Twenty-one years ago, during my college years, I struggled to figure out how to follow Jesus as an artist. I had many questions that didn’t seem to fit the typical Sunday school answers. Where does an artist fit in church culture? How do I use my gifts to serve? I don’t seem to fit in…am I wanted here?
Today, I pastor artists who are asking many of the same questions. To be honest, there still aren’t easy answers but dialogue and compassion are key. It’s not uncommon for conversation to reveal a creative, drawn to the love of Jesus, but wounded by the church. The struggle to conform leaves them feeling as if they must hide part of who they are. Ironically, what they feel they must hide is not sin. Rather, out of perceived shame, they hide the gift God has given them for the building up of his Church.
Maybe it is time for us to rethink why the church needs art and artists. Unfortunately, a single article is not nearly long enough to discuss all of the historical, theological, and practical issues connected to this topic. However, some good may come of a discussion that helps us love our creative “neighbors” as ourselves.
Let’s begin to reevaluate the place of art in our worship communities by examining God’s design in creation, the purpose behind the gifts he has given, and how teaching helps or hinders learning.
CALLED TO REFLECT THE CREATOR
The church needs art because we worship the Master Artist…
The book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Can you picture it? On a canvas of nothingness, his metaphorical paintbrush (dipped in the essence of his divine imagination) blocks in details of paradise. He was the original Creator. He created a perfect world in six days and yet through humanity, made provision for the continuation of the creative call.
In Genesis 1:26, the plural Majesty of God proclaims, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Again, in verse 27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV).
Humanity was meant to mirror God in a way unlike the rest of creation. How so? Only humanity was given the privilege of reflecting the Creator. Adam and Eve (and all their descendants) were made in the image and likeness of God. This doesn’t mean that we physically look like God. (God is spirit but is often spoken of in anthropomorphic terms for our benefit and understanding.) It is the Master’s intrinsic qualities that have been shared with us. The rational and emotional parts of our being flow out of his divine character. We were made to reflect God and one of the ways that we do this is through the act of creating.
Though the presence of sin has marred the creative process, each artistic endeavor bears witness to the eternal source of our creativity. We create because God did…and continues to do so (Ecclesiastes 3:11). When there is agreement between the works of our hands, the motivations of our hearts, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, our art becomes an act of worship.
GIFTS WITH PURPOSE
The church needs art because it is a gift entrusted to artists with a purpose…
You may be wondering why, if all humanity is meant to reflect God, your greatest artistic masterpiece looks like a second grade stick figure. This is a valid question. Perhaps your interests have led you to employ your efforts in a different direction. We all creatively reflect God but not all creativity is expressed in the same way. God loves diversity and allows us to reflect him differently. If we all mirrored God in the same way, we would have no need of one another.
Moreover, though God created in perfection, we have prodigiously missed the mark. This means progressive growth and dedication are required to help us develop a skill or ability. There is simply not enough time for us all to be the best at everything. Therefore, we make choices about how best to use our time in keeping with our gifting and our needs.
In the New Testament, we read about how God gave different spiritual gifts to believers. These gifts came with a purpose. In I Corinthians 12:11 we read, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (ESV).
My knowledge of God and personal experiences lead me to believe that our natural abilities often become the channels through which our spiritual gifts manifest themselves. As a pastor/teacher, I have been known to create a painting to emphasize my sermon. (A few weeks ago, I taught about Jesus using the symbols embedded in the stained glass panels of our church.) An artist with the gift of giving may tithe from works sold; one with the gift of mercy might draw our attention to a pertinent need by using their hands and their heart. And an artist with the gift of encouragement, well, the sky is the limit! These are only examples but can you imagine the blessing a spirit-led artist could be to your local church?
Bottom line, because we have been given different gifts with purpose, the church is not complete until each believer is faithfully administering their role. The church needs art because it is the calling entrusted to part of its body.
LEARN IT DEEPLY BUT DIFFERENTLY
The church needs art because the Gospel is at stake…
To illustrate this final point, I would like to tell you a story.
A few years ago, I was invited to enhance a church worship experience by providing a guest art exhibit in their lobby. The collection was based on Trinitarian symbolism. As I finished setting up my display, a middle-aged lady entered the lobby with a grandchild in tow. She was obviously flustered by changes to her overall morning plan. After disappearing for a moment to escort the child to Sunday School, she reemerged.
A choice was waiting to be made. Should she sneak into the adult teaching time or was she too late? Deciding upon the latter, she wandered next to me and, after taking a moment to process the images in front of her, inquired as to their meaning. I was grateful for the opportunity to share and took her through each image using my finger to help direct her gaze.
Mid-way through reading the symbols in my work, I turned to face her. What I saw stopped me mid-sentence. My mind rushed in response to the scene before me. There, upon the cheeks of this dear lady, were unsolicited tears.
While I was passionate about what I had created, my work was far from sentimental in nature. Rather, her tears were a response to the Holy Spirit enlightening the eyes of her heart (Ephesians 1:18).
In the moments that followed, she confided that though a faithful, church-attending Christian, she had heard more of the Gospel in the fifteen minutes we had shared together than in the previous 15 years.
Big questions started to fill my mind. How could this be? As our conversation continued, I learned that she was a visual learner and a creative muralist. Though the church was faithful in their mission of preaching the Gospel, they failed to teach in multiple modalities. Therefore, she left feeling as if she had been “talked at” but not “spoken to.”
We tend to teach in the ways we learn best. However, if the Gospel is as important as we believe it to be, we need to be open to multiple teaching and learning styles. We cannot share a message of life with someone we are not willing to make an effort to reach. Art is one of the tools God has given us to communicate his truth.
Art is both a gift and a tool necessary for the advancement of the Gospel. Please avoid viewing it as supplemental. It is foundational in understanding who, what, and how we believe. The church needs art because it helps us understand the Artist-God we worship and were made to reflect. The church needs art because it is a gift that comes with purpose. And, finally, the church needs art because a hearing for the Gospel is at stake. As an agent of God’s grace and his very own artistic masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10), may the brushstrokes of your life illustrate Jesus’s vivid love in new and varied ways!
In addition to being an artist, Jeremy Miller is an ordained pastor and the recipient of three degrees in theological studies: Master of Arts in Christian Education (Dallas Theological Seminary), Master of Biblical Studies (Virginia Beach Theological Seminary), and a Bachelor of Science in Bible/Missions (Lancaster Bible College). Over the last 18 years, God has called him and his family to make three states and two countries home while serving the cause of Jesus. More recently, his prayers have led to the founding of a ministry called Poiema Visual Arts in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Poiema Visual Arts is a Pennsylvania-based ministry infrastructure facilitating discipleship, education, and community for Christian visual artists. To learn more, visit their website, www.poiemavisualarts.org, or follow them on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram to learn more.