Art in Church?


Acknowledgement to for the above.
Because I assert that real Art is about asking questions.

Design & Craft is Expression; Art is Personal Expression

If Art is “personal expression”, church could be the wrong platform for art. I was expressing myself in a worship band. Or was I expressing a mood “In The Spirit”. I was told to play the same thing every time. But I never play the same thing twice; if that’s what you want, play the CD, and sing along. Live music is art. I respected the leadership position, but rejected the idea that worship music is art. It’s something else.

At the time I dropped out of playing music in church, I would ask, Is there any use for art in church / worship? The weekly repetition of the same songs in the same style seemed to neither require nor allow creative performance. I found that creativity was deplored as unwanted self-expression. I’d also question the artistic values of the original songwriting. Where in our contemporary songs is there self-expression, creativity, tension, or questioning? To me both the writing and performance seemed stuck at the decorative end of the spectrum.

A different question is whether self-expression has a place in mission. I see it as artistic ‘testimony’. Personal testimony is permitted! But it’s up to you as a question of taste where testimony belongs in mission or worship, and then how art might help.

By the way. I think personal expression and creative performance are welcomed in certain preachers. There’s a danger of celebrity, but it’s an art form that is accepted.

But enough about me! ..Let’s allow for “Corporate Expression”. Can art be recruited?

Art is not Science

Science tells us how things work. Art doesn’t. It shows us around the perimeter, peeks in, and leaves us with a personal reaction, a gut feeling, still wondering.

“!” Art is not Telling.
“?” Art is Asking.

So my question is, Does the church want artists presenting questions? There’s a view that the church has a duty  to “Declare Truth”, implying that the truth is a set of facts that we can stick to.  So how would that require artistic expression? (I’m soon going to suggest two ways.) Like the artists of icons we could stick to the rules, and simply write down the theology in pictures. (By the way, iconographers do not “paint” icons, they “write” them.)  That’s not Art, that’s design and craft; copying a beautiful artifact to a simple formula. Icons are like the medieval illuminated texts, and like popular worship songs, and like a well-designed kettle. but not Art.

However, Jesus style was artisitic:

Art Describes the Transcendant in Contrasted Realities

Art (in story, music, image, or design & craft) manifests as a spectrum spanning from passive decoration, across craft, expression, (self-expression?), embedded tension, to aggressive confrontation. All of these convey meaning at levels deeper than words, but simplistically, great art must have tension. Light against dark. Beauty against evil. Superficial against hidden meaning. Expectation denied. Did you guess where I’m going with this?

Inside Art is a space for transcendent ideas to be suspended between physical entities – like characters and events, and their crafty depiction.

An ancient and almost forgotten art form is storytelling. Jesus used it to allow each of us to discover truth suspended in the free open spaces between His story’s characters and events. Maybe including His own life story. He doesn’t tell us who to forgive, or when, or why, or how it works out, but instead we get a story of the Prodigal Son, his surprising father, and differently surprising brother. Show Not Tell – as writers say.

Listen; reflect; and then you alone can work out what it means – and what it means to you alone:

Art is Also a Dynamic Space for Personal Meaning

Do you feel the need to to explain the meaning of the story? Why? What are you trying to do? Are you intent on your audience getting the exact same message that you got from the story? That might be a controlling instinct. It might be condescending. It might be a lack of trust. But Art does not directly explain things – that’s not how art works!

To me the evangelical mind wants to resolve and close everything (sorry!) while the artistic mind wants an unregulated space between artist and receiver in which the ‘art’ invites, even requires the receiver to engage, interact, and extract unique personal meaning. The artist makes a conscious or unconscious statement in her story or picture or song or cushion cover. The artists disappears, and the artwork stands alone. The audience may receive an intended or unintended message, and it can be unique to each recipient.

I believe that God’s message  of truth and hope are transmitted with meaning unique to each of us.

Outside Art is a space for individual diversity of interpretation and application of the message. Do we not believe this is the case for both The Word and for preaching? That the spirit will interpret them to speak to us individually? That’s a close analogy with art. And finally:

Art is a Hammer, not a Mirror

Ian Paul & Keir Shreeves ask if art is dispensible in Christian mission and worship. So many questions: first of all: Art? What do you mean, “art”? Keir Shreeves does draw our attention to the issue of “Ugly art”.  I taught my children (with whom I performed ‘musical art’ at Keir’s wedding!) to repeat Brecht’s words, “Art is not a mirror to reflect society but a hammer to beat it into shape”.


The great truths of salvation and the kingdom are in violently contradictory concepts. Art can best deliver these messages: Life out of death. Above all, the victory of the slain lamb.

Art can and should be uncomfortable if it is to have any deep purpose. Even the bluntest propaganda challenges us to obey out of guilt or duty. And the best art lifts us to change our world-view, our life-goals, and our own minds.

3 thoughts on “Art in Church?

  1. Great thoughts! For me always explain that in religion (even organised stuff) i find a space and freedom that is nowhere else- how a Dutch comedian tells: in Catholic school I was indoctrinated with ideas like ‘1 and 1 is two’ and ‘a tree grows like such and such’ yet then the priest would come and say: there is only one god and he is 3 persons. – that is space. For me art is exploration, creating it and encountering it. limiting religion and church to ‘truth’ can sometimes keep us from understanding a way what truth, faith, hope, love and forgiveness actually are except for holy words.

    1. I’m glad you could make any sense of it. I struggled to order and articulate my ideas on this. Perhaps I should try again.
      I’m not “complaining” that Art is missing from church, just pointing out that we need to understand the meaning of Art and the practice of making and enjoying Art before Art can be deployed in any of our Worship, meditation, testimony, entertainment,..

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