Keir Shreeves writes: The arts have a unique power to unlock the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. This is nothing new; Christianity has found expression in the arts for over two thousand years and many of the great masterpieces of Western art came about because the church was historically the major patron to the arts. Images have been central to the Christian faith and the proclamation of the gospel since the beginning. The wonder of the arts for mission is that they can take us beyond conventional or established patterns of reason, drawing with a subversive quality. When words might bounce off, image, music or drama can impact in a different way with evangelism coming as something of a surprise.
However, the arts have been a neglected theme in the life and mission of the evangelical church because of its Protestant roots and its residual mistrust of art especially the visual. The Protestant suspicion of art finds creating images inevitably deceptive because images can never depict the true face of God. The fear that the arts might lure us away from worshipping God is not unreasonable. Art can do this but so can all the gifts that God has given us. Nonetheless, the incarnation provides justification for the arts because when God became man the invisible became visible. Jesus Christ is both the Word and the Image of God (John 1.14). The incarnation thus authorises us to create images of God and is at the centre of the Christian aesthetic. God’s self-revelation and therefore affirmation of the material world, means artists are affirmed in their use of images.
Thankfully, the evangelical church has increased its engagement with the arts over the last fifteen to twenty years. Today, artists in the local church are having a positive experience being supported in their vocation in the world. You can now study Theology and the Arts as an academic discipline and join organisations supporting Christians in the creative industries. The arts, especially the visual arts, are also playing a stimulating role in church services and mission. It seems that an extraordinary flourishing of creativity is under way and local churches with a theological understanding of the arts are encouraging a fresh generation of artists in the life and mission of the church. We may well look back on this time as the beginning of a new revolution in the use of the visual arts in announcing the gospel.
Let’s hope that’s the case. If for this generation aesthetics counts for more than knowledge, thoughtful engagement with the visual arts is crucial for the life and mission of the church. William Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, warns: ‘It is possible that we might actually win the battle of words but lose the battle of images. And losing that battle could well cost us this generation.’ In other words, announcing the gospel through the creative arts needs to be part of the life and mission of the church in contemporary culture. This is because all of the arts, including the visual arts, can be vessels for the Holy Spirit to meet with people. We do have some brilliant Christian painters, sculptors, dancers, composers and poets today creating excellent pieces of work but we need more creative arts proclaiming good news. As Tom Wright says the arts are a medium that God uses not just to decorate the gospel but announce it.
That’s why the church is supporting a generation of artists to affirm what is good, challenge what is destructive and point to the surprising hope. Artists that are Christians are needed in the world doing what they are good at, which includes creating ugly or disturbing images and giving expression to suffering. Artists may produce art with religious content but more often that not, they won’t, and they don’t have to for their work and their vocation to be valuable. However, there is a need for those artists intentionally seeking to communicate deep Christian truth. When this happens it can be quite surprising. When the Holy Spirit speaks through the arts it might look more like playfulness than serious evangelism and that’s not only the point but also the advantage: the arts are a vehicle of beauty and can lead us to an encounter with God, yet they can never be reduced to that.
In today’s society people often say they don’t want to be ‘preached at’ but galleries, theatres and concert halls are places where people will take off their headphones, put down their smartphones, cease conversing with their neighbour for a moment and open themselves up to encountering something different. For many people church contexts are threatening and so, for them, the arts are a helpful starting point providing a more neutral space in which to ask spiritual questions. The artist expressing alarming images or picturesque ones provides an opportunity for viewers to engage with the difficult realities of life and the Christian message of faith, hope and love.
The arts are crucial to Christian mission today and we can already see many new initiatives within the evangelical tradition. Armed with a fresh theological confidence we can commission artists in the church and the world and pray for a move of the Holy Spirit to help release a new generation of Godly creatives. This will be critical for the church in finding new ways to help congregations praise God and witness to the world. Artists have a key role in expressing the pain of the present, drawing attention to the hope of new creation and shaping culture. Church leaders have a wonderful opportunity to encourage artists to follow the Spirit into the future and as they do we will see that evangelism comes as a surprising result.
Keir Shreeves worked in industrial design before being ordained, and is on the staff at St Peter’s Brighton. His Grove booklet Art for Mission’s Sake is a compelling exploration of the role of the arts in mission, offering a theological foundation, exploring the nurture of art within the church and its role in engaging with the world, and including practical examples of how art can be used effectively in mission. You can buy it from the Grove website for £3.95 post free in the UK or as a e-book PDF.
 W Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) p 21.
 T Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God.’ Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, quoted in K Case-Green and G Cudmore Sakakini, Imaging the Story (Oregon: Cascade, 2017) p 152.
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