A Landscape of Church & Art Questions: Part 2: Corporate Worship & the Arts

I had a great time in Ambridge, Pennsylvania last week. Trinity School for Ministry invited me to teach a course on Anglicanism and the arts, and not only did it bring me into contact with a fabulous group of people, it forced me to pull together notes that have been floating around on my computer.

In the group of students I had an archbishop from Chile, a bishop from Nigeria, an "urban" arts minister, two members from the Falls Church in VA, a member of the worship and arts committee at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, a philosopher, a professional violinist, an iconographer, a few priests and several in the making. I also ate at Primanti Brothers four times. Two of those times I refused the french fries. I just couldn't do french fries on my salad. Shivers.

This entry follows up on my "prologue," written two months ago. In it I talked about five dynamics that inform the contemporary discussion about art and the church. The goal of this series is to identify the patterns that I have observed as I travel around. It's important to remember that I'm describing patterns. Patterns do not describe every possible circumstance. Nor do they attempt to comprehend the global setting or to announce a "state of the nation." They describe tendencies. They suggest the kinds of things you might find in both an emergent church and in a high Presbyterian church. You might even finds these things in Australia. I'd not be surprised if I found them in a Uruguayan Catholic church too.

This entry concerns the kinds of questions that become especially acute in the context of corporate worship. With each of the following three entries, I simplify. I identify two problems and suggest two remedies. Please remember that life rarely works in terms of problems and solutions. I can hear Eugene Peterson over my shoulder. "Reducing the Christian life to a problem-solution binary is the death of Christianity, David. You know better." That's my rough paraphrase of Eugene.

Yes, I do know better. The two remedies cannot automatically "solve" problems. But they're good places to start, I think, and I sincerely hope that this is helpful to those of who find yourself in this profession.

Ok, enough throat clearing.


What are the two problems that we need to keep in mind as we think about the place of art in corporate worship? (FYI: By "art" I mean any given art medium and all possible functions of art.)

1. Ignorance
2. Anxiety

How many of us really understand contemporary visual art? Using the fingers of one hand, my guess is two. To be precise: 0.2% of Christians. C'mon, people, trying to understand the kind of art that you find in galleries across NYC or LA is like "looking" at strange languages: Urdu, Kaqchiquel, Gaelic, a Virginia Piedmont dialect. It's hard. Usually it's meaningless. Unless you speak it, you cain't understand it.

Not many of us, for that matter, understand how classical music "works." Besides hip hop and the occasional brilliant piece of singer-songwriting, most of us don't experience close encounters with poetry.  I mean of course the kind of poetry that forces you to slow down and pay attention. Theater? God bless it. It's boring to watch on video; don't even bother. And most of us exist a thousand miles from the nearest troupe of great actors performing great theater. It sorta sucks if you love plays.

What's my point? It's not just Christians who have a hard time understanding the arts. It's society in general.  How does this make people feel when they are introduced to new art or to a new way of employing an old artform? Anxious. Those of us who are artists need to remember that fact. We also need to ask the Spirit to cultivate in us large doses of humble compassion. Modern dance or literary fiction may be our hobby horse. It may be our vocation, which we take very seriously. But there is no place in Christ's church for impatient pride. We need to remember that none of us "arrived" overnight at our love for and familiarity with art. If folks are anxious, there's probably a good reason for it.

What then are the corresponding remedies?

1. Good Teaching.
2. Exposing our congregations to excellent experiences of the arts.

1. Good Teaching.
What kinds of sermons could the preacher preach? Let me suggest five (which, for what it's worth, I've preached in one form or another myself, so I know it kind of works).

1. Preach a series about art and culture. For this you could use Genesis 1-4 in tandem with Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling.

2. Preach a series about the role of visual media in God’s world. You could work with Bezalel's tabernacle with the aid of Bill Dyrness’ Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue.

3. Preach a series about the affections and how important it is that our emotions be rightly formed. The Psalter will be a perfect place to start for this and Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom will be a trusty aid here. (John Witvliet's The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship should also be consulted.)

4. Preach a series about Jesus’ use of metaphor and stories and the crucial role the imagination plays in his description of kingdom life. Begin with Jesus' parables, seek to understand how they operated in Jesus' teaching and ministry, make sure you keep in mind how they function in the Gospels at large and in the New Testament in general, and as companions for the journey I'd recommend Eugene Peterson’s Subversive Spirituality along with Frederick Buechner's The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.

5. Preach a series about the goodness of our bodies. From the Incarnation to the Resurrection to the promise of Revelation 21:5, you have plenty of tasty material in Scripture to work with. Complimenting this series you could make use of Jeremy Begbie’s edited book, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts.

When our teachers and pastors offer good teaching to our congregations, and carefully help to unpack the meaning(s) of art and how it works, our congregations can only become, by God's grace and the illumining work of the Spirit, more learned and less anxious.

2. A second thing you can do is to foster an aesthetically rich life, no matter what your ecclesial tradition. Here again I offer five practical suggestions.

1. Show or display examples of contemporary art. In whatever space this is possible, I think there are many creative ways that church leaders can help expose a congregation to good contemporary art, whether it's home grown or it hangs in major galleries around the world. You can hardly go wrong by starting here and here.

2. Invite a skilled actor or storyteller to "tell" Scripture dramatically. Yes, I've seen bad versions of this. I've endured my own share of spine-chillingly, sink-into-my-chair cringy drama. But I've also seen great examples and there are few things as satisfying as watching the Scriptures come to life.  Max McLean, Bruce Kuhn and Alison Siewart, to my mind, set the kind of standards for this practice that we should generally aim for.

3. Invite trained dancers to participate in your worship. We invited Gabe and Susan to dance with and for us at Hope Chapel in Austin, TX. I've seen Celeste Snowber do beautiful work. Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids makes really lovely use of highly skilled, as well as of less skilled but still disciplined, dancers in their liturgy.

4. Incorporate good poetry into your sermons. Do this regularly enough and watch your congregation fall afresh in love with Scripture's own poetry. Watch them begin to see the world around them differently. The good folks at Image journal can probably point you towards a solid bunch of poets.

5. Experiment (carefully, thoughtfully and advisably) with different uses of music in your service. I once attended a handful of evening services at St. John's Shaughnessy in Vancouver, BC. The music director did something I'll never forget. At the end of the liturgy, in this case an Anglican liturgy, after the final benediction had been spoken, the congregants remained in their seats. At first I felt nervous. I didn't know what was happening.

Then the music director began to play. Sometimes he played the organ. Sometimes he played the piano.  Borrowing from a broad musical vocabulary, he played around five minutes of instrumental music whose purpose was to create a contemplative space for people. Its purpose was to protect a small space of time for us to allow the contents of the service to sink into our hearts, perhaps even our bones, before we headed out into the pell-mell of the night. Liturgically, I thought the idea for this kind of musical space was brilliant. Personally, I loved it. It has been one of the most beautiful worship experiences in my life. It's something I wish I could experience on a regular basis.

The kinds of books I would recommend for this section are Frank Burch Brown’s Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully (lucky for me, Sara over at Transpositions just wrote a review of it), Robert Webber’s multi-volume Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, and yours truly's For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (especially chs. 2, 4, 6 and 7).

If we offer good teaching and expose our congregations to good examples of art, over the time there is a good chance that the culture of our churches will mature and that the gospel will be deepened. We might even have a small-scale revolution of culture-making on our hands. My prayer regardless of the practical outcome is that our corporate worship would irradiate the glory of God.


Greg Scheer said…
You can have whatever opinion you want about all this highfalutin arts and worship stuff, but you can't have opinions about Primanti Bros. They are an institution that is above judgment. If they serve you a salad with french fries or a sandwich with coleslaw and fries inside the sandwich, eat it.
David Howard said…
I suppose as a christian who is at the moment listening to Tom Waites' Mule Variations, and has just spent an hour late at night painting obscure ideas about western culture and the nature of man - preparing for a show in April titled 'NASA and the Disappearing Humans', I might seem a bit odd.
I remember mentioning in a bible study group, that I was going to a Dylan concert - shock horror, what was is the man doing, he is an outsider - that's the sort of response I got. But I have always contended that a reasonable knowledge of the arts, philosophy, culture etc. gave you an insight to the limitations or exclusiveness of the church culture that you maybe subsisting in. The narrowness of some church cultures can instituitionalise the christian, which can create marginal lives and an atmosphere of fear and control. Conversely to this, too much of an open door to 'Culture and the arts' has lead some of my friends into atheism.
Maybe, just maybe, the snobbery and exclusiveness of the arts is not for everyone - BUT God is the creator and surely there must be a lot to be gained, by an embracing of the arts by the people of the Church.
It's funny for me because my non-christian artist friends find me a bit conservative, yet the church folk generally find me a bit strange and radical.
As for me I am excited by ideas and enjoy the poetic nature of most arts and writings whether from christian sources or from those outside that realm - there is something fascinating about the life expressed by another person, especially when it is done with great insight and skill.
Woe is me.
Greg, I've got a big smile on my face. :)

David, your thoughtful, self-disclosing comment reminds of something that was said about Buechner's novels. Publishers had a hard time knowing what to do with them. They fell through a crack of sorts: too religious for the general market, not explicitly religious enough for the religious market. The man sold books, but not as many as he might have had he denied the calling on his life. So hang in there, David. Hang in there.
Joshua Banner said…
What is it, 6 sec on average with each painting in a museum?

I miss you Greg and David. French fries included.

Honestly...serious honesty here: of course I'm into the arts and church enterprise. OF COURSE. However, how many congregations are ready for a preaching series on painting or even the body? In regard to your second set of ideas, how many churches have access to such talent? I think this post contains some great ideas, but to put this back into the context of what you encouraged me to consider when writing 'the Practitioner,' how can this list be approached by the average church in the so-called 'fly over states'? I get to tinker with many of the items on these list of suggestions, but I'm based at a college with all kinds of talent to access. The church in OKC that I wrote about was/is a rather exceptional community of artists.

I presume the biggest shifts for people in my life come not so much from my planning/programming, but when they enter my house and engage Sus and I in our respective practice of making and taking in the arts.

I don't want to be pessimistic. I want to be far from cynical (God help me), but right now I'm just trying to get my students to stay in the Scriptures let alone enrich their lives with the breadth of music I am nourished by.

I think its the end of January hitting me. Take my thoughts in that context.
Cole Matson said…
The person from Church of the Resurrection at Wheaton wasn't Dan Roche, was it?
Josh, I just watched "Winter's Bone" last night. If you've seen it, you know it's full of rough-hewn characters. If they attended a church (which we never see in the movie), I can't imagine that the kinds of things I recommend here would find an easy reception. So you're right. My suggestions will work differently in different congregations and some of my suggestions won't work at all.

I think you're also right to remind us that people change their ideas and attitudes about art in a variety of settings. Home-care is powerful stuff, whereas a good sermon might have a minimal effect.

All I'll say is this. Even if a preacher doesn't want to work with any of the books I've recommended, I can still see him or her plunging deeply into the Scriptures and finding them to be a rich and challenging reservoir of ideas, images, experiences and stories about culture, visual art, emotions, materiality, the imagination, metaphor, etc. The Scriptures, if we bother to pay attention, are an excellent place to begin a study of art.

I also think the internet could provide an immense help in matters related to art, especially in regions that don't have access to large physical libraries.

Cole: the person from Rez Church was Laura Tabbut.
Anonymous said…
I've only recently been following the arts and worship conversation that you've been in the middle of for years. I'm a worship pastor in Arizona and I am ready to re-invent our worship ministry. Are you available to help give me a little direction? Or can you direct me to someone who might be a good resource?
I may or may not be of much help. You might, however, consider checking out (and possibly contacting) Zac Hicks (http://www.zachicks.com/) or Bruce Benedict (http://cardiphonia.org/) or Josh Banner (http://ordinaryneighbor.blogspot.com/) or Greg Scheer (http://www.gregscheer.com/).

It all depends, I guess, on what your church culture/tradition/situation is, where you sense God wanting you to take it, and what would be involved in moving in those directions. Any of the guys I mentioned above could probably point you in some good directions for resources and models.

What church are you a part of?
Anonymous said…
Stone Ridge Church. We have a Baptist heritage, but are not a denominationally driven church. More like a community church. We are in military/farming community; arts is not a big part of the local scene. There are pockets of artists, but they are very disconnected. We have dabbled (terrible word, I know) with other-than-music art in our services. We've used dance a few times, involved artwork from our body a few times, and used to use drama regularly until the leader moved away.

Bottom line: we've been using our artists as commodities to produce worship services. We would like to become a place that nurtures and develops artists. I believe our worship life will grow richer as a result (and not at the expense of our artists).
It sounds like you're in a good place and asking good questions with a good disposition, and that's not always the case with folks. So well done.

Let me recommend two things (and I'd address you by your proper name, but I can't tell what that might be). One, go ahead and track down all the guys I mentioned. They can help you for sure. Two, I'd encourage you to buy the book I edited, *For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts*, because it was written precisely for folks like yourself.

If you start with these two things, you'll probably have your hands full with more than you might have anticipated initially, but God will certainly give you a grace all along the way to figure things out in a healthy manner.

Hang in there and know that you have many other brothers and sisters in the church at large yearning for similar things.
Anonymous said…
Thanks David. My name is Tom Burks. Sorry bout that - I'm so used to seeing it as my user name I forget it makes no sense to anyone else.

I will track down those names. In fact, I have all the blogs open now.

I bought "For the Beauty..." a few days ago, which led me to you. I'm almost done with it, and yes, I'll be chewing and rechewing on that for awhile. I also re-read "The Heart of the Artist" and am devouring everything I can find right now.

I emailed Joshua before you (sorry) but haven't heard back yet. I'm looking forward to finding an experienced sounding board. I know God will build something here that is unique to our context, but it sure does help to have a little extra wisdom along the way.

Thanks for the leads and thanks for the work you did on "For the Beauty of the Church". It has been, and will continue to be, very helpful.
Tom, you sound like a good man and please tell Josh Banner he's a rascal. Tell him that on my behalf and tell him I say he needs to exercise his authorial muscles and help an Arizonian brother out.

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