I am a follower of Jesus and I am an artist. I am mostly a painter although I write a bit and work with video from time to time. I have been creating my whole life and truly believe it’s my calling in the world. I have no big fancy degrees that validate my expertise… just years of being an artist and working intensely at that craft. Over the last two years I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with Ecclesia Church in Houston, TX as their Artist in Residence. In my two years of working at Ecclesia, I thought I was going to write a book about art, church, and being an artist in a church. But now, I don’t even know if I need to write a book. If I was to say anything to artists who are Christians and who are in the church, here’s what I’d say:
1. Love the Church.
I know the church is a confusing place for you. They don’t know what to do with the journey you’ve been called too. Most churches don’t have any kind of art culture. And if they do make strides in any artistic endeavor, it is bound up in creating easy-to-understand-beautiful-things and trying not to offend anyone.
I get it. I’ve been there. Still there. It’s a hard tension to live in, between the honesty you feel compelled to convey and the seemingly sterile safetyness that the church organization seems to promote.
But we can’t get around this:
The church is the body that God wants to work through in the world and the bride that Jesus wants to marry.
You are meant to be in a community of believers. You are called to be there. You must love this body, for all its warts and faults. Now I’m not saying it has to look like the modern American Church, large or small. But it has to look like something of a community living life together as they journey to be obedient to the living King Jesus (see the book of Acts). You are called to that. Do not forsake it.
2. Obey your Father
On the other hand, stop looking to the church organization for some kind of parental approval for the things you’ve been called to. You need to be obedient to your Father in heaven and what He is calling you to. Discernment of these endeavors should certainly be discussed and prayed though in community, especially if you are going to admonish others. But the organization church is not free in the ways you are to create the things that need to be created. The organization is just that, an organization. And although it claims to follow after the living Jesus, they also have to pay bills, salaries, and mortgages. This means they need people to attend, and people to tithe. And if anything comes up that is seemingly offensive and off putting to their tithing attenders, even if it is out of love and obedience, their response will most always be to sensor and silence. Basically, organizations are not free to risk in the ways that artists are. That subject is in another that must be written…
Your calling as an artist is to awaken the viewer/listener/reader. This can be done in quiet intimate ways or loud confronting ways. As well your technical skills, your tools are honesty, empathy, and bravery. Your path is to bring about your work in the most truthful way you can. It may not fit in the context of a church service or to hang on church walls, but that was never the goal anyway.
That’s my two points. Love the Church, but be obedient to what God calls you to do. If I had to give any vision to how this looks lived out, it’s best revealed in the sharing of two stories.
Last year a great musician and friend Derek Webb called me and told me about his next album he was working on. It was an electronic instrumental worship album based on the Lord’s Prayer… and he was calling it “Feedback”. Along with the music, he wanted to have a visual accompaniment, something you could look at while listening to the music and meditating on the words of that prayer. Photographer Jeremy Cowart had already lended some abstract photographs to the project and Derek wanted me to create 9 corresponding abstract paintings. So I did. Here’s a video of that journey…
Along with that, filmmaker Scot Brignac created a short film that corresponded to each one of the songs in his movie Self Sabotage. Check out the trailer….
So what has happened here? One artist, who had a vision about creating a musical piece based on the prayer given to us by Jesus himself, invited other artists to create with him. I mean it wasn’t as pure art idealistic as that. There was totally a commercial element to it all…. and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you create as a profession that’s just the reality you live in. But because of listening, creating, and inviting, a group of Christ following artists were able to bring out something new based on something ancient. We brought forth a body of work to be used to help us and others meditate on the out-workings of the Lords prayer in our daily lives. It was gift given to the Christian community… free to do with whatever they want with it.
It became much more than a record. It’s a pilgrimage in a way.
A prayer made into music, imagery, and film… all because of an invitation.
I have 3 friends in Seattle who are all musicians. All of them are in their own bands, and all of them are worship leaders at different churches. And they all know each other. One night, they separately all went to the same Sigur Ros show. If you don’t know, Sigur Ros is an Icelandic band who sings in Haplandia (a made up language) and has a very ethereal sound. There music is amazing and very divine in my opinion. Here’s my favorite video of their’s….
Well a few days after the show the three friends were together and they were discussing how great the show was. What they found is what had stood out to them most of all was how profoundly spiritual the concert was. They even felt like it was one of the most spiritually enriching experiences they had ever been to. These are Christian worship leaders asking why was it so profound? And why wasn’t there anything like that in Christian worship? They wrestled with this idea for many weeks until finally one of them said, “Well, maybe we’re supposed to make it.” So for the next year and a half, every Tuesday night they got together and tried to create the music they knew should exist. Now this wasn’t sponsored by their churches. No elder board gave them permission and their blessing. They just did it. They went into that place together to try to ease the tension they felt in their spirits. And a year and a half later, they had a body of work. The first event they put on was called the Urban Hymnal. They held it at St. Marks Cathedral, one of the biggest most beautiful cathedral-like churches in Seattle. They also invited visual artists to bring artwork based on a theme and display it on stage with them. The evening was a worship service but it was unlike anyone attending had ever experienced. The songs were long and crescendo-ing. There were times of corporate silence. It was the manifestation of what they had believed should exist in worshiping God…. and it was profoundly impactful. They kept writing new songs over the years and had 3 more Urban Hymnals, all including art installations and held at visually stunning sacred places. The next move for them was to move it from just a performance night and into a band and now this group is called the Opiate Mass.
Here’s a video from a performance they did during the advent season….
Here’s what I see.
In both cases, Jesus-following artists are given a vision of something that should be created. It doesn’t come through a board or a committee (not saying it can never come that way), it comes out of their walk with God. At this point, nobody is throwing money at them to bring this idea into reality. It’s just up to them if they want to put in the hard work to make this vision into reality. Perhaps along the way that journey includes other people to work with, but I would propose that this community is based less on a specific organization and more about spiritually connected community one has fostered in ones life.
Then when all the hard work is done, the artists bring out there creation. It is given, as a gift really, to whoever wants to partake in it. This is when I see the church, the organization, supporting it or not. They may not like it. They may love it. They may even want to give money to it, through buying the artwork, or as in the Opiate Mass’ case, give them grant money to keep pursuing this artistic vision. But this is only after the artist(s) have done the hard work of creating what hasn’t existed before.
If you are an artist, God loves you and has made you to be an artist. Not cause he needed filler giftings in the world’s population. But because creating is a Divine activity, and he wants the Divine to be seen and experienced in the world. You are called to be a part of a church, a community of believers serving the living King Jesus. You must be in that. Mega-church. Home church. Whatever your fancy. You are called to be together. But you have also been given another calling as an artist. And in that calling you must be obedient first and foremost.
God is good, but He is hardly safe.
God is kind and loving, but He is hardly sterile.
Artists are often said to be like prophets. Prophets in the Old Testament were called upon to speak when the king and the spiritual leaders of the nation were no longer being obedient to the Lord and were breaking their covenant with Him. Prophets were used to call that out and to call the people to repentence and restoration.
I don’t know what you’re calling is, and you may not either. But if you seek Him, He will show you.
Be brave. Be honest. Be skillful. Be obedient.
(Can’t wait to see what you make.)
Your friend, colleague, and fan….