Why Should Churches Care About the Arts? (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 challenges us about why the arts should matter to us in our churches.


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The Arts Have a Communicative Power

  • The phrase 'the arts' means anyone involved in an artistic discipline of any sort, e.g. a musician, dancer or poet. 
  • Art is a super form of communication.
  • As Christians we have something very important to communicate, and so we must cherish the arts as a form of communication and cherish the artists who are working within the discipline.
  • The whole Bible is a library of 66 books written in all sorts of styles like the laws, history, and poetry. A large portion of the Bible is actually art - that is not to say it is about art, but is itself art. 
  • Job, Psalms and Song of Solomon are examples of the poetic features of the Bible and therefore we should  treat and analyse it as poetry.
  • God wants to communicate with humanity because He cares about us. God communicates with us through the Bible, a third of which is poetry. 
  • God is the ultimate artist. 
  • Just as God communicates with us through His Word, we as Christians also want to communicate to the world who God is. However, there is a gulf between us and those we want to communicate to. Therefore we must engage in artistic practice and push forward artists to do so.

There is a Difference Between Art and Creativity

  • By calling artists 'creatives', what we are essentially implying is that what art is is creativity, that they are equals. 
  • Creativity is obviously important in art, and artists are usually creative people - they are open to new ideas and are innovators.
  • Creativity is a small feature of art.
  • The typical charismatic churches are not usually lacking in creativity, but what is lacking is in the understanding of the other ingredients that turn creative expression into powerful artwork.

Powerful Art is About Craftsmanship

  • Art that is any good, if that can be said, does not tend to come from a moment of inspiration, but from hours and hours of hard work to learn and perfect your craft.
  • An artist isn't someone who likes creative things, or does creative things, but someone who has 'got good' at doing their craftsmanship.

Powerful Art is About Entering into a Tradition

  • An artist is not just someone to learns the rules of their discipline but those who are fluent in their practice and start to shape the rules for themselves.
  • Most artists will put 'winks' into their work toward other artists in order to reflect how they know what they're doing and have entered into a tradition. 
  • Artists build layers in their work based on tradition.
  • You can see this in Proverbs. Solomon got his ideas for the Proverbs, whilst being inspired by God, by other proverbs in the near eastern world at the time.
  • To craft Proverbs, Solomon entered into a tradition and respected the discipline he was entering into. 
  • In the modern church we have done the opposite of this most of the time. We usually take the surface stuff of artistic traditions, whilst paying no respect to them.  For example, in contemporary worship we may reach for a rock riff or rap half-way through, whilst being very critical to the culture they were created in. That is not saying there is nothing to criticise, but rather it is problematic to do so. 
  • Artists cherish traditions, and if they see people taking their traditions lightly and using them for their own purposes then it is seen as disrespectful. 
  • Churches need to be much slower at criticising what they don't fully understand or are not into.
  • Church need to encourage our artists to wholeheartedly enter into those traditions whilst pastoring them whilst they do that.

Powerful Art is About Raising Questions Rather Than Giving Answers 

  • Propaganda and advertising are ways of communicating that are about downloading information, they are usually shallow.
  • Powerful art doesn't simply put answers on a plate for you but draws you in and starts a conversation.
  • Ezekiel, for example, does certain things as commanded by God in order to draw the Israelites in and start a conversation, they were usually very strange. 
  • Jesus communicated through parables, stories with meanings that were not simple. The parable of the dishonest manager is very strange to us, for example. The whole point of the parables was to raise questions, not to download the whole gospel into people's brains.

What Does it Mean to Care About Art and Artists?

  • The church needs to give artists money. 
  • In most professions or disciplines if you're good at what you do you get paid for it. If someone isn't very good at what they do then usually they're not paid for it and should find something they're better at.
  • Artists who make work that is highly respected in their world which is highly engaging and interesting usually aren't making money from it and work on the side to pay for it.
  • Since the Middle Ages, art kept itself going through patronage. Individuals or organisations would support artists financially and the Christian church in Europe was the biggest patron of the arts during that time. 
  • The result of this was that art was very Christian in tone and concept. 
  • In the modern day we have the government who is the biggest patron of art, and that means it is largely secular. 
  • We have to fund art that is going to speak into our culture, not just to Christians.

Q&A

1. How do you release people to be creative, whilst having a balance of cultural relevance, to reach the unchurched?

  • What do we mean by 'creative'? The question may instead be: how to we encourage artists to reach artistic excellence in order to communicate powerfully to the unchurched?
  • Learn your craft, learn from the masters of your discipline who may not be Christians.
  • We shouldn't put a burden of artistic excellence on our church services, but creative output from our churches need to be clear. Too much of a high bar on quality in the church service will stunt church contributions. Different rules apply for inside and outside the church.

2. Do you have tips on handling artists who want to bring their work into gathered church settings that either isn't good or doesn't fit?

  • The danger in our church meetings is the hope of validation, that we are used and mentioned in the meeting. 
  • Artists should not expect the church to validate their art as that is placing too much of a burden on the church.
  • In a gathered meeting you look for the lowest common denominator to not offend.
  • Art needs to have an edge.
  • It is important for churches to affirm the artists in their church on social media. 

3. What about the role of art in the prophetic?

  • There are lessons from the Old Testament that sometimes we can forget. We not only want to comfort and strengthen the body through the prophetic but also provide a critique as well as bringing hope as in the Old Testament. 
  • Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah are performance artists ahead of their time.

4. When you are entering into an artistic tradition that isn't founded on Christian values, how do you avoid getting caught up in it?

  • This is quite common. We usually have a very black and white view of good and bad in artistic culture. 
  • There is always the good and bad mixed together in every culture.
  • For example, going into the acting world has its hazards. But the same goes for those going into banking, the ethical decisions being made there are very similar, but we may falsely see that as a safer career. 
  • We need to be very wise, and help people as they do it and not put people off. We need to know them and their weaknesses.
  • We need to learn how to navigate the artistic world.
  • Art is not more dangerous than going to work and talking with non-Christians.

5. When we are pastoring artists, how much background knowledge should they have of the tradition they're engaging in?

  • They need to be aware of culture and appreciate the art itself, to listen to the music and look at the art that culture is raving about.
  • Read other literature apart from Christian literature. 
  • Sputnik are there to help and encourage churches in this. 

6. How can an artist help a church to value art when the leaders see art as a lesser thing?

  • Don't place burdens on our leaders.
  • It is important to not get offended easily when someone doesn't get us. 
  • It is vital to find Christian artistic communities in order to support one another. 

7. What are some of the best things you've seen church leaders do to support artists in their congregation?

  • One church had a budget to give away to support artists. 
  • You cannot overstate the importance of funding. 
  • Connecting people with other artists, which is what Sputnik do. 
  • Using social media to communicate their work.

If you'd like to continue the conversation about the arts from the session, visit www.sputnikmagazine.co.uk. Visit the 'think' section if you'd like to keep thinking through some of the issues raised and Jonny would love to hear from anyone who'd like to find out more about Sputnik.