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It's Not Easy Being an Artist in the Church
Could you reach deep in yourself to locate that organ containing delusions about your general size in the world---could you lay hold of this and dredge it from your chest and look it over in daylight---well, it's no wonder people would rather not.
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
In music school, I studied composition with an accomplished composer whom I deeply admired and respected. He knew I was involved in the music ministry at my church, but we rarely talked about it. Except, that is, for one brief moment near the end of my college career. During one of my lessons, several sheets of score paper accidentally fell out of my folder and onto the floor. As I gathered them up, my professor quickly noticed there was music he didn't recognize written on these sheets. When I explained the music was something I was working on for church, he grimaced and said, 'I thought you would have gotten this church thing out of your system by now.' I shrugged my shoulders because I didn't know what to say. Then he asked, 'Why would anyone waste their time doing church music?'
That's an interesting question, isn't it? It's one I've asked myself often over the years. Why would an artist opt to share his or her talents with the church? After all, that's not usually the first place people think of when it comes to excellence or innovation in the arts. It's certainly not the place most artists think of when they dream about where they hope to express their talent. In fact, many artists are apprehensive about the church. They're afraid it might stifle or limit them, and they are concerned that church people won't accept or even understand them. Or that they won't fit in. Artists tend to be free spirits and nonconformists, and let's face it---that doesn't go over well at most churches.
One of the most tragic examples of an artist mismatched with the church is the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. As a young man, van Gogh desperately desired to follow his father into the ministry. He trained for it, but he was not a good student. Nor was he good at public speaking---a definite problem for a potential preacher. Because of his dedication, an ecumenical Protestant organization gave him an opportunity to serve as a lay evangelist in a poor coal-mining town in what is now southwestern Belgium. While there, van Gogh became deeply concerned about the plight of these downtrodden people. He began to draw pictures of them, depicting their everyday chores, their work in the mines, and the hopelessness etched in their faces. Although van Gogh's superiors expressed admiration for the way he cared for his flock, they withdrew his appointment after six months, citing his deficient preaching skills. He tried to continue without their support but was soon living in abject poverty. Bitterly disappointed, van Gogh gave up his dream of becoming a minister and never set foot in a church again. He spent the rest of his life in extreme emotional, relational, and financial turmoil, which drove him to suicide at the age of thirty-seven.
In 1889, a year before he died, Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night (plate 1). Many regard this as his most spiritual work of art. To van Gogh, the evening sky symbolized God's presence, and the prominent cypress bush in the foreground appears to be reaching heavenward with fiery zeal. If you look closely at the buildings in the foreground, however, you'll notice all of them have light coming from the windows except one---the church. Furthermore, from an architectural standpoint, the Dutch Gothic steeple, similar to the one on the church van Gogh grew up in, is incongruous with the French countryside the painting represents. In another painting called Church at Auvers (1890), a cathedral is featured on a bright sunny day. But the church is dark and also appears to have no door. Van Gogh's feelings about the church are obvious---it's a cold, dark, close-minded place.
One can't help but wonder how different van Gogh's life might have been had the church encouraged him to be what God obviously made him to be---an artist. I wish a caring Christ-follower had come alongside him and said, 'Hey, Vince, maybe preaching is not your thing. But God gave you this amazing ability to paint and draw, so why not serve God with your art instead of trying to be a preacher?'
I think that might actually have happened today, as the arts are playing an increasingly greater role in the ministry of the church. More and more artists are getting involved and experiencing the rewards of ministry. Still, we are also discovering just how difficult church work can be. Whenever I speak at a conference, it's not uncommon for an artist to pull me aside between sessions and ask me for advice on how to handle a troublesome situation at church. At some point in the conversation the person invariably says something like, 'I don't know how much more of this I can take. If things don't change, I don't know if I can survive another year.' I receive many similar desperate cries for help through letters, emails, and phone calls from leaders and volunteers. They are overwhelmed by the challenges, worn down by the conflicts, and discouraged by the adversity involved in doing ministry in the church.
It's hard enough being an artist, but being an artist in the church can be extremely challenging. In this book, we tackle those challenges head on. I don't have all the answers, but I have some experience to share that I hope you'll find encouraging and helpful. This is not a self-help book, however, with quick-fix formulas. It's more like a guide, a resource for your journey as an artist in the church. You will most likely work out your frustrations and issues within the context of your church community and your relationship with God. As you do, I hope this book encourages you through the difficult times and equips you to enjoy more of the good times.