Helping Christian Artists Grow in their Faith & Witness
by Jonathan Hanley
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he points out that Christians are literally gifted people, but that their gifts differ: ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us’ (Rom. 12:6b). Tellingly, he does not expound on the gifts themselves, but focuses on the manner in which these gifts should be practised: mainly with humility, generosity and willingness (Rom. 12:3-8). The humility he recommends stems from the fact that it is God who grants the gifts and therefore, we are not to devalue any of them.
Working alongside artists raises some interesting questions. Are we treating some talents as more valuable than others? How might the church contribute to developing all God’s gifts, including those of our artists? What role can creative Christians play in building up the church as a whole and more effectively spreading the gospel?
Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU), the French movement affiliated with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), launched a network project for professionals who are involved in the art world. The purpose of this initiative is to provide Christian art students and graduates with contacts, resources and support as they deal with the many issues specific to Christians working in this field.
In February 2016, I spoke at the inaugural day-conference of this network, on the topic, ‘Why do Christian artists often have trouble with church? And why do churches often have trouble with artists?’ This pastoral issue has been getting more attention recently, as churches and ministry organisations realise the challenges and the potential for Christians working as artists. Over the years, I have talked through thorny spiritual questions with several art students and professionals. The aim of this article is to provide a few examples of issues that require careful consideration when discipling or teaching a believer who is an artist.
How can Christians produce art that is both a reflection of their faith and relevant to their audience?
Many modern-day creative Christians feel constrained to create in ways that please their church community but often alienate them from their non-Christian peers, or are dismissed as irrelevant by the wider world. However, in their attempts to create relevant art, they sometimes produce work that seems inaccessible or bizarre to their church family. Bridging this gap is a priority for anyone trying to integrate art and faith. Practising the biblical value of humility is often part of the solution. Artists can commit to live and serve within the body of Christ, even when others do not appreciate their style or point of view. Believers who are not artists can help by recognising that they do not need to like or understand art produced by fellow Christians in order to support their artistically gifted brothers and sisters.
Practising the biblical value of humility is often part of the solution
How can artists express their faith in ways that open doors rather than close them?
Many Christian artists actively seek to express their faith through their art. However, their primary target audience is not necessarily their fellow Christians. They are usually more concerned about joining the discussion in the art circles where they work. For some artists, this may indeed involve painting beautiful pictures that everyone appreciates. But for others, it may mean writing lyrics, shaping clay or creating dance that is uncomfortable for the audience, because it speaks of unresolved conflict or exposes deep hurts. Many times, I have seen people come to understand the relevance of the gospel as they think through some of the issues and difficult themes raised by a painting, a piece of fiction or the lyrics of a songwriter.
Many Christian artists actively seek to express their faith through their art.
Can Christians produce art that is saleable outside Christian circles?
Financial problems plague many artists, as they struggle with the need to produce marketable art. One creative friend expressed his frustration: ‘Why do people think that an hour’s work from an artist is worth less than an hour’s work from a builder or an accountant?’ Most professional Christian artists either need to take another ‘day job’ to make ends meet, or they must create art that they can sell outside the church community. This requires an approach that is attentive to what is being said by their non-Christian peers. It can also lead to vigorous discussion, if not conflict, with other Christians, as what is acceptable for one believer may seem like compromise for another.
How can Christians truthfully reflect a broken world without glorifying its brokenness?
I once heard an artist ask, despairingly, ‘Why do so many Christians prefer superficial pretty pictures to truthful art?’ But when does an art piece expressing a violent theme stop being a truthful expression of anger and become an endorsement of violence? Are there certain fields of artistic expression, like horror movies, that should be considered out of bounds for Christians? When does the necessary self-promotion of a musician or an actor become incompatible with Christian humility? These are the kinds of questions that many artists ask. Working alongside them or within the art world requires Spirit-led wisdom, a listening ear and skill in translating biblical principles into everyday life.
Does God only value art that is used to worship Him, evangelise unbelievers or edify other Christians?
A lot of good art raises questions, in one way or another. Indeed, evangelism is often most effective when it makes people think about their own convictions and experiences, while guiding them to listen to God’s answers. Art is a great way of asking relevant and thought-provoking questions, and encouraging people to consider unresolved emotional and spiritual issues.
In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul stresses that church growth and spiritual development require different inputs from people. ‘So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow’ (1 Cor. 3:7). God uses the various gifts of His children, planting and watering, in order to do the most important work Himself: growing. Evangelism requires all kinds of contributions and we must be careful not to limit our perception of what God can use.
How can Christians be in the world but not of it?
Many Christian artists have trouble in this area. Unbelieving friends and colleagues often look down on their spiritual life and church-based pursuits in a way that is sometimes only matched by the way their church friends look down on their artistic endeavours. When visiting a new church, one Christian guitarist, who had worked as a concert musician alongside some of the music industry’s top names, was asked: ‘Oh, you’re a guitarist. How interesting! What kind of music do you do, worship or evangelism?’
Many artists are concerned that they are being influenced by the dark themes and negative approach of others working in the same field. Learning to be Christ’s salt and light in this world is not easy. It requires being assured in one’s faith in a way that does not depend on the approval and agreement of others, including, sometimes, fellow believers, whose support is much needed.
Art is a great way of asking relevant and thought-provoking questions
How can performing artists feed their spiritual lives when they have to travel a lot?
In the performing arts particularly, touring is a major aspect of life for many professional artists. While the constant exposure to new places and different people can be fascinating, it can also be soul numbing; it can make church life difficult and severely interfere with family life.
Keeping faith alive and well while on the road is a challenge. Some artists take Christian friends with them. Others develop specific Bible-reading and prayer habits, even if they go for weeks on end without any fellowship. Often, they are delighted to meet up with fellow Christians in the cities where they play. One Christian musician I know, who has performed with the international act The Gypsy Kings, has an accountability session with his church leaders every time he returns home. Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of Christian artists and I always ask them to give me a subject of prayer to share with other Christians. Most of them want prayer for their daily, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
What can Christians do to help?
God has created His Church as a highly varied family. Some art forms can be difficult to understand. Indeed, many people are not interested in art, but they do not need to be in order to be supportive of creative members of the body of Christ. Helping and supporting also mean understanding that creativity does not obey the same rules as more results-driven professional skills, including the use of time. For instance, this might mean not expecting them to use their art free of charge unless they want to, just as most Christian car mechanics would charge a fair price for fixing the car of a fellow believer. A greater appreciation for our unique qualities and differences can help encourage artists in worshipping God, and serving the Church as members of the body of Christ alongside their non-artist brothers and sisters. Creative Christians often work among largely unreached communities, people who may never walk into a church but might note the witness of a believing artist. It takes all sorts to make up the Church, and that is the way God wants it. Churches can choose to see this access as an opportunity, which would benefit from their prayer and support.