If you didn’t’ know already, I’ve spent most of the last 5 years painting during church services. Currently I am the artist in residence at Ecclesia Church in Houston and I make a painting per service… which we have 5 services so I’m busting out 5 paintings in a 24hr period. Painting at a church is not your normal North American Protestant tradition, so when people find out about what I do, I begin fielding a myriad of questions.
The one I’ve been getting asked most often is what the most difficult thing is about painting at a church. Is it the nerves in front of people? Is it creating the right image? Is it the amount of paintings I do? There are complicated dynamics to all these questions but really It’s none of these things. The hardest thing I find about painting at churches is getting over what I call the “Neat” Wall.
The “Neat” Wall
The “Neat” Wall is that barrier of entertainment that is blocking the way to meaningfulness. Now I don’t mean to be rude or the super-cynic, but let’s be honest. Whether good or bad, there have been a lot of entertaining things that we do for our church services. Special recorded sing-a-long music, b-grade catchy videos, choirs, etc etc. I understand that these are rooted in a desire to be creative in our corporate response to God, and a lot of these are wonderful. But we’ve all experienced the production that may have lost that original intent. Because of these we’ve kind of unintentionally created our own culture of nice little anecdotes to keep our attention during services. With all that said I’m going to stop right now cause I don’t want to be the cynical bad guy who hates everything that wasn’t in the “original” church. My proposal to you though is that some of the things we’ve seen in church services in the last few decades can be seen as either profoundly important or kind of a pleasant time filler. Sovereignty or novelty.
With me? Okay.
In respects to live painting, I call it the “Neat” Wall because usually when I start painting at a church consistently, the first responses from attendees are mostly in the vain of “that’s neat”. “I love your painting… it’s really neat.” It’s perceived and experienced as an entertaining filler… not up to par with the rock solid 3 “must haves” of church services – preaching, music, and passing the offering plate.
Overcoming the neat wall happens usually 5 or 6 times into painting consistently at a church community’s weekly gathering. This happens when, in some way that you’re not in control of, people have a deeply spiritual interaction with the painting process. The Holy Spirit speaks to them inwardly in a way they never would have expected. He uses the imagery to start a soul conversation. He uses it to deepening God’s word to them in a new visual way. The painting then is no longer a novelty act, but a responsive act in which the community uses to grow closer to God. Just like corporate singing or corporate prayer. The process is spiritually deepening and therefore it becomes a meaningful rhythm to be incorporated into community.
Consistency is the main way to conquer the neat wall. The problem is when in incorporating something new, we tend to give up if it doesn’t give immediate results. Keep with it and the value of it will eventually break through.
There you go.. overcoming the Neat Wall. If you are a church that wants to have live art as something you do as a normal rhythm in your community, there are some other things you can do to help move along the community to embrace this activity as a consistent practice.
1. Up front pastoral leadership support
Literally, the lead pastor needs to stand up front and publicly say that we are having this and that it is valuable. Without that you will always have people who doubt it, think its annoying, think it’s taking away from the power of the sermon, etc etc. It shouldn’t be the job of the artist (with no microphone) to try to carve out a niche for them in the worship gathering. If the head guy doesn’t fully support it, it will never fully take.
Chris Seay, head pastor at Ecclesia and the dude I work with weekly, will every now in then reference what I’m doing for new people joining us that weekend. In doing this he will literally say that we are working in tandem in teaching God’s word. What he has just done is publicly aligned himself with what I’m doing… solidifying his belief in the art so if anyone doesn’t like it, they are not liking a choice by the main pastor, not the artist.
Leaders, you need to support the artists if you want them around. And if you’re a leader, you need to lead in what you think the Holy Spirit is leading you to do in your community.
I guarantee you that someone is not going to like the art. What are you going to do when they tell you this? A pastor friend of mine in Arizona, Palmer Chinchen of The Grove, wanted to create a visual culture in his church. They had received a couple large paintings of Jesus by painter Mike Lewis and Palmer decided that he wanted to have them up during their services. So they put them up on either side of the stage. A couple of Sundays into having the art around someone came up to Palmer and said that he needed to take these paintings down. Palmer asked why and the guy said they were breaking one of the 10 commandments, “you shall not make for yourself an idol…” He said these paintings were an idol and people were going to be tempted to worship them. Palmer assured the man that no one was going to worship the paintings and in fact they weren’t breaking the commandment about idols. They man continued to hold his opinion though and threatened to leave the church if they were not taken down. Palmer regretted that the man needed to come to that drastic of a decision but hoped that he would find a good community in one of the other churches nearby.
So what happened? The man left…. him and his tithe. But we don’t try to keep numbers to pay our bills right? (ooo… lots to confess).
But because Palmer has stuck to his convictions and has led in his beliefs about having a creative element to the Grove’s gatherings, the church has a vibrant creative element to their worship gatherings. They do so many creative things and the community that is there loves it. It became a valuable worship element. It became their identity.
You as the leadership have to stand up to the haters. Unfortunately anything you do that progresses a deepening in worship and faith in a church will meet resistance from church people. You need to lead in who God has asked you to be.
2. Artist Explanation
If this process is new to your congregation, allow a little time for the artist to explain the work. Part of incorporating a visual element into your gatherings is helping to teach the community how to interpret the visual. It’s the same with words. It’s the same with music. We are just more used to it. All of us at some time though learned the musical and verbal avenues of communication and they have become the norm to us. You can learn the visual language. You can teach the visual language.
So maybe for the first few times allow the artist to share a little bit about what is going on in the artwork. Then slowly taper off and let it just be a part of your gathering. I hardly ever share about the art during our services at Ecclesia. My opinion is that God is working all the time whether you notice it or not. If you want to see him working, you must seek it and interact with it. I see my role in a similar light. It’s there, Spirit filled, going on in our midst. If people want to interact with it, well I’m there next to the artwork after every service available to talk and to answer questions. It’s there if people want to interact with it.
3. Create A Visual Culture
Don’t go cold turkey straight to live painting. Ease into it. Progress the visual arts through having a visual element into your services. If you are the teacher, use a piece of art in part of your talk as an illustration. Hang art in your hallways or in your gathering spaces. Have a visual element be part of your rhythm. Public creating will naturally follow.
So there are a few things that can help you get over the Neat Wall. Let’s be honest though. If you are not a community that has an artist community, live painting may never stop being a novelty. The best art in churches comes best out of something that is organically there. And that brings us down the fact that you as a church should do the things that you are best at. Look at your spheres of influence and do kingdom work in what’s available to you.
But if you do have artists and you want creativity to be more of a corporate experience, you as the leaders lead, give value to it, take small steps in creating a visual culture, and I guarantee you your artistic endeavors will hop over the Neat Wall into profound meaningfulness in no time.