Last week I read William Dyrness’s Visual Faith. I found it to be an engaging and compelling case for recapturing visual forms of art as expressive modes of communal worship. But then, that’s nothing new to me. I only wish I’d had this book at my disposal seven or eight years ago.
From 2004-2007 I was a campus minister to students at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. A large part of my work was helping to bridge the gap between the church and the arts. Dyrness unpacks the formation of this gap in the first couple chapters of the book, tracing art and the church from the first few centuries through the middle ages, Reformation, and into the early twenty-first century.
As a campus minister, this gap was evident to me every time a Christian student would tell me his or her painful story of feeling forced to choose between their artistic endeavors and their faith. It’s part of my story as well. When I entered college as a freshman theater major, I was already feeling the pull of either becoming a great actor or maintaining a vibrant faith. Few people I knew thought that the two pursuits could coexist, much less strengthen one another.
Dyrness traces the unfortunate series of events that eventually led Protestant Christians, and evangelicals especially, to have a contentious relationship with the art community. Patronage left the church and was given a new home in commercial interests. Marketing and advertising became the new gods to which the arts paid homage. That’s largely where things stood for most of the twentieth century.
But in the late twentieth century, and here in the early twenty-first century, things are beginning to change. Churches are starting to incorporate more visual expressions of faith into their gathered worship expressions. Some in the emerging church movement are exploring the tactile production of art as a form of worship, while megachurches recreate the vibe of the latest Superbowl halftime commercial in order to plug their programs.
While I can get behind nearly any incorporation of visual imagery into gathered worship, I still feel we have a long way to go. For too long Christians have been late to the artistic party. We marginalize the creative people in our fold because they don’t fit well within the corporate leadership-delegation structures we use to run our churches. There is an air of unpredictability with “those people.”
But as soon as X-church down the road or across the country sees an uptick in their attendance after incorporating new visual mediums into worship, churches fall all over themselves to replicate those visual successes. This kind of mimicry will get us nowhere. We need to entrust the creative people among us with the responsibility to lead us all in new ways of experiencing God through visual media. And we need to give them plenty of room to fail in that pursuit.
I think what we’ll find is a sense of organic grittiness that will be refreshing. There is something dangerous and wonderful about turning over the reins to people who tend to be more process-oriented than product-oriented. But it is within that improvised space that we find new opportunities to experience worship in unimagined ways.
In the end, Dyrness argues that we shouldn’t be content just to use visual arts for worship. As a people, Christians need to affirm artistic pursuits whether or not they directly benefit one’s local congregation. Those who are not “creative-types” can find great pleasure as the artist’s audience. Those who develop a new appreciation for the creative may likely find themselves as a new class of patrons, commissioning and enabling artists to express the creativity of God in exciting and innovative ways.
Two examples Second Space Arts at OCMC and The Church Studios, both in Philadelphia. The former is a curated gallery, hosted by Oxford Circle Mennonite Church and run by artists who are part of the congregation. They put on several juried shows each year. The latter is a community of artists-in-residence at an urban Presbyterian church. The congregation donated unused classroom space to be revamped into artist studio space. Both are wonderful examples of congregations who are proactively creating opportunities for the artists among and around them to lean fully into their identites as image-bearers.