Art ministry today: cool and hip...

(Tim) Whether in the U.S. or Western Europe, Reformed hipsters have fallen in love with art. For communicating the Gospel, preaching is out and art is in--it's the great white hope. Draw the Gospel. Sculpt the Gospel. Paint the Gospel. Use words only if you must.

David Baker is a student here at ClearNote Pastors College who, with his wife Marta and their children, were raising support under the Presbyterian Church in America's Mission to the World when God led them to move to Bloomington and begin training for pastoral ministry. David's a painter and he'd been headed to Dublin, Ireland, where he planned to be a part of an MTW team there, and to focus on the arts community. Recently, David corresponded with another MTW missionary in a Western European country about the arts movement within MTW and the PCA.

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Dear (John Doe),

I should give you a brief background and update on what we are doing. As you may know we were on the path to work in arts ministry in Dublin, Ireland with MTW. We took a 5-year leave-of-absence from MTW for education and because of some other issues that made it clear that the yoking with the Irish church was not a good one. I'm now a pastor in training at ClearNote Pastor's College in Bloomington, Indiana. I continue to make art and I participate in a local gallery. I love using God's gift of artistic talent to His glory. He gives us these gifts.

When we were working on support raising we spent time with various churches around the country and we got to hear and see a lot of what was going on in the the arts ministry movement.

I continue to study the art scene and how the church is involved in it. Since we started on the missionary path I have seen some things that have given me concern about art ministry as I've seen it practiced. When we first signed up to work with MTW I thought arts ministry simply meant evangelistic ministry by artists to artists--artists working in the field would have an excuse to be in the lives of other artists and then to testify to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to bring them to hear the preaching of the Word. I've since learned that is not at all what's going on.

Art ministry as I've seen it practiced means being cool and hip. It means making art, bringing in pagan artists and their work, having art shows, and "engaging the culture." (We should engage the culture, but with the Gospel, the shameful, bloody, gnarly Gospel.) There is a wall that goes up the second sin is mentioned and when the command to worship and bend the knee to Jesus Christ is made.

Artists will talk about art all day long. They will drink your wine and eat your cheese. But the clear presentation of the Gospel will end the show. What I've seen is a very timid dance around the Gospel because we know inside our hearts that the Gospel is offensive. We fail to trust God's Word, His Spirit and the end He has promised when we bear the shame of the cross and behave contrary to human reason. That end is often being despised and it's definitely neither hip nor cool. But wonderfully, it is the way God builds His Kingdom.

People hate God, they hate His Son Jesus, they hate the Holy Spirit, and they hate Christians. Art ministry will never succeed until it takes a back seat to Word ministry--that is the preaching of the Word. God does not speak in a revelatory way through art. He speaks through His Word and through faithful preaching of it. I have heard Christian artists claim that their art speaks God's Word. This is a dangerous path to tread.

Ironically, because art ministry has wrongly attempted to tread on the ground meant only for the Word, there is now no arts ministry at all. When Christian artists mimic pagan artists by creating works that are incomprehensible and do not point to God, what are we doing? We give credence to art that is vulgar, God-hating, and blasphemous, then we fail to call blasphemous art what it is. Instead we try to "understand" what the man means by using the medium of excrement or blood (for instance). But Scripture tells us what's wrong with him: he needs peace with God. We mustn't encourage the artist to continue his selfish, navel-gazing introspection--we must preach to Him the words of life. We must also reclaim art for the Kingdom.

When we come into contact with pagan artists, we often waste opportunities to trust God and to honor His Name. We want them to like us. We can't create these relationships and engage the culture and naively expect them to love us and share understanding with us without that love coming from Jesus Christ. What we often do is draw people in to have an excuse to speak to them and develop relationships with them--but then idolize the relationship and fear rejection. The rejection will happen if we tell them the truth, but there's always the magnificent possibility that God will give them life!

(Dear brother), here's some encouragement for you as you engage in this ministry:

  • No real ministry happens if the Gospel is not preached. The Kingdom is not advanced without the preaching of the Word. Art ministry must not replace Word ministry. Use it to get people to hear God's Word.
  • The radical thing is to return to the historical Christianity of our fathers. Hardly anyone is doing it! What did Calvin say? Edwards? Owen?
  • Avoid postmodern, Emergent Church, mystical mumbo-jumbo. It may feel right, but it is wrong. Avoid fads.
  • Trust God's Word. Be faithful to Him. It may seem that the (people you work among) are dead and lost to the Gospel but this means God has a great opportunity to be glorified and to astound. God's glory shines in these seemingly impossible situations. We are all equally dead without Jesus Christ.

Brother, I pray this helps you. I tell you this because of our bond of Jesus Christ and because of our common fight for the advancement of His kingdom. I tell you this with warmth in my heart toward you. I would really like to speak with you more about this.

Warmly,

David Baker

Comments

I think it can be a useful proclamation when a church commissions an artist (including craftsmen in this category) to make something for the church's use in its building or otherwise. The church needs to explain the Gospel points involved and which it asks the artist to address, ex;ore, or express. Some will, of course, reject the invitation. Some will try to cheat. But there may be some "good soil" (Mark 4:8) out there. too. Some artists may "get it"--and even believe it and him--when they have to connect their art to The message. Of course, as Mr. Baker makes clear, the authentic message has to be spoken or none of this will happen.

Dear David,

Thanks for sharing this excellent letter.

Love,

David

Amen--let us all be "uncool", and soli deo gloria.

David Baker,
I'm right now reading through B. Godowa's -Word Pictures- with some bred'ren. Have you read it, or are you aware of it? My own "read" is that he is equivocating "word," "word pictures," and "pictures" in his case for the use of image and art in theology and Christian life. If you're familiar with the book, I'd love to get your review.

Peace (Romans 5:1 peace),
Joe B

Joe B.,

Nope, I haven't read the book but I'll put it on the list. Thanks for the tip.

- David

But art can connect people with God, as this fascinating article shows:

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2010/03/how-i-found-god-and-peace-with-my-atheist-brother.html

which I first came across on a site not too far from this one ...

http://www.baylyblog.com/2010/03/a-wonderful-anniversary-present-to-mom-and-pop-hitchens.html

;-)

Ross,

I'm not seeing many representational paintings depicting God's judgment being produced by Christian artists today, are you?

No, what we are seeing are paintings that are well-nigh faux finishes with names attached to them, and certainly not anything conveying a clear message of God's judgment. What we see are paintings that mean whatever we want them to mean - perfect post-modern style - please don't bother us with a landscape, still-life, or portrait (the mainstays of art for centuries)- and certainly not something that depicts something out of which we cannot wiggle.

Romans 1 leaves us without excuse based solely on the created world, but God went much farther and decreed that His Word be preached by men, in the Church. He did not decree that it would be preached by men with art.

I recognize the smiley face icon - so, I understand your jest - but seriously, what we see in "art ministry" isn't the stuff of Van der Weyden or Hieronymus Bosch. No, it is not designed to cause us to fear God, but instead to ponder a mystical force of our own design.

I am happy that Hitchen's was scared by scenes of judgment. But isn't this another case of sacrificing the normal on the altar of the abnormal? The surest way to kill the rightful (but humble) place of art is to put it in the place of ministry.

- David

Excellent letter! Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.

David,

As I studied Galatians 3, Calvin's comments brought your letter to mind. I hope you find Calvin edifying.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified (Galatians 3.1).

"Let those who would discharge aright the ministry of the gospel learn, not merely to speak and declaim, but to penetrate into the consciences of men, to make them see Christ crucified, and feel the shedding of his blood. When the Church has painters such as these, she no longer needs the dead images of wood and stone, she no longer requires pictures; both of which, unquestionably, were first admitted to Christian temples when the pastors had become dumb and been converted into mere idols, or when they uttered a few words from the pulpit in such a cold and careless manner, that the power and efficacy of the ministry were utterly extinguished" (Calvin's Commentary).

Can this blog ever post anything positive, or encouraging? Everything is so negative and depressing.

Dear David,

I was positively encouraged by your letter.

>>Can this blog ever post anything positive, or encouraging? Everything is so negative and depressing.

Dear Kadence,

Can't you ever comment positively? Can't you take just a minute to encourage our readers? Do you have to be so negative and depress everyone?

Cheerfully yours,

I too am repulsed by artists striving to appear cool, hip, and relevant to their culture, as if God needs a design rep in PR. But don't dismiss the concept of art ministry before you've seen how a Jesus-centered art ministry can help usher people closer to God.
Art ministry will never succeed until it takes a back seat... not to "Word ministry (preaching)," but to Jesus Christ. When Jesus is the center of art ministry, God is glorified. Our church's artists don't tiptoe around the reality of Christ. Rather, we boldly create visual renderings of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. We have SO MUCH material to draw from in the Bible! It is our honor to engage in creativity through the Holy Spirit and "bring people to their knees... not in awe of our talent, but of our God" (Rory Noland in Heart of the Artist).
Preaching is an art form. Preaching is creative writing, persuasive essay, and performance. Don't elevate preaching to occupy the same level as the Word itself. It's all "just" art.
Have you ever been slammed by a spiritual epiphany through the visual arts or performing arts (which includes sermons)? Maybe you haven't experienced an epiphany through visual art, because you haven't been exposed to good Christian art... yet. But asserting that God cannot reveal Himself through forms of art is like saying God cannot reveal Himself to man through creation (Romans 1:20). Riiiight. Go look at a sunset sometime. I mean really look.
Rather than dismiss art and artists, exhort them to refine their craft (just as Edwards refined his writing) and let's equip artists to deepen their spiritual roots into Christ and His Word. The world hates the Light, yet God brings individuals to Himself through the Light they see in us. I've seen salvations through art. Your artists are positioned to be that light. Let them.

Dear Jesse,

Preaching is not art. Art is not preaching. No one comes to faith in Jesus Christ through looking at a photograph or a woven tapestry. No one. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word (message) of Christ. That message begins with the declaration of the character of God. Followed by the condition of all men and therefore each individual man: unrighteousness. These and all the other components of the evangel must be declared and received as truth proposed and believed. No painting can convey it's content. Metaphor only works if one knows what it is symbolic of.

Max

I didn't tell you to stop preaching. We need that medium too, and yes, preaching is a "medium."

Communication begins with the art of language, but how fragmented to think communication is limited to the realm of the ear.

You are just plain wrong to assert that "no one" comes to faith by looking at art. I have witnessed people coming to salvation while experiencing art. It's not their first-ever exposure to the message. They had heard the gospel once or twice or 18 times before, and decided against Christ. But something about the art drew them to Christ. You know the stats, the average person will see/hear/experience the gospel over a dozen separate times before making the decision to come to Christ.
It's not necessary or beneficial to divide media into different compartments and promote one while shunning most of the rest. Just use what we have... the pulpit, the radio, galleries, film, the studio, books, coffee shops, whatever. God is infinitely creative. Let Him use whatever He wants to use to draw the lost to Himself.

Dear Jesse,

You continue in your attempt to suppress the truth in this matter. Preaching is not simply another positive medium for the bringing of the gospel. It is the God ordained and exclusive means by which men come to faith in Christ.

It is not a matter of the fragmentation of several equally weighted means. I don't care how many random acts of kindness they experience, how many sunsets they view, or how many art galleries they peruse, no one comes to faith without "hearing" the message. (Yes hearing includes sign language.)

I have not suggested that you stop producing art. What I have said is that you must stop asserting that preaching is just one among equals in the camp of the beneficial media.
It is not.
It is completely otherly.

BTW
In listing the ways in which God "draws" the lost to Himself you have omitted some very important media: the threats of the law, the fear of judgment and Hell, disaster, sickness, suffering, death and etc..

Max

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