It's Not Easy Being
an Artist in the Church
Could you reach deep in yourself to locate that
organ containing delusions about your general
size in the world-could you lay hold of this and
dredge it from your chest and look it over in
daylight-well, it's no wonder people would
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
In music school, I studied composition with an accomplished composer whom
I deeply admired and respected. He knew I was involved in the music ministry
at my church, but we rarely talked about it. Except, that is, for one brief
moment near the end of my college career. During one of my lessons, several
sheets of score paper accidentally fell out of my folder and onto the floor. As I
gathered them up, my professor quickly noticed there was music he didn't
recognize written on these sheets. When I explained the music was something
I was working on for church, he grimaced and said, "I thought you would have
gotten this church thing out of your system by now." I shrugged my shoulders
because I didn't know what to say. Then he asked, "Why would anyone waste
their time doing church music?"
That's an interesting question, isn't it? It's one I've asked myself often over
the years. Why would an artist opt to share his or her talents with the church?
After all, that's not usually the first place people think of when it comes to excellence
or innovation in the arts. It's certainly not the place most artists think of
when they dream about where they hope to express their talent. In fact, many
artists are apprehensive about the church. They're afraid it might stifle or limit
them, and they are concerned that church people won't accept or even understand
them. Or that they won't fit in. Artists tend to be free spirits and non-conformists,
and let's face it-that doesn't go over well at most churches.
One of the most tragic examples of an artist mismatched with the church is
the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. As a young man, van Gogh desperately
desired to follow his father into the ministry. He trained for it, but he was not a
good student. Nor was he good at public speaking-a definite problem for a
potential preacher. Because of his dedication, an ecumenical Protestant organization
gave him an opportunity to serve as a lay evangelist in a poor coal-mining
town in what is now southwestern Belgium. While there, van Gogh became
deeply concerned about the plight of these downtrodden people. He began to
draw pictures of them, depicting their everyday chores, their work in the mines,
and the hopelessness etched in their faces. Although van Gogh's superiors
expressed admiration for the way he cared for his flock, they withdrew his
appointment after six months, citing his deficient preaching skills. He tried to
continue without their support but was soon living in abject poverty. Bitterly disappointed,
van Gogh gave up his dream of becoming a minister and never set
foot in a church again. He spent the rest of his life in extreme emotional, relational,
and financial turmoil, which drove him to suicide at the age of thirty-seven.
In 1889, a year before he died, Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night (plate
1). Many regard this as his most spiritual work of art. To van Gogh, the evening
sky symbolized God's presence, and the prominent cypress bush in the foreground
appears to be reaching heavenward with fiery zeal. If you look closely
at the buildings in the foreground, however, you'll notice all of them have light
coming from the windows except one-the church. Furthermore, from an
architectural standpoint, the Dutch Gothic steeple, similar to the one on the
church van Gogh grew up in, is incongruous with the French countryside the
painting represents. In another painting called Church at Auvers (1890), a cathedral
is featured on a bright sunny day. But the church is dark and also appears
to have no door. Van Gogh's feelings about the church are obvious-it's a cold,
dark, close-minded place.
One can't help but wonder how different van Gogh's life might have been had
the church encouraged him to be what God obviously made him to be-an artist.
I wish a caring Christ-follower had come alongside him and said, "Hey, Vince,
maybe preaching is not your thing. But God gave you this amazing ability to paint
and draw, so why not serve God with your art instead of trying to be a preacher?"
I think that might actually have happened today, as the arts are playing an
increasingly greater role in the ministry of the church. More and more artists are
getting involved and experiencing the rewards of ministry. Still, we are also discovering
just how difficult church work can be. Whenever I speak at a conference,
it's not uncommon for an artist to pull me aside between sessions and ask
me for advice on how to handle a troublesome situation at church. At some
point in the conversation the person invariably says something like, "I don't
know how much more of this I can take. If things don't change, I don't know
if I can survive another year." I receive many similar desperate cries for help
through letters, emails, and phone calls from leaders and volunteers. They are
overwhelmed by the challenges, worn down by the conflicts, and discouraged
by the adversity involved in doing ministry in the church.
It's hard enough being an artist, but being an artist in the church can be
extremely challenging. In this book, we tackle those challenges head on. I don't
have all the answers, but I have some experience to share that I hope you'll find
encouraging and helpful. This is not a self-help book, however, with quick-fix
formulas. It's more like a guide, a resource for your journey as an artist in the
church. You will most likely work out your frustrations and issues within the
context of your church community and your relationship with God. As you do,
I hope this book encourages you through the difficult times and equips you to
enjoy more of the good times.
Throughout this book, whenever I use the term artist I purposely cast a wide
net. Basically, I'm referring to anyone who performs, creates, produces, or enjoys
anything artistic. This includes writers, poets, painters, visual artists, performers,
musicians, dancers, dramatists, producers, photographers, and more. It
also includes those who work in technical areas including sound, lighting,
video, and staging as well as computer graphics and design. If you enjoy doing
anything artistic, you're an artist at heart.
Whether you're a professional or an amateur, whether you're a serious artist
or a casual dabbler, whether or not you consider yourself to be one of those
"artsy types," there are unique challenges for those of us who serve the church
through the arts. These are the issues I address in this book. Paul wrote that
one of the purposes of Scripture is to guide people in how to "conduct themselves
in God's household" (1 Timothy 3:15). So together we're going to examine
some scriptural principles related to the challenges we face-principles that
are relevant whether you're part of a small church or a megachurch, a traditional
congregation or a contemporary one.
You've probably already noticed I make no distinction between the universal
church (the "big C" Church) and the local church (the "small c" church).
Most often I refer to the local church, but I use the word interchangeably in an
effort to keep the church from being an abstract concept that does not inspire
a feeling of ownership. In Paul's greeting to the Corinthians he writes, "To the
church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be
holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus
Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul addresses a church that is both local and
worldwide, so apparently it's all one church in God's eyes anyway!
YOU NEED THE CHURCH
If it is so difficult to be an artist in the church, why should the artist who's
a Christian give the church a second thought? First of all, Jesus loved the
church so much he gave his life for it (Ephesians 5:25). In light of that high a
sacrifice, no serious Christ-follower can afford to be indifferent toward the
church. Therefore, every artist who truly loves Christ must also love the
church. Aside from that, you need the church. In fact, you need the church
more than it needs you.