“How to discourage artists in the church”

That’s the provocative title of an article by Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College and an eloquent voice on the subject of Christianity and the arts. On this occasion, Ryken has indulged in a bit of gentle irony to draw attention to the challenges facing Christian artists as they seek to be faithful in the pursuit of their calling. Ryken elaborates:

Many Christian artists live between two strange worlds. Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community – almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church. Yet Christians called to draw, paint, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to honour God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the Gospel.

Enlisting a few of his artist friends, Ryken put his contrarian question to them: What can the church do to discourage you as a Christian artist? The answers, like the question itself, are tongue-in-cheek, but no less insightful for that. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Treat the arts as a window dressing for the truth rather than a window into reality.
  • Embrace bad art, just because it’s “Christian.”
  • Value artists only for their artistic gifts, not for the other contributions they can make.
  • Demand that artists give answers in their work, not raise questions.
  • Never pay artists for their work.
  • Only validate art that has a direct application to evangelism.

Reading Ryken’s list, I found myself inspired (or maybe I should say tempted) to offer a few items of my own, in a similar spirit:

  • Approach artists and creative types with a degree of suspicion. Think of them as strange and eccentric, the black sheep of the household of faith.
  • Judge an artist’s work solely on pragmatic value. Is it useful for decoration or marketing or evangelism? If not, what good is it?
  • Adhere to a rigid and narrow standard of beauty. Avoid the ambiguous, difficult or challenging. Embrace only the pretty and pleasant, the sentimental and safe.
  • Use the second commandment of the Decalogue, forbidding the worship of images, as an all-purpose bludgeon against art you don’t like or understand.
  • Gloss over the wealth of Scripture that assures artists their gift is from God, a facet of being made in His image. Ignore the fact that the temple in the Old Testament contained non-religious art – images of lions and oxen and palm trees and pomegranates – made by divinely inspired artists for glory and for beauty.

But irony aside, Ryken concludes with perhaps the most telling item on his list: Make artists not feel fully at home in the church. In this regard, he quotes N.T. Wright at length:

In my experience the Christian painter or poet, sculptor or dancer, is regularly regarded as something of a curiosity, to be tolerated, humoured even, maybe even allowed to put on a show once in a while. But the idea that they are, or could be, anything more than that – that they have a vocation to re-imagine and re-express the beauty of God, to lift our sights and change our vision of reality – is often not even considered.

All that being said, artists are also accountable for what they bring to the table, or rather, to the church. In his response to Ryken’s article, John Stonestreet warns that Christian artists can at times get caught up in the art world’s idolatry of self-expression. In such instances, artists need to recognize they’re part of the redeemed community of believers. Regardless of their chosen style or subject matter, they have the opportunity to communicate, to “paraphrase reality” as Stonestreet says, or in Wright’s words, “to re-imagine and re-express the beauty of God,” and not merely to express themselves.

How to bring the church and the arts together in a more comprehensive way that honours God and blesses all concerned? Sørina Higgins at Cardus offers some positive first steps. Her key ideas are to build relationships of mutual respect and trust; to integrate the arts across a broader spectrum of church life rather than treating them as peripheral add-ons; and to maintain aesthetic excellence as well as theological integrity.

God has given creative talent to artists, and artists to His church. They’re part of the kaleidoscopic variety that makes up the body of Christ. Whether they work in abstract or realistic styles, whether they focus on religious or non-religious subjects, they’re uniquely called and fitted to display God’s glory and enrich the lives of His people. In turn, it’s incumbent on the church to encourage and cultivate these creatives as the vital members of the body that they are.

As the Apostle Paul asked, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose.” (1 Corinthians 12:17-18)

It should go without saying that the body of Christ includes the painter’s eye, the poet’s ear, the sculptor’s hands and the dancer’s feet, just as it does all of its other members.

Sources and further reading

Philip Ryken, “How to discourage artists in the church,” The Gospel Coalition, May 27, 2013.

John Stonestreet, “How to discourage an artist: And why we shouldn’t,” [response to Ryken article], BreakPoint, June 6, 2013.

Sørina Higgins, “The church’s role in art: Artists, pastors, and theologians offer advice for church art patronage,” Cardus Comment, May 27, 2011.

Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays, InterVarsity Press, 2007.

David O. Taylor, editor, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, Baker Books, 2010.

Philip Ryken, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, P & R Publishing, 2006.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox