The Lies Churches Believe About Art
What is the purpose of art within the church?
Well, it depends who you ask. If you ask many pastors, they may mention art as a potential tool for evangelism. If you ask artists, they’ll likely respond with a wide variety of answers. And your average person might not necessarily have an opinion.
In this post, I’d like to start a conversation around this very question, because it’s a question of great importance. How we answer will reveal our underlying philosophy about all art. Sadly, the philosophy that I’ve often encountered within some church cultures has been one that I think is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. Simply put, it is the idea that art is useless unless it serves a specific function.
Art is useless unless it’s functional
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gave the church a mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
In the West, many churches have interpreted this verse and others in such a way that ends up only valuing activities that are practical and utilitarian in nature—activities with a palpable outcome in terms of evangelism. That can directly influence the role we see art playing in the church. When taken to extremes, a strictly utilitarian view can lead us to value art only for its immediate results, which leaves no room for works of art—whether songs, plays, paintings, or novels—which are freely created simply as expressions of worship.
The creative impulse isn’t “something extra.” It is a vital part of what it means to be an image-bearer of the God of the universe.
“Christians have indeed been active. But they have often optimistically believed that it was enough to preach the gospel and to help in a charitable way. In concentrating on saving souls they have forgotten that God is the God of life, and that the Bible teaches people how to live, how to deal with our world, God’s creation.”
— Hans R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification
"Human beings are wired to make things that are not merely functional, but beautiful."
Seeing art as merely a means to an end is not only restrictive, it misses out on a profound truth. Because the value of art is rooted in something far deeper than its immediate results. It’s rooted in creation itself.
Imago Dei: the Image of God
The Bible tells us that every single person on earth has been made in the image of God. Not only is that a profound gift to each of us, it’s also the very key to understanding creativity. Think of it this way: Genesis shows us that God is a creative being. The first action ever recorded in the Bible is the very act of creation:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Being made in God’s image, then, means that our creativity is actually a reflection of God’s creativity. Just as God is a relational being (the three persons of the Trinity existing in perfect relationship with one another), we too are relational beings. Just as God is a creative being, we too are creative.
So all art—whether it’s a Picasso hanging in a museum or a kid’s crayon drawing hanging on a fridge—intrinsically reflects the fact that human beings are made in the image of God.
The Creation account in Genesis 1 through 3 shows us that God himself is a maker—and, as scholar Gene Edward Veith notes, God didn’t just make a universe that was functional; he made one that was beautiful as well. So too, human beings are wired to make things that are not merely functional, but beautiful.
The creative impulse isn’t just decorative or “something extra.” It is a vital part of what it means to be an image-bearer of the God of the universe.
“A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself. . . . The Christian message begins with the existence of God forever, and then with creation. It does not begin with salvation. We must be thankful for salvation, but the Christian message is more than that. Man has a value because he is made in the image of God.”
— Francis A. Schaeffer, Art And The Bible
A strictly functional approach to art within the church can end up leaving no room for artists who want to worship their God through painting, crocheting, pottery, and other non-verbal mediums of communication.
Oftentimes if—and that’s a big if—art plays a role in a given church, it may only be in the area of church marketing efforts. This pattern is often seen in churches with big budgets, utilizing graphics as a way to garner attention and connect with the surrounding culture. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important that we don’t see art as only an attractional medium; we must also see that creativity is intrinsically linked to the image of God imprinted upon us, his creation.
More Than An Attractional Medium
Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe that art is a powerful tool to reach the larger culture. And as Christians, I believe we should use the gifts God has given us to be on mission and reach our neighbors. But I don’t think that’s the primary reason why we create, nor is it the ultimate purpose of creativity.
So what is the role of art in the church? Simply put, art is worship. More than being just an evangelistic tool, art is a way of using the good gifts God has given us to thank him and reflect his image in us.
We’ll talk more about this in future posts, but suffice it to say that creativity must be seen and appreciated as another incredible, vibrant expression of God’s glory, goodness, and generosity, made manifest in his image-bearing creatures. And that, brothers and sisters, is a high calling indeed.