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January 15, 2019
May 12, 2023

6 Errors the Church Has Made with Artists

I recently had the immense privilege of being at and speaking at The Canvas Conference in Costa Mesa, California.

The task assigned to me was to spend 20 minutes looking at some of the reasons that there is a disconnect between the church and artists and then also to provide some hope and help for the way forward. Below are my long-form notes from my talk. I hope they serve you well.

I am in some ways completely unqualified to be speaking with you tonight, and I am a little embarrassed by the extent of that. On first appearance, I am the archetypal non-creative. I am a suburban Campus Pastor in a multisite megachurch who has spent the last 10 years of his life trying to squeeze camels through the eyes of needles. I spend my days discipling bankers, accountants, financial advisers, venture capitalists, day traders and lots of soccer moms, although I have learned in Texas that they aren’t soccer moms but baseball and football moms, because soccer is for Europeans and communists.

I am not nearly hip enough for this room. I bought these wonderfully sensible trousers from Target and I am not wearing this sports coat in any sort of ironic way. I actually just like it. It isn’t a statement against the man. I am the man.

But, in some small way, I feel like I do have something to contribute for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I have been on both sides of the artist and church leadership divide. I grew up in church, conservative church. Church where the band got shut down the day it brought drums and guitars into the room. And I left church to pursue art. Well art of sorts. I worked as a pro drummer for a few years, paying the bills by playing in Jazz trios on weeknights and alternative rock bands on the weekends. Sadly, I then ended up leaving art to pursue church. It was drumming that took me back into church, but I never found a place for full expression there, and I was told that laying down my life to pursue Christ meant laying down my musical pursuit at the same time. I do miss playing. And then I have been a pastor for more than a decade, and I have worked with a lot of artists, most of them pretty frustrated with the church, and at times I have been pretty frustrated with them. I feel and have lived and do still live the tensions on both sides.

Secondly, I am from a different country and culture and have been spared a lot (although not all) of the Christian industrial megacomplex. It has been startling and stark for me to encounter it here. I have some thoughts about it, but they aren’t developed enough yet for me to share them fully tonight.

With all that said, I wanted to provide some admittedly limited opinion and insight on how we got to where we are and what might be a helpful posture moving forward as someone who is both a frustrated artist and some days little more than what feels like a suburban door to door salesman of religious goods and services. This is in no way a comprehensive dealing with the topic. I am just going to whet the appetite tonight. I can’t wait to see how you all unpack this over this weekend.

What got us here? 6 errors I have seen and do see.

1. We have believed that clarity and beauty are mutually exclusive.

Truth be told we have done this in both directions. So much of what we see as theological precision lacks beauty, texture, nuance and tension and so ends up being a restrictive jacket that artists cannot wear. And this is how we primarily train people theologically, in terms of systematics, which is an essential but very linear mode of thinking and understanding. In our fight for clarity, we have made people with big questions and out of the box ideas seem and feel heretical instead of slowly discipling them into deeper knowledge.  We have insisted on clarity in all things, even things that are by their nature and design mysterious, and this has created fear of finding beautiful ways and images to describe and understand and revel in such mysterious things.

But…we have also failed to hold the tension in the other direction and so much creative impulse has besmirched the quest for clarity as a vice and exalted doubt and deconstruction as the ultimate virtues of the creative quest.

It seems every other week that some form of influential Christian artist who has been squashed by the machine and worn an ill-fitting coat for too long announces their departure away from certainty in key Christian doctrines that have held the faith together for 2000 years. Every time this happens my response is not one of disappointment at another artistic heretic, but one of deep sadness and remorse that once again we have failed to tell the truth beautifully and creatively.

Beauty and clarity are not mutually exclusive. If we describe God as clearly as we can, beauty and creativity should be the soon and sure response to that.

2. We have turned Christianity into an enterprise and allowed that enterprise to dictate what creativity is.

When profiteering replaces prophecy as the outcome for the creative mouthpieces of our churches, then we lose our voice in the world.

Friends, why is so much Christian music and media and art so insipid, and samey, and formulaic? It sells, that’s why. But that is such a worldly desired outcome for an artistic endeavor! We need a hard reboot in our churches, that resets us away from so much that has become Christendom and towards so much of what it supposed to be Christianity.

When I hear that artists have left Evangelicalism, I am not nervous, because I know that most likely that means they are leaving an industrial complex, a subculture of our own creation, a voting and funding block. My only hope is that they have something to catch them as they leap. The church. Christians in community.

3. We have made leadership the desired outcome of Christian maturity and modeled most if not all leadership on business efficiency principles.

I like leader development. I do. But last time I checked, the Great Commission didn’t call us to make leaders, it called us to make obedient, multiplying disciples. Will it take leaders to make that happen, absolutely, but are they the same thing, no.

Why do I raise this?

  1. It impacts who gets seen, shepherded and developed in our churches, which often means that artists don’t get seen, shepherded and developed in our churches.
  2. The leadership philosophies we embrace and encourage often have more to do with domination, control and efficiency than they do with anything we see in the leadership qualifications and characteristics of Scripture.

This leaves us with unchecked and unaccountable church leaders who don’t get called out and the reason they don’t get called out because they are very efficient, even if they are very deficient in the fruits of the Spirit. The victims of this are often artists, who are drawn to leaders like this hoping to get developed and nurtured and seen, but they often end up being used to further platform and then tossed aside when they won’t conform. Or, their reputations get tarnished and their faith tainted when they find themselves on a stage using their gift to advance the influence of a clearly unqualified leader.

If our pipelines and development plans aim to make obedient disciples of Jesus, then leaders will emerge from that, but the good news is that they will be obedient disciples of Jesus first and leaders second. This will produce greater variety of leadership in the church and greater fruit and faithfulness to the ministry we get to do together.

4. We have allowed colonial ideas to conflate sound doctrine and religious practice.

Maybe this is just an indulgence for the international guy and bear with me if that is the case. But, it seems to me that we are ill prepared for the marvelous diversity of worship that we are going to experience in eternity. We ought to be practicing a bit more for that day in our churches today.

We have allowed the colonial ideas of cultural dominion to influence our ideas of orthodoxy and indeed some orthopraxy. What this means in large parts of the developing world is that Christianity is being rejected as the Colonizers religion, because in order to be a follower of Christ we have insisted on largely white and very western norms of community, creativity, worship and expression.

I don’t need to get on that soapbox as it crowded enough up there already, but we do need to think more carefully about what is cultural supremacy. We are so terrified of syncretism when it comes to cultural practices and norms of Africa and East Asia, but we are more than willing to adopt and hopefully redeem all sorts of knowingly and obviously Pagan rituals and ceremonies that happen to have Western roots. Oh, how we narrow the scope of acceptable artistic expression as we do this.

5. We have struggled to hold on to hopeful realism as the way to view people and the world.

Christians ought to be the most hopeful of all people. We are a resurrection people. And…we ought to be the most realistic of all people. We have doctrine for how messed up we and the world are.

Hopeful realism ought to be our tension, but we struggle to hold it. Hopeful realism holds the tension of seeing people as fallen image bearers. Divinely crafted and utterly deluded at the same time. Capable of magnificent mercy and beauty and creativity and good, and simultaneously capable of genocide and cruelty and prejudice and selfishness and narcissism.

Hopeful realism holds the tension of seeing the world as both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

Friends this matters for creatives in the church because it keeps us from the two vices of blind optimism and hopeless cynicism. It is actually easy to make art in either of those views but they always lack the tension that makes the best art. Both extremes are deeply unsatisfactory. So much of Scripture holds this tension, and even does so in brilliantly artistic metaphor. We end up in either blindly optimistic health, wealth and prosperity nonsense that makes people feel more optimistic but ultimately doesn’t create a net that can carry the weight of their lived experience. Or we end up overextending total depravity into utter depravity, where everything just sucks all the time. This leaves people without hope, and ultimately feeling like cogs in a wheel of what they worry might be divine destruction.

Tension makes great art. Hopeful realism is what the world needs.

6. We have scrapped contemplation from liturgy.

In our quest for efficiency and growth and entertainment, we have removed the opportunity and even the possibility for creative space to process and to grow in response to what we have heard and learned in our gatherings.

This is (in part) why we are yielding such poor results in Christian discipleship. People keep watching a band instead of singing with the saints. They keep getting sermon after sermon and never get space to ask their questions, or to learn how to read the Scriptures for themselves. They get rushed through a smorgasbord of religious goods and services and don’t get to feel what it is like to be the body of Christ.

We need creatives to help us do this better. We need church leaders who allow space for sacred creativity.

Okay, what posture from here?

Throw yourself into study of our Big God.

Don’t be scared of growing in clarity in this space. We need our artists to be excellent theologians. This won’t stifle creativity, it will grow it.

We need the posture of the Apostle Paul in Romans 11, who said…

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [1]

Paul’s response to some of his most complex theology is singing! Let’s be people of the book, who are filled with wide-eyed wonder!

Serve a local church.

The church is messy but it is the manifold wisdom of God to a dying world. There is literally no other way to fully display it for believers but within the community of the body.

8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.[2]

I know many of you have been burned. I am asking you to try again. Were you burned by an overly ambitious pastor? Okay, find one who isn’t. Find a little local church close to your house and serve your guts out. As you do, the manifold wisdom of God is on display.

Broaden your stream.

In an echo chamber world read broadly, listen widely, explore constantly. I have a deep desire for people to be surprised and confused by my bookshelf. The gospel is too rich. The church is too important. The world is too large a mission field, for us to continually just stay in one field, thinking that it’s the world.

Be people of hopeful realism.

Be realistic about the church, about the world, about yourself. But be hopeful about the church, about the world, about yourself.

My prayer for you is the same one Paul prayed for the Romans in Romans 15.

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. [3]

[1]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 11:33–36.

[2]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eph 3:8–10.

[3]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 15:13.

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Ross Lester
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