What Happened to Good Art From the Church?

What Happened to Good Art From the Church?

April 4, 2014 by

It was an awesome Christian movie… except for the usual cheesy parts… but, you know, we’ve all learned to look past that.

It was a conversation at the front of my church following the worship service. A passionate Christian wanting to embrace the latest Christian movie on the big screen. A predictable refrain: ignore the cheesy parts.

Lately, Christian art (movies, TV, music, visual, etc.) has followed a similar trajectory. The theology is great, the storyline is decent, God’s reputation is upheld by the content, but the artistry is shoddy. Sub-par at best. Christians are left wanting to defend all the good things about it, but find themselves settling for “ignoring the cheesy parts.”

Why do we have to choose between a great message and great art?

It’s ironic that the movie Noah was released on the same week this conversation happened in the front of my church. Many Christian groups were outraged. The theology was tainted, God was never mentioned, the Bible was tampered with… but the artistry was fantastic. The cinematography, the set design, the costumes, the acting, the story arc, they were all breathtaking. Noah was the number one movie in the country while Christian movies battle to stay in the big theaters for a week.

Yes there are budgetary differences, yes the intensity of promotion of the movies is radically disproportionate and yes there is even a self-imposed victim mentality by some Christians that is a factor in all of this. Yet the truth remains that there is a wide chasm between the quality of art that is being produced in the secular realm and what is flowing out of the church.

“I’m tired of choosing between a great message and great art. It’s time for the church to reclaim art.”

I’m a pastor, not an artist, so I cannot provide a hands-on solution to this problem. You don’t want to see my paintings or hear me rap. But there must be a solution. The quality gap between sacred and secular art hasn’t always been like it is today.

The Church & Art
Some of the best art in history was produced or at least commissioned by the church. There were stages throughout history when the church was the center of artistic excellence. Many of the most enduring pieces are both theologically accurate and breathtakingly excellent. Johann Sebastian Bach’s worship music, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the statue of David. There was a time when all the great art was happening in the church.

And it makes complete sense. The God of the Bible is an incredible artist. God used amazing innovation and ingenuity when he designed creation. He created mountains and valleys and rivers and oceans and beaches and sunsets. He created light and color and music and tastes and smells. God made 230,000 different species of flowers! The human body is a masterpiece. Mankind has never come close to reproducing the advanced auto-focus design of the human eye. Or consider the sun. God could have stopped with properly functioning celestial timepiece. Instead he made that timepiece beautiful. The rays of the sun are warm to the skin. They dance across the water making dazzling sunsets. They paint the sky at the dawn of each new day. The artistry of God is all around us.

Great Art is Godly
I’m very thankful to be able to serve God with some wonderful artists at my church. The raw materials and tools are different than in the Renaissance. But their commitment to excellence is the same. With guitars and drums, with Mac computers, video cameras and Pro Presenter, and sound and lighting consoles—their commitment is to make great art for the glory of God.

Often when churches attempt to produce excellent art, some well-meaning Christians level the critique, “Why are we trying to be like ‘the world’?” My response is since when did attempting great art become synonymous to being like “the world”? You see, “the world” did not create excellent art, God did. So maybe we’re just trying to be like him.

I’m tired of choosing between a great message and great art. It’s time for the church to reclaim art, to marry the message and the art in the way that’s worthy of our creative Creator.

Calling all artists… the church needs you.

Post By:

Derek Sanford

Derek Sanford is the lead pastor at Grace Church in Erie, Penn. Check out Derek's blog for more.
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9 Responses to “What Happened to Good Art From the Church?”

  • DL
    April 4, 2014

    I’d be interested to see your stance on the importance of ‘message’ in the art. Does it have to be evangelical to be ‘godly” and ‘excellent’? Can just a great redemptive story be ‘godly’ – or even a story that questions traditional views of faith and religion, so that viewers can ponder their own convictions. Can ‘godly’ art have ambiguous imagery, and meaning – letting the viewer/audience interpret it.

    Can executing great ‘secular’ art bring as much glory to God? How do we differentiate between what is ‘sacred’ and ‘secular ?

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  • Chris
    April 5, 2014

    This is exactly why I started Reflex Creative Arts, to equip and encourage the church in the arts, to not be afraid, and to give the tools needed to validate artists in their work. I think we have a long way to go to bridge the gap between the worshiping church and true artistic expression, but I think inroads are being made.

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  • Guest
    April 7, 2014

    You should check a network coming out of London: creativeartsnetwork.co.uk

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  • Derek
    April 7, 2014

    Hey DL – thanks for the thoughtful reply and question. I realize that there is a spectrum of opinion about the sacred and secular when it comes to art. Ranging from those who believe in a wide chasm between sacred/secular to others like Rob Bell who believe that ‘everything is spiritual.’ For the purposes of this article – I’m talking specifically about art being produced by Christians with the expressed purpose of bringing glory to God. So to answer your question, I would emphasize the importance of not only the message but also the intent of the artist. Certainly all people are made in God’s image whether they acknowledge Him as their God or not. So at some level, all art is an expression of one’s God-ordained gift, and thus reveals the image of God in us. However, not all art is intended by the artist to bring glory to God. In this article I’m specifically addressing art that is created with the express purpose of pointing people to God.

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    • Tamara Vandergriff
      April 7, 2014

      As a visual artist, there is an expectation that I will create work for my church on a volunteer basis. Yet- we pay our music director,we pay our media person and our pastor. We pay stipends to guest speakers and to guest musicians. Visual artists are expected to just work for the joy of it. I doubt that Michaelangelo was working on spec or just out of his love for God. Visual artists can’t put the kind of time in to create “great art” for free. That’s part of the problem.

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  • Derek
    April 7, 2014

    Hi Tamara – You bring up a good point. There is definitely an economic reality to this.

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  • Jason
    April 8, 2014

    I agree. It’s frustrating to see God, the problems we create for ourselves, and the problems He helps us through, represented in such a cheesy way. We need producers, writers, and directors who are creating stories that resonate the realities the we as Christians face each day.

    A cue needs to be taken from Veggie Tales. It’s expertly produced. It knows it’s audience, but doesn’t dumb down the message. And the jokes that only adults will get are hilarious. Yeah, there’s some real groaners and eye rollers in there as well, but they’re more of the tongue in cheek variety. Plus, Veggie Tales seems to get inspiration from Pixar’s stance on film making. The story comes first.

    If you haven’t seen it already, check out “The Second Chance”, directed by Steve Taylor. It’s a great film first, and a Christian film second. It should give you some amount of faith that Christians can still make great art.

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  • John
    March 11, 2017

    What needs to happen is for Church to get back to “what Church really is”. For example there are tons of people who choose to not use common sense when purchasing technology. Someone was talking about pro presenter in this blog, yet Apple groupies are still making horrible decisions on computers based on something that is super trendy. Pro presenter is a resource hog and Apple has not kept up with some of the technology needed to support such a product. Honestly I’m not all that impressed by the software but if I were a betting man, I would begin focusing on the Windows platform. For this type of tool, you will get 30x times the power and capabilities with a good PC with a GPU outperform any Mac. While Apple makes a great product, we are moving away from those technologies when it comes to performance and reliability. Another thing, is that many people are sick of the big show.

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