Sunday, May 11, 2008

Innovation in the Arts

As people interested in being on mission with God, we are always searching for new tools that will help us share hope. Everything considered a potential teaching tool isn't it? You use movies, events, holidays, music and the list goes on.

One of our faithful Innovation in Mission members on facebook, Paul Nethercott (TEAM missionary in Japan), has shared a new perspective on art and its potential for missions.

I love how Paul has brought up the concept of redemption in art. Our creativity has a way of bringing a message of hope home like no other. So please take a minute to read this innovative approach to art and see how it can be a part of your ministry toolbox:

Missional Art
The Heavens declare the glory of God: the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (Psalm 19:1)

"Missional” refers to outwardly focused actions that share Christ with the world.

"Missional Art" is any creative expression that intentionally illuminates God and the hope found in Christ.

Missional Art is modeled after God’s revelation of Himself in creation, in Scripture, and in the incarnation. All aspects of God’s revelation are creative masterpieces that originate in the heart of a loving God who wants to be known by those He created to be like Him (“in His image”). One aspect of God’s image in us is the capacity to express ourselves by creating art that is missional. The phrase “Missional Art” is new, the concept is not. And, it is not confined to the West; we can discover it throughout history, in a vast number of cultures.

The first biblical example of Missional Art is when God empowered Bezalel to build the temple in ancient Israel (Exodus chapter 31). According to theologian Francis Schaffer, this is the first time the Bible mentions that the Holy Spirit indwelled someone for a specific purpose “… I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.” The Jewish temple was missional because it was intended not only as a place of worship for the Israelites, but as a witness to all the nations; it is a stunning example of Missional Art.

Throughout history, gifted artists, believers filled with the Holy Spirit, have been creating missional art that is often far more effective than mere words at drawing people towards putting their faith in Christ. What aspects of missional art are important in making it effective? Four key elements of Missional Art are Hook, Honesty, Humanity, and Redemptive Content (The concept of Hook, Honesty, and Humanity are by songwriter Darrell Brown)

Hook is one reason Amazing Grace is such a memorable and well-loved song. A song with Hook “sticks” in the mind, unconsciously it replays itself in your head. Writers of pop music are well aware of Hook but the concept is applicable in other areas, including the visual arts -- the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa being one of the most famous Hooks in the history of Western art. Art that has no Hook fails to connect, fading from consciousness like a plainly dressed person in a large crowd.

Honesty is hard to define, but critically important. We sense when it is lacking, but it is difficult to articulate what the difference is. Several years ago, I heard one of my female acquaintances sing for a church service. Something didn't sound right, so I asked, "Was that your real voice today?" "No," she responded, "that was my church voice I used my real voice many years ago when I sang rock music with my band, but I don’t use it when I sing in church.” One of the main reasons adults enjoy watching children perform is their transparent Honesty. But, adults who perform without shame or pretense are rare. Johnny Cash is an example of someone with this kind of authenticity; he didn’t have an exceptional voice, he even wandered off key sometimes, but people responded to him, he was incredibly genuine as he sang what was in his heart.

Humanity touches our emotions, what Darrel Brown calls “the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual sides of Humanity. The big themes — the brokenness and the triumph of it all. So people can relate to what I am writing and singing about.” Ironically, many Christians seem to fear being human, calling it immoral; while the Bible abounds with tasteful Humanity; weddings, celebrations, parties, the sweat of Jesus, violence, family dysfunction, drunkenness and yes, sexuality (it isn’t gratuitous, but it IS there). It appears that many of us are more comfortable with the divinity of Jesus than we are with His Humanity. This is one reason for the scarcity of Christians who are creating art that is full of Humanity. Since everyone experiences the human side of life, people of all nations, races, and cultures can relate to Humanity, it is universally understood.

Redemptive Content includes, but in no way is limited to, clearly identified symbols connected with Christianity. Beauty, goodness, metaphors, stories, allusions, abstract forms, and colors can all be redemptive. Makoto Fujimura’s paintings are abstract, most have no explicit Christian content, but they are Redemptive. It would be a huge mistake to understand “Redemptive Content” to mean that a photographer must insert Scripture verses into all her photos. Or, that a dancer has to wear an outfit with a cross on it. There is a place for worship art, for symbols, and for words, but Missional Art does not have to be explicit or obvious to be effective. But, being “clothed” in Hook, Honesty, and Humanity is very important.

Some Christians make the mistake of dictating that Crystal-clear Redemptive Content (the gospel clearly stated or pictured) is the only important criteria for judging art. In their zeal to communicate the gospel, they ignore Hook, Honesty, and Humanity. Art created with the one criteria of Redemptive Content in mind is often created by zealous, sincere people who really aren’t gifted in the arts. What they are gifted in is preaching, and there certainly is a place for that, but it does not mix well with art. The results of the “lets use art to preach” approach are generally unappealing, not even connecting with Christians, and alienating to those who have no knowledge of Jesus.

Examples of effective Missional Art:

  • Handel’s Messiah
  • The Passions of Bach
  • Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son”
  • C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  • The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson’s Movie)
  • The novels of Ayako Miura
  • The paintings of Makoto Fujumura
  • Black Gospel Music in Japan (Halleluiah Gospel Choirs)
  • The Bible Manga Series
  • The music of U2

Amazing examples abound of effective Missional Art with clear Redemptive Content that is loved and accepted, even by cultures that reject Christianity. The crucial factor is quality, how it is done is critically important. However, we must never forget that God can work through totally unpredictable and surprising ways to draw people to himself. He can use “sappy” songs that really don’t have much by way of artistic merit. He can take a movie like Sister Act, and make it a means of communicating his love to the nation of Japan. This Hollywood movie is one of the catalytic factors behind the popularity of Black Gospel in Japan and has resulted in large numbers of Japanese paying to sing in black gospel choirs. It is thrilling to witness Japanese singing the gospel, with passion, with movement, from their hearts and hear about a significant number who are meeting Christ.

Missional Art has had a huge impact on the world, and will continue to be one of the primary avenues that people around the world, in a wide variety of cultures, will become aware of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is much left to be said on the subject --- I would really like to get input from readers of the Innovation in Mission group on how to improve and expand on this topic. I also want to thank Scot Eaton, Graham Fleming, Jon Hirst, Roger Lowther, Nancy Nethercott, and Robin White for their invaluable input on this paper.

Two Relevant Books:
imagine by Steve Turner
Unceasing Worship by Harold Best


Makoto Fujimura said...

Thank you Paul:

I suggest reading N.T.Wright's new book "Surprised by Hope" to dig deeper into theological import in the arts and culture. I have been profoundly affected by this book of late.



Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks so much Mako for your comment!

I will get a copy of Wright's book when I go to the US in June.

Warmly, Paul said...

Wise thoughts. I have a friend in Cairo who has an arts ministry. I'm sure he'd like to link up or at least re-post this article. If interested, e-mail me at and I'll connect. Don't want to put his e-mail out.
Jeff Holder

K.J. Trim said...

These are excellent thoughts. It seems to me that for the past century or more, Christians have revolved inside their Christian circles where everything is "Christianized" and basically, told nonChristians to come to them. They "offer" warmth and acceptance to those who come. However, developing themselves in areas that will connect with unbelievers outside of those circles is rather rare and would require some serious "getting out of the box or comfort zone" which many people are very afraid to do. I believe that it is this that is the mission of the church today. We need to create opportunities to connect with unbelievers in "their world" and doing this through the arts can be very effective.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for sharing! You are absolutely right. I think that the innovation here in this concept Paul has shared is that the arts are one of the natural ways to be missional. It makes so much sense to use art to engage those who come from different walks of life and perspectives.