Heart & Mind - Art in the Service of the King

We've had an outstanding discussion going here on the nature of how we do church, considering both the Marketing and the Emergent trends that are prevalent in evangelical churches right now. But Dana's comment on the Marketing post got me thinking about where the arts fit in to the task of doing church. If using "glitzy" programs as a way to market the gospel is not what we want to do, then does this diminish the role of the arts in church? Is there no, or very little, room for things like music, drama, and visual arts? No way! I actually see the arts as gifts God gave to his church for use in accomplishing his purposes.

Consider first that much of what we consider to be classical art was developed by Christians for use in church. The Sistine Chapel, for example, is a church; but it's most famous for the stunning Michelangelo painting that adorns its interior (left). Or take music: many of history's most famous compositions were written for use in church services and other spiritual functions. Or how about architecture: a visual art form that Medieval churches used dramatically to lift worshippers' hearts toward God. And we could go on - drama, sculpture, poetry, and even more contemporary activities like film-making are all artistic forms that can and should be used in the service of Christ's kingdom.

The "Glitzy" Church Again?
This is different from what I referred to before as the "glitzy church" in some important ways. Marketing churches certainly tend to put the arts front-and-center (especially music and drama), but the presence of the arts is not what defines the Marketing model. Rather, this methodology is defined by marketing the gospel of Jesus in the same way businesses seek to sell products. Thinking of church in these terms leads us to use anything and everything that will catch people's attention and help a church "gain market share." And any medium that works is fair game: anything that attracts people, including multimedia technology and some artistic endeavors, is capitalized on. Any medium thought not to be attractive is jettisoned. The point is, the Marketing model is not defined by the presence of the arts. Rather, the Marketing model determines if, how, and when the arts are used in church just like it determines if, how, and when certain things get preached from the pulpit and if, how, and when everything else in church life happens.

So non-Marketing churches will utilize the arts, possibly even a lot. But the way they're utilized and the thinking behind using them is markedly different. To start exploring how this is so, let me focus on the inter-dependence of two of the church's most important functions: preaching and the arts.

Why Preaching Needs The Arts
Preaching - the declarative, clear explanation of what God has said - is God's ordained method for bringing sinners to salvation (Romans 10:14 - just hover without clicking to see the verse pop up). It is also God's primary way of making his will known to the human race (Titus 1:3), and the command of God for church members (2 Timothy 4:2). Preaching is so critical because if we don't understand God we can never know him or follow him rightly. So many different ideas exist in the world that knowing how God wants us to live can be bewildering, which is why all things of value to our relationship with God begin with right knowledge. Doctrine is the foundation of the Christian life, and accurate preaching is how we establish ourselves in accurate doctrine.

But a foundation by itself is not a whole building. Preaching is aimed largely at the mind, but right knowledge is only the beginning of the Christian life, not the end. God made us not only intellectual beings with a rational mind, but emotional beings with a heart. And it's at the level of heart passion where so much of human living takes place. What good preaching needs is something that can reach beyond the mind and touch the heart, stirring the imagination and drawing out the emotions. How can we do that?

Enter the arts! Art has a unique way of stirring the heart and engaging the powerful affective part of our being. And we've all experienced this: who hasn't had a song bring tears to their eyes? How many of us have actually felt fear, anxiety, or joy while watching a good movie? Who's ever stared at a drawing or painting for several minutes, dwelling on the feelings it evokes? Take the landscape painting at the right for example. Click on it for a larger view, and force yourself to look closely at it for at least 60 seconds. What feelings does it evoke for you? For me, I can hear the thunder of the receding storm clouds and I can almost smell the fresh, after-rain scent of the fields. I feel peaceable, calm, and slightly adventurous, wanting to slowly climb the hill in the background and take in the larger view. Now here's my point: it's a painting! I'm not smelling grass or climbing rural hillsides. But the painting has the power to make me feel as if I am. That's the power of art, and all of us, to one extent or another, can relate with such experiences.

Why The Arts Need Preaching
But by themselves such emotionally evocative experiences are un-anchored, un-tamed, and perhaps inaccurate. People can be made to feel fear when there is no real cause for fear. Similarly, we can be made to feel calm and reassured when perhaps we should be very afraid. We can be made to feel angry at times when anger will only be harmful, and we can be led to trust people who are not trustworthy. Perhaps greatest of all, as the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards explained so powerfully in his book The Religious Affections, the love of our hearts, designed and fit for God alone, can be made to rest on lesser things.

And this is why the arts need preaching. They need to be steered, harnessed, and guided so as to ensure that the feelings they evoke accurately reflect who God is, and what he wants from us.

I like to think of the relationship between heart and mind as the motor and rudder of a speed boat. As the motor, the heart provides the thrust and energy for life. And as the rudder, the mind guides that energy to propel the craft in safe and productive directions. If I may push the analogy a bit further, the arts are like applying the throttle, activating the heart's energy and unleashing it's power for living life. And preaching is like the steering wheel, directing the mind this way and that so that it steers the course of a human life.

Preaching without the arts is like a boat with no throttle lever: you can point it in the right direction, but it has little power to go anywhere. And the arts without preaching is like a speed boat with no steering wheel: fire it up and it'll go, but you have no control over where it ends up -- and no way to avoid crashing into the rocks.

So where does this leave us as we think through how to do church? Speaking for myself, it leads me to value the role of the arts and to even want to explore further ways they can be utilized to further the purposes God has given his church. (Are there art forms we don't use enough in church? What would it look like if we did so? Interesting things to think about...) But music, drama, painting, lighting, storytelling and architecture never self-justify. That is, they don't exist in the church for their own sake, but rather because they partner with the full declaration of God's preached word to draw the community of faith deeper into the truths that God has given us to live by.

I don't know many things more able to do so than well-planned, and well-executed, art.

The Adrift Church?

I discussed the dominant trend in evangelical churches today (the Marketing trend) in my last post. But this isn't the only trend, and in fact it's already being fast supplanted by a very different way of doing church: the Emergent movement. Most have at least heard of the trend referred to as "the emerging church." This is a general, umbrella phrase used to describe a wide variety of ideas that can be very different from one another, but nonetheless share some common bases.

Great Questions...
It is interesting that the emerging church movement grew largely from opposition to the Marketing church movement. An increasingly large group of Christians, consisting mostly of younger generations, looked at the Marketing churches that their Baby Boomer evangelical parents have built and concluded that these churches are shallow, superficial, and (one of the hip new terms) "inauthentic." This generation, already characterized by cynicism and saturated with image-is-everything culture, has increasingly concluded that the big personalities, big buildings, and big programs of the Marketing churches are missing something essential to the Christian gospel.

In other words, they have many of the same criticisms I have about Marketing churches. Emergents are asking great questions about things like the nature of biblical community (being authentic), and the impact of the gospel on how we engage with the problems and challenges of our communities (being missional). Anyone who knows me knows that I think these are extremely important and well-timed questions which the church needs to be asking.

...Not-So-Great Answers
So then, would I classify myself as part of this emergent trend? No, not really. And the reason is simply that while the movement began with some well-timed questions, major portions of it have proceeded along the road of some very dubious answers. To understand why, one need go no further than understanding postmodernism, which is the cultural ocean in which emergents are generally swimming. Postmodernism is explained more fully here, but at its heart is the belief that no one can ever really know what's true in any objective sense. We don't have knowledge, all we have is opinion. And in an effort to "do church" in and connect with a postmodern culture, many of the leading voices in the emerging church movement have begun with postmodern assumptions and sought to understand Christianity from that vantage point.

But when Christians begin with the framework of postmodernism the effects on the Christian faith are devastating. This is because at its very core Christianity has always been about objective truth: truth about who and what God is, about mankind's rebellion against him and the eternal consequences of that rebellion, and about the redemptive goal God has for the world which gives meaning to human history. In the Christian worldview these truths have been revealed; that is, God has shown them to us so that we can know them and build our lives around them. What's more, these truths have been entrusted by God to the church, and it's our responsibility to keep this biblical worldview alive in the marketplace of human ideas, as the Bible says in Jude 3.

But what happens when I view all this through the framework of postmodernism, with its denial of knowable truth and its inherent opposition to any over-arching meaning-story? What happens is the whole Christian enterprise as it's existed for centuries crumbles, and gets replaced with a me-centered journey of self-discovery that lacks any grounding in revealed truth. The emphasis shifts from learning to exploring, from the truth outside to the feelings inside, from conforming myself to expressing myself, and from the destination to the journey. Whatever value such an approach may be thought to have, it is not orthodox Biblical Christianity. Such churches are adrift on a sea of postmodern uncertainty, un-anchored to any solid basis from which to make sense of the church's mission.

Oddly enough, despite their great differences, the Marketing movement and the Emergent movement share a couple things in common. First, both are seeking to accommodate the gospel of Jesus to the larger culture: Marketers to the post- WWII consumer culture of the Baby Boomers and Emergents to the more recent postmodern culture of the Gen X-ers. However (despite the fact that both movements contain some outstanding individual churches which are exceptions to this rule) the movements as a whole have capitulated too strongly to the cultures they're trying to reach. It's the classic missionary problem: how do we speak the language of a foreign culture so as to communicate the gospel of Jesus? The trick (which missionaries have understood for centuries) is that one has to be careful not to change the message itself in the process of translation. But this is harder to stay objective about when you're trying to communicate to your own culture. Marketers have granted too many of consumer-culture's basic assumptions about how life works without thinking carefully enough about how those assumptions alter the gospel. Similarly, Emergents have granted too many of postmodern-culture's assumptions, also underestimating how much those assumptions change the very Christian faith they're trying to communicate.

Secondly, both movements tend to make the same mistake: minimizing truth, theology, and doctrine. But they do it for very different reasons. Marketers minimize it because such things are not thought to be wanted by the public. Spiritual seekers aren't "shopping" for doctrine, they're "shopping" for inspiration. So if churches want to "close the sale," they need to box up doctrine and put it in the back room, and place the glitzy programs and inspiring environments in the front window to attract passers-by.

Similarly, Emergents minimize doctrine because it smacks of arrogance. Postmodernism demands "how can anyone know they're right?" Worse yet, such certainty is thought to be the source of conflict and evil in the world -- relics of an uncouth and even barbaric past. Intelligent, sophisticated people have learned to think in "shades of gray" and to admire "nuance" as opposed to crude, unenlightened statements about absolute right and wrong. Definitive statements of doctrinal truth simply stand no chance with such a mindset.

In the end it is theology that suffers, and the church that suffers with it. Because theology has always been the foundation of the Christian faith, and it needs to remain our foundation as we move forward. The answer is not to go back to what the church once was, it is to look forward to what we must become. But, as I'll argue next, that looking forward must always remain anchored in looking back. And for Christian churches, that means looking back first and foremost to Jesus himself and to the apostles, whom he entrusted to establish his church in the first place. If we don't, we run the risk of changing the very nature of the faith itself as we seek to live it out in new contexts. I for one desperately want to avoid having to stand before God one day and explain why I failed to do my part to contend earnestly for the faith that he himself delivered once for all to the saints.

The Glitzy Church?

So, I'm sitting here on a Saturday morning sipping a fabulous mug of Peet's coffee, and thinking some big thoughts - specifically, thoughts about church. That may seem kinda', well, obvious since church leadership is my career! But I mean more than just thinking about next Sunday's sermon, or the needs of our particular congregation at the moment, or the many activities that constitute the church calendar. I mean thinking about church: ho we do church, and why we do it the way we do it.

When it comes to "doing" church, the dominant paradigm in evangelicalism today is the Marketing model. Following the lead of the Willow Creeks and the Saddlebacks of the world, thousands of evangelical churches today are consumed with building little empires of programs and media-driven glitz that will draw a crowd in, ostensibly so they can hear about Jesus. The idea is not all bad: usually the motive is to "speak the language of the culture" as we communicate Christ. But in practice this usually leads to burnt-out pastors and volunteers who desperately try to outdo other churches with music, media, and family programs. Worse yet, this model fundamentally changes the church's mission. For if the goal is to be appealing to "unchurched" people, then one might expect that the less appealing aspects of the Christian faith would be downplayed. And this is precisely what is happening in many "Bible-believing" churches today.

Think about it: what aspects of Christian doctrine are most likely to be unappealing to a postmodern, individualistic culture like ours? The same aspects that have been unappealing to every culture in every time: ideas like sin, guilt, judgment, and the authority of God in the lives of men, just to name a few. Consider:

  • is Jesus our maker, deserving of our submission and graciously offering us forgiveness of our rebellious nature against him, as the gospel has declared for the past two thousand years? Or...
  • is Jesus the world's best self-help guru; a chummy chap who stands by ready to enhance our dreams, ameliorate our disappointments, and enable us to achieve our personal goals?
Which picture of Jesus do evangelical churches most commonly paint today? When you consider that in many churches you're more likely to hear a sermon series outlining how Jesus wants to make you successful, to help you conquer your personal doubts and fears, or explaining the seven habits of highly effective people, rather than a series on the doctrine of God or a serious study of a Biblical book in its own context, you be the judge.

But this is about more than just preaching - it's about how we understand the church's entire mission. And it touches every facet of church life, from how funds are allocated to how the pastoral staff spends its time to what the participation of individual members looks like. If the goal is to market the gospel as a product, everything will be affected.

So why have I been thinking about all this lately? Well, two responses come to mind. First, the big picture always come to the fore when you're about to hire new staff, as Harvest is preparing to do. As our modestly sized church begins the process of seeking a full time associate pastor to work with worship & arts as well as other responsibilities, the "Marketing question" becomes important: how much of this person's time will be devoted to building performance-oriented programs and activities vs. supporting the church's core functions of biblical community, truth-based personal transformation, and serving our community as conduits of grace?

But second, the truth is I haven't been just thinking about these things lately. In fact, I've never stopped thinking about them since I first came to pastor at Harvest. As I told the church at that time, God impressed upon me a burden to help build the church in the mode of serious engagement with the Bible, and with the deep questions of life. I came here with the deep-seated conviction that the church marketing experiment of the past couple decades, though begun with admirable goals, has gone largely awry. And it's time to shut 'er down. It's time to get back to a deep, rich, and delightfully counter-cultural Christianity. A Christianity that challenges our natural perspective, and gives a greater meaning to all of human life. In other words, time to get back to historic Biblical Christianity.

So says this one man anyway. But enough of my musings. I'm wanting to hear from all of you too, because I want to engender a discussion here. Please consider posting up a response to this question: what church experience in your own past caused you to grow most notably as a Christian?

Blog Widget by LinkWithin