigh Carbon Community College. Her new full-length poetry collection, Caduceus, is available on amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and a blogger about the arts and faith at iambic admonit. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.

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