“Artists have much to offer, but may find it hard to get plugged in.”
“Aesthetic experiences are visceral in that they slip past our natural, rational defenses and cut us to our core, whether we’re talking about typefaces or flying buttresses, book binding or stained glass windows,” says Jason Morehead, associate editor of ChristandPopCulture.com.
Much of today’s evangelistic communication relies on preaching, relationship building, or acts of service. But to approach missions and evangelism wholeheartedly and strategically, we should not rely on just a few approaches. What about music, drama, and the visual arts?
Christian artists often feel isolated and are under-appreciated and misunderstood by churches and ministry organizations. Some may view their ideas as expensive or time-consuming, or perhaps too controversial. Others are simply ignorant of the need for high-quality creative communication and the difference it can make, or how the God we worship views the arts.
Faith and arts, though, have a long history together. Bezalel is arguably a third-tier character when it comes to contemporary Bible knowledge but this artisan was the first person recorded in Scripture to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He was tasked with construction of the Tabernacle and all of its beautiful appointments.
Need a refresher on the character of Bezalel and his sidekick Aholiab? Take some time to read Exodus chapters 31 and 36. His story illustrates how God values the beauty of the created world and inspires human beings with the ability to imagine and craft remarkable things.
Art Is about Communication
Ask a group of 100 people to define the fine arts and you’ll get 100 different answers, but at its core, art is all about communication. It can communicate quietly, in a still-life of a bowl of oranges, or boldly, like a band at a music festival. It can communicate in culturally controversial ways or present ideas peacefully. Art can be reduced to propaganda or presented as pure emotion. Art speaks.
Christians living out the Great Commission are all about communication too, communicating Christ’s love to other people. Some of these people respond to quiet acts of service, while others are moved by passionate oratory. Some will gain the most from reading, and still more will be intrigued or inspired by a well-composed song, painting, or sculpture.
God has given artists the ability to say things in ways that non-artists can’t.
Using Art Skills in Missions
While mission opportunities for fine artists may be hard to find, this has been changing in recent years. Openings for those with music and drama skills have been followed by openness to other arts and artists as well.
1. Operation Mobilization has embraced the fine arts wholeheartedly and offers regular short-term opportunities as well as a semi-regular, month-long art and missions training at a facility in Italy. ArtsLink, a division of OM Arts, has been going strong more than ten years now and is one of the few formal and publicized programs that directly involves fine artists and their skills. Youth with a Mission’s Create International is also worth exploring.
2. Pioneers and Greater Europe Mission have teams focused on using the arts (especially photography and videography), and there may be others as well. Ask missionaries and ministry representatives if they know any artists serving in their context or with their agency. Contact these people about opportunities to learn and serve with them.
3. Another option is to go out more on your own or start a small team to carry out a unique vision. For more than twenty-five years, Artists in Christian Testimony has acted as an umbrella nonprofit for artists without a ministry home. They help artists with administration and logistics, as well as providing networking opportunities and encouragement. “Today’s cultures listen better to artists than to preachers,” ACT’s website observes. For great ideas and examples of artists using their skills for ministry, browse ACT’s staff directory These groups may also be good contacts for those seeking service opportunities.
Some mission organizations seem very willing to incorporate artists into their short-term or long-term teams, even if they have no job descriptions or official positions for artists. If you are recruited to do something else – I had multiple offers from organizations to help market handmade goods made by people groups they worked with – colleagues and teammates who are exposed to your creative skills may quickly see ways those skills can directly further the ministry’s goals and purposes.
Although there are more opportunities today than there were a few years ago, ways to use your artistic talents in missions are still hard to come by. In my own life, I’ve heard from missionaries seriously interested in having artists assist them through commitments ranging from a few weeks to a couple of years.
Communication fizzles out after a few emails, though, and the doors seem to close, despite my interest and the fact that I already have a base of financial support. So I’m still looking. I haven’t given up, and I hope you won’t, either.
Answer from Paul Nielson, artist, arts catalyst, and mission mobilizer.
“Churches marginalize artists, too.”
This is right on and what I experience as an artist. Churches find it hard to grasp what an arts ministry might be beyond graphics, media arts, videography, and overseeing the audio/visual equipment of the worship team.
I have found it more difficult even than the artist working in traditional media, with my most effective ministry and passion being doing community and/or church collaborative installations, creating environments and experiential artwork sculptures and environments, and a series of talks on my work based upon the Stations of the Cross. I have been able to use my vision and art forms in the secular art community before I came to Christ, but there seems to be no place in the church.
My forte is not teaching youth camp or techniques, as I am Spirit-led and that is not the vision that God has given me. My calling is to affect the larger community through a community art studio and retreat that reaches also professional artists, many whom are so in need of spiritual transformation.
So I have to create my own position, but have yet to find a church that can even use a visual artist outside the parameters listed, if even that, let alone nurture and support a new arts vision and recognize that for an artist to be effective, they must be given free rein, with oversight of course as to scriptural soundness in the work.
The church must go beyond the job descriptions. There is a whole world of artists beyond videographers and graphic designers. I’ve yet to see the full range. Consider the almost limitless possibilities that an Artist in Residence could provide.
Answer from Tea in New Mexico.