The Language of Beauty: Art as Outreach

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Here is a fun fact: long ago, stained glass windows in churches served two purposes. One was to make the space sacred. In the days before electricity, the best way to light a room was with windows. Sunshine poured in and people could see. Obviously. Churches used multi-colored glass windows so that different colored light would fill the worship space, thus making the inside of a church building unlike any other building in the village. It made the space unique and set it aside as a holy place, where the light of God’s sun took on all the colors of God’s creation in the space where people worshiped.

The other purpose stained-glass windows served was outreach. In places where larger portions of a given population were uneducated or illiterate, windows would also bear the images of familiar Bible scenes. These depictions were an important part of sharing the gospel, as they made the story accessible to people no matter where they came from, what language they spoke, or how well they were educated. Their beauty told the story, and in doing so, became an act of worship all of their own.

Beauty is God’s language to reach where human language cannot.

A few years ago, a friend of mine connected me with the pastor of a new congregation in Chicago, a plant of a Nazarene church called Church On the Block. My friend told me that the pastor, Nate Ledbetter, wanted to use art as a central part of the ministry at Church On the Block.

“Awesome!” I said. “I am in.”

Nate and I spoke sometime after that and he informed me of the ministry context of Church On the Block. It is situated in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, one of the most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Violence is a daily reality, drug use is common, as is dealing. Gang activity is high. It is a vastly different world than the one I come from.

As we spoke, a few ideas for what sort of art to create came to mind, but more than that, I kept thinking, “I can’t do this. Nothing I say from my context could possibly be meaningful to the people in Austin.” Creating art on demand for such a different culture was new to me. There was fear. Not so much for the art itself, but for how it would resonate. How would my ideas be taken? I was afraid that in my desire to do something meaningful, it might come off as condescending. I was afraid that in my ignorance, I might do something that fell flat. Any artists reading this can recognize that once you start making decisions out of fear, everything starts to suffer. It is no place from which to draw inspiration.

I went to Chicago. What began as a single installation exploded into three different installations, each completely different from the next. And, in spite of my fears, God was able to use creative expression to succeed where my own frailty would have surely fallen short. It taught me a few things.

It was a great reminder that where God calls, he also prepares.

When Nate and I first spoke, there was a cynical, skeptical part of me that was afraid the whole idea would fall through. I had come out of a pretty frustrating season of my life, and my general mindset at the time was “Don’t ever get your hopes up.”

That is not the gospel. The gospel is God working against every setback, every failure, every heartbreak, every broken human endeavor, to do something amazing. The gospel is hope when it seems hope has run dry. God often calls us in when we are wandering in the wilderness, unsure of where we are going or what we will do when we get there. But God does not call us arbitrarily. When God calls, rest assured that God is already doing things ahead of your arrival. You will get where God invites you, but you do have to walk.

It taught me how important art is as a means of outreach.

There were a few nights during my week-long stay with the Ledbetters that people from the community were invited to come and see the work in progress and participate in some of the creation. These nights were moments where people had fellowship with one another, where ministry took place, where the Holy Spirit was present in conversation and creation.

Those are two very important things to God and two things he has placed in us as part of his image. Anything is worthwhile if it gets people talking to one another and allows them to join in building something up, especially when the world around them is tearing itself down.

More churches need ministries that give people a chance to explore the creative image of God within themselves. These are ministries that don’t need huge budgets or professional artists. They will, however, strengthen a community of faith and bring beauty to its surrounding community. And they are fun! It’s a win-win.

It taught me, as an artist, to remember the stained-glass windows and the power of beauty to be the language of God.

As long as I can remember, people have asked “What kind of art do you do?” or “What kind of songs do you write?” We are all about style in our culture. And while style does help give an idea of what to expect from a given artist, it also can create a false sense of how well anyone will like that artist’s work. At the end of the day, art is not about the style, but about the sincerity with which it is created and the love of the artist for his or her audience.

That is why stained-glass windows were so meaningful all those years ago. The style was never as important as the substance. A rich aristocrat and a penniless beggar would have looked at the stained glass windows with the same sense of beauty and awe. The educated and the uneducated, the native-language speaker and the stranger from across the sea, all would have known and understood the stories and been brought to silence by the craftsmanship.

A white guy from the quiet suburbs in the South can create something that a convicted felon in Chicago will find meaningful. This is not because I am a great artist, but because God is a great God. The gospel is a story for all people to hear, and beauty is a language which all people can understand.

It is the language of God.

Click here to learn more about Church On the Block.

If you’d like to see the artwork and read more of the story, visit Joel’s artist page and click Wyeuca In the Windy City under the Current Work menu.

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