Can Christian mission be effective without the arts?

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.’[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] W Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) p 21.

[2] 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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22 thoughts on “Can Christian mission be effective without the arts?”

  1. Thanks for posting this Ian, I found it really encouraging.

    I keep painting because I’ve found that sometimes a picture can slide a difficult truth into my heart just like a folded up ship slides in through the neck of a bottle. Once it’s in there the Holy Spirit pulls the invisible strings to unfold it and turns it from something I think I know is true into something I can actually stand on.

  2. Can I sneak in a reference to Christian novelists, including those outside the standard Christian fiction template? Yes, I know, I’m biased.

  3. Excellent article, but to say that evangelical attitudes to the arts have only been changing in the last 15 – 20 years is to fail to give credit where it is due. The Arts Centre Group has been working in this territory since 1971, and Christian aestheticists like Hans Rookmaaker, and the work of L’Abri in fostering the arts, go back even further. Also in the early 1970s, the Fisherfolk from the Church of the Redeemer in Houston were promoting arts in mission, as have Taizé in music and many other groups in dance, visual art, architecture and media. This is nothing new!

    • In answer to the headline question “can christian mission be effective without the arts?” the answer must be a resounding Yes of course! One man or woman ablaze by the Spirit, opening their mouth has worked for millennia. The gospel does not need the ‘arts’ to be effective, nor do I believe the arts have a unique power to unlock the life-changing gospel. The gospel is the power of God to salvation and needs no helping hand from our creativity.

      Don’t get me wrong, I value the arts, photography is my hobby, I love film, painting, literature, architecture & design – all wonderful expressions of life, creativity and even imago-dei. And yes, let’s incorporate it in our mission, and expression of Church life – but please dont imply the gospel needs them to be ‘effective’.

      • That’s interesting Simon—I think I am surprised to read this comment. Isn’t part of the challenge and responsibility for us to be ‘all things to all people’ in our proclamation? In an aesthetically-oriented culture, doesn’t that make presenting the gospel in an aesthetically-oriented way non-negotiable?

        • Hi Ian. I agree with all you say, but that’s different than the direction of your OP Question and Keir’s opening line. It seemed to imply the gospel requires something extra to help it work for today’s culture (which culture particularly?) It seems the post is claiming today’s culture (which one?) will only accept the gospel if it comes wrapped in the Arts. (one person’s art is another person’s vandelism). I don’t think the gospel needs anything to be effective -it is always foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews and the power of God to salvation for those who believe. Over 30 years ago when I became a Christian sermons were often illustrated by drama – I thought it naff at the time and couldn’t wait for the Word of God to be preached. We also had sacred dance, which seemed neither very sacred nor decent dancing. Then Wimber came along and sermons were illustrated with ministry and this was exciting for a while but became more role play than power encounter. I have been part of Church life that follows trends in employing the ‘arts’ to ‘assist’ the preaching of the Word – using Performance songs, Flagging, Rap, Comedy routines, Mime, Magic Tricks, Prophetic Painting, Power Point presentations etc etc and I find it all largely a distraction. I also struggle to find anywhere in the NT epistles or Acts of the Apostles that commends or utilises the arts -I dont find it commended anywhere or utilized in mission or ministry – can we imagine Paul doing a seminar on leather skills and the communication of the gospel – or Lydia doing a spiritual meditation on fashion and the colour purple or…. The gospel can stand on its own feet

          • Ian, Keir et al, I don’t want you to think I’m downgrading the importance of the arts – I am no puritan or quaker who wants an aggressively whitewashed interior church wall. We must celebrate the Arts, promote them in church and society, be at the forefront of the Arts recognising they reflect something of the beauty and creativity of God imprinted in us – I believe they can be prophetic and powerful in opening us to God and revealing truth. I just do not believe the gospel and mission require them to be ‘effective’.

          • Thanks Simon. The gospel needs no helping hand as such but God in his grace chooses to use human creativity in announcing the gospel, of course. The arts have a unique contribution to play and have sadly been neglected in the life and mission of the evangelical church. Images, drama and music, for example, can speak to us in different ways from words. For some people, in ways words never will. I’m not talking about poor quality additions to preaching (I’m passionate about decent preaching) but things like Nic Fiddian-Green’s Christ Head bronze sculpture, a professional painter live painting Jesus on the cross in a Good Friday service or Theaster Gates reviving neighbourhoods with art. I’m also not saying the ‘unique power’ is located in the arts but that the power of the Spirit can speak in a unique way through the arts.

          • Thanks Keir – and congratulations on the publication of the grove booklet. I repeat, I affirm, enjoy and encourage the arts – my wife is a trained fine artist and for many years a professional artist – and she recently trained as an Art-room therapist – there is power in art to connect, convey and express. I love Nic Fiddian Gree, though wonder why i find his bronze horse head utterly breathtaking and his Christ head does little for me? Ian’s OP header was “can mission be effective without the arts?” – the thesis was then presented as if it cannot. I’m simply saying I disagree – yes it can – and no-where in the NT are the arts affirmed or promoted or used for the gospel/mission (unless perhaps the very art of writing the gospels). That does not mean we shouldn’t enjoy and employ the arts – I just don’t accept that we are as implied powerless and ineffective reaching the young visual generation without them. Fortunately we have them and can use them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Church’s patronage and promotion of the Arts in the Renaissance did not result in a religious/spiritual revival – indeed, the Reformation reacted against the Catholic investment in Arts.

    • Thanks Veronica. The booklet does talk about evangelical engagement in the 1960s and references Rookmaaker. However, it’s my take that the evangelical church has increased its engagement over the last 15-20 years.

  4. This week I read Matthew Burdette’s appreciation of Robert Jenson, who died a month ago (

    In it he says:

    “Jens[on]’s pursuits were not only metaphysical and political but aesthetic. Jens saw the beauty of God, and believed that it was central to the Church’s resistance against nihilism to reflect God’s beauty in worship, in art and drama, in literature and storytelling. Jenson taught that Christians comprise a community that tells and lives out the drama of God’s story, and in so doing lets the world see the beauty of what God has done and will do.”

    It is our life together as Christians in all its aspects in which we proclaim the Gospel.

  5. Art is powerful beyond measure because it speaks to places beyond the intellect. For the Christian artist, it should be disturbing in the truest sense, a pursuit of excellence with integrity and humility. Art is disappearing from our school core curricula with barely a whisper of protest. A nation with poor art is a nation with poor imagination. If we cannot imagine a better way, we do not know how to pray. Art strengthens the whole person, not just the imagination. Recently when a junior school in Bradford was performing badly the staff introduced music as a core activity for all the children with astonishing and rapid improvement in all subjects.
    It is true that the arts may be effective in mission and I have seen and done a lot of that but I have learned too that art cannot be contained or even defined for one particular objective. It changes the maker as much as it may change the consumer. It is hard graft, on every level, spiritually, intellectually, physically.
    It’s not good enough for wealthy churches to instal the occasional artist in residence and pat themselves on the back for being so very hipster. The contemporary church really doesn’t understand the importance of art for contemporary culture. We live in a sleepwalking bubble of our own internal culture. Art as mission (if that’s a proper thing) can only speak to contemporary culture in language that contemporary culture understands. Contemporary culture is always youth culture and there’s lies the challenge. How do mature christian artists speak into contemporary culture that has already moved on?
    We all know that God does not just communicate through words and for those of us in the evangelical tradition that can be challenging. Thank you for the encouragement that this post represents to many of us.

    • Thanks Bernadette, I love what Ridings Lights have been doing. Thank you. Yes, I quite agree that the arts are non-utilitarian – my booklet talks about that. My hope and aim is that this booklet might play a small part in encouraging artists and creatives in their vaulable role in the church and the world.

  6. I have stumbled on this conversation and would like to affirm the importance of taking up this theme. The question posed by Ian has generated some response. I wish to add a bit more to that exchange. Essentially I want to suggest that art is woven into the fabric of life and is not to be seen as an add-on to mission (though I understand why we speak in those terms) The biblical engagement of narrative, metaphor, image and parable all speak to the importance of diverse expressions of the truth of the gospel.

    The discussion of “effectiveness” and the gospel depends of what is meant be effective. A truncated communication of the gospel can feed the intellect and get us to belief correctly will little in terms of transformation – while we may generate great enthusiasm for the biblical story and for Jesus with minimal understanding of what it is we are to believe. If effective means something like holistic then maybe a case can be made for the arts – the aesthetic, the affectional as vital complements to the rational, intellectual, conceptual.

    Mission in the majority world must take into account art/craft as it is so much a part of these cultures. We are inclined to work with a “modern” Western notion of art where it is separated from life and relegated to museums, galleries and concert halls.I think this is why art now becomes a add-on where we seek to bring together what has been separated, Many within evangelicalism in particular have not had their imaginations either affirmed or nurtured so there is work to be done and gratefully as noted there is change afoot in recent years..

    Both Lausanne and the Mission Commission of the WEA have in recent years been intentional in cultivating the arts in the context for mission.Those of us schooled in Western culture are keen to make the re-connection between art and life (mission, gospel) because of the divorce mentioned above – while those in Africa or South America have always included story, music, dance, image and symbol as essential features of their life of faith. John Franklin

  7. “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.”

    This all seems very middle class to me. The church is already in danger of only being the preserve of the middle classes.

    Is there some aspect to this that can help us reach ordinary working class people?

    • While not wanting to draw attention to Riding Lights in particular, we spend a lot of time working in prisons and schools. We create work that can happen anywhere. We are not alone in that. There are plenty of other artists working in those areas and with local people in grassroots ways. It’s just quiet work.

      You are right, lots of ‘art’ is very middle class and largely enjoyed and afforded by older people. There are a myriad reasons for that but primarily our failure to invest in art as a core activity at home, in church, at school, creates the popular view that this is for a small minority.

      Art is in everything, from the way we decorate our churches, design our logos, make our clothes, design our laboratories, our housing estates, our schools, our hospitals, our parks. But a startling percentage of non commercial art and design is poor art, by which I mean ‘not very good’ because we don’t invest sufficiently in play and practise and play and practise. We need that so that we can become a nation, including a church, that has strong imagination and well developed creativity. This is partly a governmental stance, born from a short-sighted perception that the arts are a nice but unnecessary add-on for life in general. The context of austerity brings cruel economic focus to the tender shoots of creativity in our schools in particular. The great sadness is the extent to which the church has not been as imaginative as it could have been in encouraging art to flourish not only in its own immediate context but also its wider communities.

  8. Fine art as we call it is commonly consumed (enjoyed) by those in the middle class as Nick has noted. He also noted that today we don’t want to be “preached at”. Many in what he has called “working class” are not inclined to engage with fine art – there are plenty who do however. Many public galleries in the USA are free admission. But there are also lots of private galleries in the cities and towns with work of local artists and there is no cost for attending these galleries. Moreover the church could take up the challenge to designate space in the building for rotating art shows, become a venue for quality music or drama accessible at a reasonable cost and include some time of discussion on the relationship between faith and art. There is a huge body of literature on this topic some of which should find its way into church libraries;

    There there are our homes. Evenings that feature an artist – to perform on the cello the guitar, the piano or simply talk about their paintings or their or their sculpture- dessert and coffee, wine and cheese all to all to the ambiance. This can serve to bring art back into life.
    To b clear art is not a middle class thing its a human thing – and all too often those in the faith community neglect the human because of too much focus on the Christian. The evangelical Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker noted that Jesus did not come to make us Christians but to make us more fully human beings. That of course is in part accomplished by bridging the divide between God and sinful humanity.

    Just a final comment on “preached at” for many the movies have taken over the place of the church – for it in through film we may get our values, our spiritual direction, our identity shaped by the celebrities and it is there that many seek moral direction to discern how to live in our complex and complicated world.


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