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.


Aaron said...

Great article, Matt! You articulated the dance between these two nicely with that boat analogy. One important point I'd like to add to this is that arts should always point back to who God is, rather than to the artist. I've had some church experiences where a singer, drama skit, or performance on stage seemed to be more about the performer and showcasing that talent than about the message of who God is. While I feel nice inside and maybe even a bit impressed, I don't necessarily know God more than previously (while I do get to know the performer quite a bit).

This, too, is an interesting dance, I think, because God gives us these artistic talents to use. The catch, though, is that we must use them for His glory rather than for our own. This is a hard thing to do, especially for people who are incredibly talented.

But back on topic... I really liked the idea of getting too involved with emotions without any direction. One of the big reasons I've really enjoyed your preaching, Matt, is because you stimulate the brain and give it direction so that the swelling up in my heart knows the right place to go. It's like boat practice where I come to learn about driving, steering, reading the map, etc. so that when I come back to the race of my life, I am better skilled at directing my ship in the right direction with the right speed.

How'd we get on this boat topic, anyway? Didn't Mark Tilden move to Washington somewhere? =)

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks Aaron! I really appreciate that feedback on the teaching at Harvest - what you describe is music to my ears, and I hope it's the same experience everyone at the church is having.

And your point about the arts being God-centered is right on the money. That's a great application of the "rudder" analogy: our artistic endeavors need to always remain on course. As an interesting aside, the fact that art today so often points to the artist is itself a reflection of our postmodern, self-oriented (and basically narcissistic) culture. So God-art should look and feel markedly different since it's designed to steer us in a very different direction.

And also implied in what you said is that original intent isn't enough. We can't just start out with the right motives (God-centered) and assume everything's going to be OK, because our artistic passions naturally run all over the place. We have to constantly evaluate "why are we doing this? Is the right message coming across?"

And incidentally, everything I've said here about the arts applies to preaching too!

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt! I love this line:

"...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."

That pretty well sums up drama each Wed night when we get together.

Regarding the arts pointing to the artist: rather providential that your post came on Oscars night. Julie had the tv on and I heard several times the words, courage, bold, unafraid... excuse me? It's ACTING! None of them are courageous. Let's see them make a positive movie about Christ and the church or perhaps the detrimental side of homosexuality (puting AIDS aside, male homosexuals have a shorter life span than heterosexuals). Then, I might consider someone being at least bold. Any how, I digress (boat with no rudder)...

Just one more thing, acting can and often does stirr emotion, but my goal is to make us think. I know, hard to believe. An actor think?


Matt Guerino said...

No, your desire to make people think is not shocking at all. That's mainly because I've spoken of heart and mind as two totally separate things just to make a point, but in practice they're always intermixed at least a little. The best preaching isn't purely information - it'll include all sorts of elements to connect with people at the experience and affective level. And art always conveys some informative content -- especially your preferred artistic modes of drama and storytelling.

For example, when you referred before to wanting someone to identify with a character you're portraying on stage: there is information there (the traits of the character), but the power of the drama comes in the feeling of relating. The power lies in that moment wherein the drama goes beyond my understanding of what's being said, and provokes that deep sense of "Oh yeah, that's ME. Ouch."

I'll remember to bring my life jacket if ever I show up for a Wednesday night drama team rehearsal. Or maybe my bullet-proof vest... ;)

Anonymous said...

I recommend both.

Randolph Koch said...

..."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 couldn't agree more, the arts should be utilized in partnership with the proclamation of The Word and ought not detract from it.

So, using arts in an appropriate and meaningful or thoughtful manner can be very powerful and assist in illustrating or emphasizing truths that are being proclaimed in the messages that are preached.

Without this focus, the arts can become merely entertainment stirring the emotions but missing it's partner the Truth which comes from the wisdom and knowledge of Him through receiving His Word and thus, (borrowing your analogy) removing the rudder from the boat - becoming directionless.

As I believe you said or someone said, there needs to be a healthy balance.

There is a serious trend specifically in the US in the areas you mentioned where the churches are marketing focused, etc., and in some cases moving away from the centrality of God's Word and Jesus Christ.

Related to this entire topic I wrote an article a couple years ago sharing some observations of the drama/arts trends and I don't know but this may contribute to this conversation in some way.

Here's the link:

Thanks Matt for initiating this discussion as it is an important one.

I'll look forward to hearing what you and everyone shares via your blog entries!

God Bless,

Amy Guerino said...

Jumping on what Aaron said, "arts should always point back to who God is, rather than to the artist," makes me remember a Ken Medema concert. He is a blind pianist/composer/singer. At his concerts when he is done and deals with the applause, he stands up, raises his hands upward and begins applauding. Such a gesture shows the balance Ken understands that the musical talent and praise belongs to His Maker because the gift he has came from our creative God. The audience is then drawn in to join him. I got to know the artist's heart and perspective AND was led to respond emotionally to who God is. The balance can be struck, even though difficult. Thanks for bringing this into the discussion, Aaron.

Aaron said...

Beautiful example, Amy! There really is something so powerful and emotionally-inspiring to see someone talented perform and then glorify God. It's almost as if the performer draws upon angels in Heaven and God's glory begins to shine brighter and purer.

I wish I could've seen that, Amy! Thanks for sharing!

Tim KC6QLV said...

Well done!
You really bring it out in open.
Tim :)

Aaron said...

I've got to say, Matt, that yesterday's service was a superb example of this. At the start of the service, I was feeling a bit out of sorts and had a little headache. Thankfully, God provided the motivation - a friend and coworker had come and sat with me.

You're right - it was like a dump truck, but I got it. I was thinking a mile a minute about all the different points you were making and the implications of God's plan. I was perplexed yet fully understood the magnitude of God's sacrifice on the cross.

Then came the singing. I was so deep in awe (in my thoughts) of God that the natural expression of that came out in the singing. I found myself nearly in tears (holding back since, you know, my coworker was standing right next to me, hehe) as I began to FEEL some incredible emotions.

I immediately thought of this post, and how we'd discussed that balance of emotions being directed by preaching. Thank you for illuminating these things, and for practicing what you preach... PUN INTENDED! :-D

Matt Guerino said...

Nice pun! :)

This comment is incredibly encouraging to me, because I think you completely nailed it. Your experience in the service yesterday is exactly what this post is all about, and exactly what we were aiming for in the service! I only hope others had a similar experience to yours - I sure did last week leading up to Sunday.

I think that's exactly what God intends for us to experience when we study theology: not only to have our minds formed in the pattern of his mind, but to have our hearts moved after that pattern.

Thanks for relating your thoughts and experiences Aaron - I hope they'll encourage others to come to worship services ready to actively engage with God, his word, and worship!

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