Why the church needs artists (and vice versa)

It’s Friday night. A slight man wearing a black crew-neck sweater and Buddy Holly glasses explains to a pink-haired woman the vision behind his latest collection. She nods contemplatively when surveying the purposeful splatters-on-canvas, pulling at the blouse that’s covering her sleeve tattoo. Clusters of people surround the 20 paintings on display. Wine glasses in hand, they mingle while someone strums an acoustic guitar in the background. I stand by scribbling in a notebook.

That same weekend, a man — slick-haired, in a navy suit — concludes the Sunday church service by inviting the church to pray. The pews are full of bowed heads; none of them had belonged to the gallery visitors from Friday night. Once the final “amen” had been uttered, I glanced down at the church bulletin.

Perhaps it’s just an indication of being part of a Christian community in the American South, but churches in the region in which I reside tend to focus on reaching very specific groups of people. First, you have the hunters; they sit in tree-stands for hours with the hopes of slaughtering a deer with the aid of camouflage and a long rifle. Next, there are the crafters. Cupcakes and crinoline fill their vocabulary, and I am frankly jealous of their prowess in the kitchen. Finally, there are the jocks. Two words on them: Tim Tebow.

So when I looked at the church bulletin, I found the week’s predictable activities. There’s an outdoor expo for hunters on Tuesday nights, complete with “wild appetizers,” country music, an archery competition, and a gun and knife display. On Wednesday, the women’s ministry is meeting for prayer and Pinterest recipes. Then on Thursday, a local college athlete is coming to speak to the men’s groups about the similarities between football and one’s walk with Christ.

The church has done a fantastic job reaching these groups, as well as others, by fostering a sense of community through organizing activities and events that have the capacity to appeal not only to regular church-goers, but to people “on the outside.”  And these events are often easy to plan because there is already a number of people within the church who are passionate about its premise, be that sports, crafting, hunting, and so on.

But there is a lack of vision in reaching populations, inside, and especially outside the church who have interests divergent from those of the Christian majority — most notably, the art community.

As a part-time arts and culture writer for a local online magazine, I get it. The people with whom I socialize on Friday and Saturday nights in galleries and black-box alternative theatres may seem a bit intimidating. They might have a few more visible tattoos than you’re used to seeing on a Sunday morning. Same goes for piercings. Typically, their hands are caked with various media — clay, acrylics, chalk. You probably won’t hear the term “resurrection” thrown around a modern art showing, unless it’s in the context of a “resurrection of Warholian inspiration.” Their living quarters may be filled with prints that you find mildly questionable. The same goes for their taste in clothing.

Simply put, the art community is distinctly artistic, and some churches are reluctant to reach out to it.

All this really boils down to uncertainty. Uncertainty about the people. Uncertainty about how to reach out. Uncertainty about how to appropriately disciple them.

As Christians, we are called to minister to the uttermost parts of the earth. Yet, we constantly interpret these places to be 17-hour flights away, and because of this reflex, we’re blinded to the needs in our own city.

So how do our churches reach out to the arts community? It starts by taking a look within the church. Check the college ministry for the lone art student for guidance. Better yet, look to local college campuses and invite the whole arts department to do a show. Plan for your small group Bible study to go see a community theatre production to support the local arts. Take a look at the recent advent of gallery churches. Make connections. Invite a sculptor/painter/photographer to do a demonstration or class — and then incorporate a message on how God gave us creativity, and how He loves for us to use it.

This last point ties into how to disciple artists appropriately. Our God is a creative God, just look at the world around us. Human creativity and artistry are referenced throughout the Bible, from Adam naming all the creatures, to incorporating “tambourines and dancing” into worship (Psalm 150:4). Encourage artists in your church community to use their gifts as a way to reflect God, and as a way to display His greatness for the world.

There is a whole world full of artists — creative people who have many amazing, uniquely God-given talents, who need Jesus just as much as the hunters, crafters and jocks. And they are waiting just outside the comfort zone of the church.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Marta Nørgaard