Today’s post is written by Jeff Olson, Pastor of Worship Arts at Christ Church in East Greenwich, RI, where he has served for over six years.
In Advent a strong theme of waiting exists, but here is why you should almost never wait to engage in the arts in your church.
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music.” Martin Luther penned this bold assertion nearly half a millennium ago but I would argue these words of wisdom from this reformer should still be taken seriously today.
In Luther’s day, many were illiterate, and until the invention of the printing press, seeing, holding and touching a Bible was about as common as my Minnesota Vikings putting together a quality Super Bowl caliber team. In fact, a whole town would be fortunate if they owned and had access to one copy of the Word of God, let alone if most of them could even read it. Scripture was, therefore, almost exclusively read in the presence of others. If you could not take your Bible home and study it, how did brothers and sisters of the faith grow and remember particular stories and teachings from the Word of God?
This is where the Arts come in. Many of the great paintings of antiquity, plays and poems, and the great time-tested hymns of the faith were often used in the absence of a Bible (or iPad app) as a tool to teach about faith, tell the great stories of the Bible and to teach solid theology. Think about it: All of the best art was Church art. Michelangelo’s greatest gig was painting the inside of a church (the Sistine Chapel); Bach was one of the prominent worship leaders/pastors of his day. Great art and Church were almost synonymous for much of the last 2000 years of European history. Art often played a pivotal role in educating the Church about who God was and in the role of participation with one another in faith.
Fast forward a few centuries and we are in a different world in some respects. One of the greatest inventions to promote art in a variety of forms may also, if we are not careful, help to destroy it. For nearly all of human history it was a big deal to hear live music or see a painting, even if it was so-so in terms of quality. Why? Because we had no device to capture a recording and we had no digital camera to make Van Gogh’s Starry Night our latest screen saver. In some ways, this proliferation of art has meant that we now have exposure to so many great works of art, which is a wonderful thing. However, the sometimes sinister shadow of this blessing is that perhaps we have become so over saturated with the ability to see and hear whatever we want when we want, that we have become more like critics and less like worshippers.
What do I mean by this bold claim? Well, when we come across a song that is not exactly what we are in the mood for or a painting that is in a style we do not like, rather than just being thankful for the gift that the art is or seek to see what we can learn about God or hear from Him, we evaluate it and often determine if we will or will not engage based, not on its truth or how it can help us grow, but whether we “like it” or “not” according to our tastes.
Now let me say this directly: It’s OK to have preferences, but when our preferences become our gauge of whether or not to engage in worshipping God or joining with our brothers and sisters, that does present a problem. Think for a moment. If we knowingly applied this same hermeneutic to reading the Bible, we would likely not have much left to read!
So how do we go about moving more towards worshippers and less toward critics? Two words, reorient and engage.
What is the purpose of art? Asking this question reorients us in the right direction. Good art in our churches, like scripture, is not necessarily about being happy (though joy is a major factor in the Christian faith), but about helping us become holy. Good art is not necessarily always supposed to please or even entertain you but rather to move you closer to God and His mission. In fact, like the Word of God, art should at times be “hard to swallow” because it should not only encourage, uplift and educate, but also convict, shed light on dark areas of our lives and help to painstakingly and beautifully develop our faith walk just as it was used in Luther’s day.
But it will only help us grow if we choose to engage. I have mentioned in worship services that singing (or any art for that matter) is sacred work for both the artist and observer alike. Like any other action or discipline, we cannot grow without intentionally engaging and participating (work). Now engagement looks different for different people, but what engagement does not look like is treating any art as we treat our screen saver background or a song on the radio. Good art, if made with care and attention, is speaking about God and to God and prompting us to engage with God and others; and this is not something we should ever miss the opportunity to engage in. A bold question I often ask myself is if I am not in a period of mourning and I know the words of a song and they are true, does not engaging seem like a viable option? Engagement does not mean we ourselves have to be world-class painters or soloists, but rather we are engaged with one another in using this tool to grow and connect together with God and his mission.
Are we using art to engage in worship or as an item to be critiqued? Perhaps for all of us, regardless of the quality of the art, the better question is: How can I not sing and engage in praising God and reminding those around me who He is at any and every opportunity I can get?
Art can often make us happy, and that can be a beautiful thing, but good art can also be more than that – it can help in making us holy.
So this Advent, as we again revisit the texts of the promised Messiah and that holy idea of waiting, let us never wait or hold back in engaging in our worship of Him in any and every form, circumstance and style (including art) that is humanly possible.