Recapturing the Sacramental Nature of Art

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The visual arts are the in vogue topic these days in many church circles. Hip, cool churches invite artists to display their works in trendy gallery spaces sponsored by the church. Sometimes artists with a flair for performance will even be allowed to paint in the sanctuary while the worship band plays, and strobe lights flash. With a little dramatic flinging of paint and a flourish  of movements, the artists can mesmerize the audience with deft entertainment. Other churches might hold a monthly gathering for artist to converse, share their ideas, drink coffee, and compare tattoos. Perhaps they may even have a scholarly lecture about the value of arts in the church, and dispense scolding condescension towards churches that don’t understand the beauty of art. And its not just non-denominational, fresh expression churches. Even some old school, mainline churches are getting into the art talk, dusting off their stained glass windows, printing engaging pictures on their Sunday morning church bulletins, and hiring artists in residence.

It’s enough to make me want to wear a Bob Ross wig and bop someone across the head with a 4 inch paint brush.

Don’t get me wrong, as an artist myself, I am deeply excited that the conversation on arts has gained momentum. I have longed to see art move beyond the didactic, cartoony illustrations in Sunday School classrooms (of which I have contributed to in my own work), or the over sentimental and saccharine sweet prints hanging in Christian bookstores and church hallways.  And let me clarify: None of these aforementioned endeavors are necessarily wrong, but many a church’s attempts at incorporating the arts are misguided at best. What is intended to elevate the arts and artist often ends up only reinforcing the marginalization of what should be a central component of worship! We need more than inch deep performance painters and coffee talks that encourage art-loving cliques. We must provide artists with a platform to proclaim Christ with their brushes, pencils, and chisels. We must equip them to understand their call, and keep them safely on the path that God has for them. And we must teach the non-artists in our churches how to engage with art, to “read” it, and to meditate on it as a means of encountering the Divine.

If we stay on the course that I see most churches on, I am worried that we will miss something far more profound that the visual arts has to offer. When we allow artists to show up at a special service, hang their work in a gallery off to the side, or hold coffee talks with like minded, art loving people, we are paying lip service and created niche groups with little room for growth, transformation, or revival. We are holding the visual arts off to the side rather than embracing it fully. This is the marginalization that I spoke of. Art has the capacity to open the floodgates of the Kingdom to a dying, malnourished church and world, and the Church needs to be the platform for the mystical prophets known as artists.

Paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows, even a simple print in a bulletin, can engage the imagination and place a congregation squarely at the foot of the Throne. A single image can alter the thinking of a culture. There is power in art, power that has been redeemed and sanctified, and if we allow it to, we can witness another great awakening in our world.

Over the next few months I will be writing about 3 important aspects of this idea.

1. Art as a sacramental endeavor. It is this sacramental nature that makes art so powerful, and it is also the most neglected and misunderstood aspect of art. Most protestants are open to art being didactic, decorative, and even emotionally stimulating, but rarely does the protestant world recognize the spiritual nourishing, Christ-encountering nature of the εἰκών (icon). We need to distinguish icon from idol, and embrace the former while rejecting the later.

2. I will seek to lay out the need for artists to be educated and theologically literate. There is nothing so damaging as a theologically ill-conceived piece of art (I should know, I have created many such works myself, and have attempted to destroy them after-the-fact).

3. The attempt of the enemy to stop this work. Both sin and the Satan distort and destroy beauty. The image of God in the human figure is twisted in pornography. Beauty that should point to God is instead bent towards humanity, or even to beauty itself. Make no mistake, anytime the Church attempts to utilize a great gift of God, the enemy will attempt to divert and destroy. If we are to engage the world with art, we must be aware of the pitfalls, the traps, and the battle ahead.

In light of the interest bubbling up in the arts in churches, it is time we revisit our views of art. We need to do more than create niche ministries to artist and art lovers. We need to empower our artists to use their gifts as prophets, storytellers, teachers, and evangelists. Discipleship, Evangelism, and Worship are enriched when we bring the world of art into the sanctified and redeemed toolbox of the Church.

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Joey Fitzgerald is the lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks in Nags Head, NC. He is also the author and illustrator of The Nicene Creed Illustrated and Instructed for Kids. He has a BFA in Art Education from the University of Georgia and a M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary. Before ordination, he taught art in the public school system. He is ordained through the Anglican Church in North America and his church is part of the Anglican Diocese of the Carolinas. Joey is married to Brandie and they have four kids: Sam, Jack, Luke, and Lila.

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