I was recently at Urbana09 – a college missions conference – working with WorldVision ACT:S at their creative activism booth. Many people came through and participated with the paintings that we were making. A few people out of 17,000 were artists and we had some great conversations. I was asked a certain question over and over again while I was there and one morning I wrote this response to their questions. Here it is for you…..
How do I do ministry and art?
This is the question that I was asked a few times yesterday as I was leading and interactive painting session at WorldVision Act:s booth at Urbana09. Urbana is an every three-year college missions fair with around 20,000 college students coming to hear about global missions and the opportunities that they could possibly join into. Out of 20,000 college students, there is sure to be a few that are artists. I guess that’s why I’m here.
This question gives me an immediate negative reaction. One, probably cause I used to ask it myself…. and two, cause now I know it’s the wrong question. From my understanding from God in directing our lives (which is based upon scripture, personal experience, and stories of others I trust are being honest) is that early on in our lives, God really does say “go here, go there”. I can remember a time when I was sitting at the INN in Bellingham, a college ministry pointed at WWU, and I didn’t even go to school in Bellingham. I was just visiting from down south. But I was sitting in that seat and I new that I was going to go there. I felt a distinct presence saying this is where I was going to be. Can’t prove it to you. Bill Maher would say I was delirious, but that’s what happened. And it turned out to be the right choice.
But as you get older, it seems that God, in all his wisdom, doesn’t tell you what to do anymore, but leads you to places where you make decisions about things. Going back to the Bellingham example, after I graduated college I was offered a job to work at the INN University Ministries or a college ministry position at a local church working with my then mentor. As I discussed this with my mentor, he said that either decision was a win for the kingdom. Either choice would be a good choice. Can you have that? Really? Isn’t there only one good choice and all the rest are wrong? Nope. Apparently in life, this is not true. In life, at least the one I live, there are many instances when you need to make a decision that that decision doesn’t boil down to a wrong or right scenario. Both choices can be good. The decision more relies on which way you want your life to go.
So back to this question about art and ministry.
I think the question that is being asked here is where can I get a job where a Christian company will pay me to do art in an evangelistic/worship setting. That’s what I hear being asked. And my answer to that is I don’t know, and if there is such a scenario, the art probably stinks.
I think the question that you really are asking…. if you are a Christ-follower, an artist, and you have a desire to do something “missional”…. is:
Is there a way to live a life where I can combine my desire to habitually create and invest in a career that focuses on the good work of God?
I don’t think anyone knows how to make a living as an artist. I’ve been a full time artist for 5 years now and I still don’t know how I do it. so anyone with that inclination is already fighting the voices in their head that are saying “stop being irresponsible with this art stuff and get a real job”. So the tension lies in the unknown of moneymaking and the possibility that that you would have to shelf your artistic abilities to focus on something that has a paycheck. The road of being a habitual artist is not easy. And many of us have a desire to work in fields that we think are important like justice and poverty issues. I know personally I’ve struggled for years wishing I was a lawyer, a doctor, a millionaire, a senator…. because in the areas of poverty, global disease, orphans…. these seem like the qualifications needed to make an impact. Nobody needs a painter when dealing with child slavery.
Well, there is a way to rectify that. But let’s step back a couple steps and first deal with the journey of owning your identity as an artist. The question of how can I do ministry an art will always be there if you consider art as a skill/hobby and not something that is at the core of you. I’ve always been good a making things. always the best drawer in my class. Even got a BA in art education. But it wasn’t until after college, after bible school, when I was waiting tables in my mid-twenties trying to figure out my life that I started to realize that at the core of me was someone who wanted to create and that was probably the best thing I had to offer the world (besides love). I gotta say that realization wasn’t a relief. I even cried a little bit because I remember thinking that I had gotten the short end of the stick in the way of being a part of the world. Other friends of mine who were far smarter, far more gifted, could talk about money stuff while it goes completely over my head…. they were the ones going to make an impact. Going to give something great to society. I was coming to terms with the reality that I would spend my life creating…. and that was probably the best I was going to be able to offer the world. I think it took me a couple days of mourning to then get myself up and say well if this is what I have, then I’m going to make the most of it. and it has been fantastic… but that’s another story.
Once you know you are an artist, then everything you do is going to be through the filter of that identity. For a span of two years, while I was still traveling around painting at all these events and things, I still waited tables once a week at a neighborhood restaurant where I lived. I like waiting tables. I just don’t ever want to do it my whole life. It was a nice change from always creating. Time in the studio is lonely and longsuffering… so I liked to do it to socialize for 8 hours. Us extraverts need that. I’ve waited tables a lot in my life. I always never completely enjoyed it because I never had any other identity to say this was who I was until this last time. I had owned being an artist. I was living that out. I was choosing to do some other work for the good of my soul and my identity never came into play while I was dropping off cheeseburgers to patrons. I knew who I was and what I was doing.
That journey of owning your artistic identity is completely personal for everyone. I can’t give you a formula for how to get there. It’s more like a wrestling match. It’s a struggle with you own perceptions of what you should be, what you should be doing, what god wants you to be doing, what your parents think you should be doing vs. the reality of who you are. The best way is to let reality win. Those who let perceptions win live an unfulfilled life always wishing they had taken a risk in letting their desires to rule out. For you… let the match begin.
As for ministry….
I grew up in a family of missionaries and pastors. I was around it all the time. I’ve even held a few ministry jobs myself. I’ve been a youth pastor, an overseas missionary, a college minister, and have been on staff at a few different churches. I was even a high school teacher at a Christian school where I taught art. One quarter I even taught bible… the ultimate subject. These are all jobs at “Christian” organizations. the work is “Christian”, the position involves “Christian” work… it’s easy to define this as ministry. And when I am talking to most people who are asking me how they can do ministry and art, they are asking how they can do art at a “Christian” organization. I think this is off. There are many great “Christian” organizations that you could work. my critique is not on that. Please work for WorldVision or Compassion Intl or a church if that’s where you feel like to need to be. But you. You are a minister. This isn’t a vocational problem. It’s an identity problem once again.
2 cor 5:16-20
16 “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
You are a minister of reconciliation in whatever you are doing. The problem is we want our vocation to back that up so that it seems tangible. Well, that might be a let down that you’ll just have to endure…. that your vocation may not be a “ministry” position at all. But that’s a perception issue more than a truth issue. This is probably on my head cause I’m around college kids right now, but the big let down of after college is that you have infinite possibilities and no really confidence in making a decision for a future. After college I remember getting a job at the cheesecake factory for a short stint before I was going to go to bible school in Europe. Everyone I worked with on the waiting staff had a bachelors, even a masters degree from a college. Just none of them could find jobs in the field they wanted. That was the reality of the job market at the time… and if your job is your identity, then it can be a sobering time.
But thank goodness that is not our true reality. We are ministers wherever we go. With who we work with. Who we interact with. Our attitudes during our work. The joy we take in serving. The love we give in our most meaningless tasks. I remember praying, frustratingly crying to god about the meaninglessness of waiting tables at 26, wishing desperately he would lead me to something more important. The only thing he told me during that time is that he wanted me to take complete (complete) joy in knowing him solely and that he wanted me to learn how to be a servant… by literally serving. Those years have completely influenced me now as I do work on stages and work with many different kinds of people. I am constantly be brought back to the place where I need to decide if my joy comes completely from knowing him or in the exciting things I’m doing or not doing. And in dealing with the people I work with everywhere, it matters how I treat them. Do I come in with expectations, or do I come in to serve? I’ve been in a lot of backstage situations at Christian events and it’s interesting to see the other side of people you see on stage. Some people are so legit. They love Jesus. They are complete servants. They are a joy to work with and be around. And others, well they are not so much that way. The thing that pisses me off though is just how stupid that is. Look, if you are going to make your living singing/talking about Jesus, at least try to be like him a little bit. We are all sick of the phonies. Don’t be a phony. Phoniness happens when you are speaking out of information and not personal experience. When you are acting in a way you know you are supposed to act, and not in the way you have just become. Becoming someone is a longer process and it usually happens in a place of solitude. There are stages of your life that seem lost and uninspired. But these are most likely the places where your character is being built for you to eventually be in places of greatness. Those places are hard though and demand a lot of character. Don’t bypass it.
Ministry and art are both identity issues. Both of those are vocational jobs are hard to come by and to find a paying job where you can do both together… well I don’t have any answers on how you do that. But you are a minister of reconciliation in the life you lead. And if when you own your artist identity, you will need to decide the steps you need to take to habitually create in your life.
And then…. most likely…. this question of art and ministry…will answer itself.