Why Should the Arts Matter to Christians? (with Jonny Mellor)

Jonny Mellor is a rapper and a church leader at ChurchCentral in Birmingham, which is part of the Catalyst Network of churches in Newfrontiers. He also heads up the Sputnik community of artists. In this hangout, Jonny talks to us about why the arts should matter to Christians.


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Arts in Church Life

  • The arts tend to be sidelined in church life, except in some very specific evangelistic projects.
  • Some would argue that we shouldn't focus on the arts as we have been given a mission of making disciples (which the original disciples did through planting churches) and there is very little focus on the arts in the New Testament.
  • But there are both explicitly and implicitly endorsed in Scripture.
  • We see two different types of art in Scripture - art with its main audience as God (worship art) and art with its main audience as other people (communication art).

Worship Art

  • An example of this is in the construction of the Tabernacle and Temple. This involved many different types of artists and craftspeople, including making castings of bronze, carvings, textiles work, clothing design and furniture design, and it featured craftsmen such as Bezalel and Oholiab.
  • We also see this in the music and poetry of the Bible, for example in the Psalms, the songs of Miriam and Moses (Exodus 15) and of Deborah (Judges 5). As God is at work, people break into song and poetry comes through. Many of the best-known New Testament passages are also quotations of songs or poems (for example, Philippians 2:5-11).
  • Many churches do reflect this quite well and there is lots of creativity happening (in fact, some churches could do with being a bit less creative!).

Communication Art

  • The Old Testament prophets were essentially performance artists. Art is not just about creating artefacts, but seeing your whole life as a works of art, and this is what the prophets did.
  • Examples include Isaiah walking around naked for 3 years (Isaiah 20), Jeremiah communicating through his belt (Jeremiah 13) and Ezekiel acting out the siege of Jerusalem by lying on his side for over a year and cooking over animal poo.
  • In Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel is told to join two sticks together. Verse 18 says, "When people ask you what is happening, tell them...".
  • The implication is that people aren't supposed to understand straight away. It is supposed to start a conversation. This is what art does - it's not about giving all the answers, but about raising the questions.
  • Another example of a communication artist is Jesus, who was a story-teller. His stories are more etched onto the human consciousness than those of any other story-teller in history. Jesus explained that he spoke in parables so that people wouldn't immediately understand. There is something in art about leaving things ambiguous.
  • In our churches, our approach tend to be more Pauline. We have a well-ordered logical presentation leading to a conclusion.
  • We tend to value clarity, whereas Jesus communicated in a way that people wouldn't always understand. Artists tend to say, 'I'm not here to give answers, I'm here to provoke questions'. 
  • A large part of the Bible itself it art - songs, poetry, apocalyptic literature.
  • The church is largely missing this kind of communication art - but it is the way ideas are transmitted from academics to ordinary people.
  • Art has a power not just to communicate content but also to connect with emotions.
  • We need the modern-day equivalents of Bach, Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton.

Some Thoughts on Application

  • Churches need to invest effort and money into this.
  • If you're an artist, ask whether or not you should be involved in worship art or evangelistic art. Churches sometimes only value things that can be used in church meetings, and so this can be a short-cut to affirmation.
  • Steer away from things that are easily affirmed by Christians and make sure you follow your true calling.
  • You don't to put Jesus in every line. Just make what you want to make - it's art, not propaganda (and in the end, Jesus will shine through what you make).
  • Non-artists need to make an effort to understand and affirm artists, and not always try to drag them away into church life.

Q&A

1. What is some of the evangelistic art that Jonny Mellor has been involved with, and what was the response?
  • We can often take a short-term approach when it comes to evangelism and this can come back to bite us.
  • We are looking too much for art that 'reaps' in the moment, but this kind of art is never going to change culture
  • Right now things are not going well for the church in culture. We have sown short-term for so long and have forgotten to speak to the culture. 
  • We need to have more artists speaking at the heart of culture. They won't be quite as blatant about their faith.
  • A good of example of this being done well is the film 'Tree of Life'. 
  • We need to give artists lots of support and time to specialise and not force them to be involved in everything in the church.
2. In the book exponential, it says that the church should be training artists as much as leaders. Do you agree with this, and if so, how should we go about it?
  • If the church was to take on training artists, this could prove to be quite a big burden.
  • We should support artists, and push, release and affirm them to be trained in the world.
  • We need to help artists stay connected to the church while they are being trained. They may be away a lot and we need to think through how they can be part of the church in a meaningful way (there can be the same challenge with businesspeople).
3. When the church doesn't engage in the world as a prophetic voice, would God speak through other voices who may not know him?
  • God can do anything he wants.
  • But this doesn't mean that God wants to do it this way.
4. How do we make Christian inspired art exciting?
  • At the moment, Christians are some of the most counter-cultural people there are - we're no longer seen as do-gooders, but do-badders.
  • Ideas like transcendence, forgiveness, lack of self-determination, and things in our identities being given are controversial.
  • The way our culture has gone is very shallow and empty. As Christians, we can portray real meaning and purpose.
  • It is possible to do this in a trite way, but it is also possible to do it in a fresh and meaningful way.
  • Artists should work in both a minor key (depravity of man, human sinfulness) and a major key (there is hope).
  • Because we have been so insular, Christian art has become low quality, not taking on enough outside influences.
  • Also, Christians have tended to just focus on the major key but this comes across as trite and overly optimistic.
  • We need to show that we understand how bad things are even more than the world does.
  • In our art, we need to show that we understand both beauty and ugliness.
  • There will be discernment issues such as whether artists should draw nudes and whether actors/writers should swear. But if not, how do we communicate that we understand the real world and are able to lift people out of where they are at.
5. In our Sunday meetings, how do we receive communication by prophetic people when it could look odd or embarrassing?
  • The Old Testament prophets fulfilled a different purpose to prophets today.
  • Agabus probably came across as a bit odd.
  • Prophecy is an important thing.
  • Some people can assume that you need to be a bit odd in order to be a prophet. 
6. What are one or two things that a non-artist can learn from the arts in order to help them to communicate better?
  • It is important to know about the arts. They are a mirror of our society.
  • If we don't know what people are watching and reading, it will be hard to communicate to people. 
  • Daniel learned the culture of the Babylonians, and as a result he could communicate very fluidly there.
  • Often we are a bit behind the times with the illustrations that we use (for example using the Matrix again). 

Recommended Resources

In this hangout, the following resources are mentioned: 

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