Lancia E. Smith
Throughout much of history, artists held a trusted role and office within the life of the Church. We were valued, even venerated in our role of mediators of beauty and truth, and we knew where we fit in the scheme of our communities and our churches.
The Hebrew tradition preceding the Christ-rooted Church was steeped as a part of its culture in reverence and respect for the consecrated artist. That perspective of appreciation carried into the formation of the early church and across the centuries of our shared spiritual life since. The Roman Catholic Church, and later the Protestant Church, widely promoted the building of churches and cathedrals, the visual arts in painting and sculpture, and a vast body of our most enduring music. Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, and Beethoven all received the support of both individual patrons and that of the Church. Those art patrons made a way for us to create art for others, and nameless though they may be to us, they have given us a lasting mark of beauty on civilization.
This patronage was not without struggle or flaw, but there was an open acknowledgement of the value of art in the Church and in our communities. Somewhere along the line, however, a terrible disconnection formed between the Church and her artists. Artists began to be regarded as “different,” “other,” and “suspect.” We became seen as dangerous, or useless; and eventually, unwelcome. And artists have also grown to eye the Church with suspicion, or sometimes deep disdain leading to disengagement. We have seen this trend developing since before the Enlightenment with the dismissal of valuing imagination as a truth-bearing faculty. That movement of deconstruction and disconnection has been most glaring during the past 60 years.
Within this historical context, we now find ourselves in a thrilling and hopeful place – the stirring of a renaissance of the Christian Imagination. Like beacon fires being kindled, faith and art communities are forming and thriving. Many churches are seeking ways to engage and nurture artists within their congregations, and artists are beginning to find our way back into welcoming faith communities.
This is an encouraging state of things - new to so many of us. It leads to more than a few important questions. One of those questions is, “How do you pastor an artist?” Another way to say that is, “How do you disciple someone engaged in the arts?”
Let’s start with defining the words pastor and disciple. A simple definition of ‘pastor’ is to shepherd. In its original use, it meant to feed, nurture and guard. To pastor is to tend to souls and their spiritual well-being. Using the word disciple as a verb, it means to lead, train, teach, and empower. The full calling of disciple is not only to learn and to imitate, but also to multiply and reproduce. For a disciple to live out the full life cycle of being a disciple, he or she must also make disciples. This is not a calling only for paid professionals, but for every mature believer fulfilling the great commission - go and make disciples.
So, how do you pastor artists, discipling us to become spiritually mature believers living whole, fully integrated lives? Allow me to offer the following seven core elements to that endeavor.
1. Name - give identity to the individual and the calling
Giving and re-enforcing identity is essential for discipling artists. Artists are among the most vulnerable people, strangely gifted and most easily disenfranchised from common society. Our calling as artists is to reflect visibly or audibly the image and voice of God as He is known in Himself or through creation, making our own identity especially difficult to form. Since our native focus as artists is on something either outside or beyond us, we lose our own identity quickly by being the bearers of the Image for others.
2. Validate the value of art and the artist
Every artist needs to have our calling and work validated by someone, especially someone who has authority that can be exercised on our behalf. This is not something we can do ourselves. To validate us is to give back meaning and purpose that has been lost in the cultural process of disenfranchising the artist. The affirmation gives us a “right to be” and a sense of validity to our work and vision.
3. Build trust and be committed
Trust comes out of commitment and learning; transformation cannot occur without it. Artists are often skittish when it comes to trusting others, and it may take a long time for a discipler to communicate a love that sees our flaws and beauties alike. The building of trust is a slow, relationally expensive process, and yet out of it stems the capacity to change and be made new – to be discipled.
4. Model mature faith
Every human being must model ourselves after others. To be human is to imitate. As children, we form faces by observing other faces, teaching us how to be ourselves. Artists need to see mature faith modeled for them, to know what it looks like, to see how to live it out, to understand how to teach it to others. “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice (imitate and model) these things….” Philippians 4.9
5. Teach whole life practices
Whole life practices are the integration of three C’s – Craft, (creative excellence), Character development (spiritual formation), and Community. Unless artists grow in each of these areas, we will be individually and corporately stunted. We need to be whole people – mind, body, and soul – not just fragments of gifting. Each of these areas can and must be taught to us and encouraged by others.
6. Expect holy standards to be met
All human beings need to be accountable for our choices and behavior. Artists are not exempt from this. Pastors are uniquely fitted to help an artist see the sacred and holy value of their gifting and to teach the artist the importance of spiritual and character accountability. Pastors can provide a framework for developing spiritual strength, which will help the artist bear the wonders and burdens of the artistic life, survive our gifting, and ultimately thrive in it.
7. Champion the artist
Artists often possess an awareness of realities that are not obvious to everyone. We carry in our nature vulnerability, insecurity, fears, and uncertainty that we find difficult to move beyond. The role of a pastor and disciple maker is especially suited to champion those who cannot champion themselves – both in prayer and in practice. To be a champion may take the form of defending the artist, helping find a place for artists within the church, or perhaps connecting the artist to potential employers or patrons. It is to be “on the side of”, often the role of cheerleader and fan, and it is always accompanied by labor in prayer.
The cost of discipleship is not cheap. It means spending time. It means listening. It means loving. It means guiding and correcting. It means inspiring and waiting. Discipleship is slow and sometimes has setbacks. It requires prayer. It requires belief in God’s work in the invisible and in the individual who may not yet show evidence of any spiritual fruit. Yet it is this long, costly, holy labor of shepherding that shapes and equips a gifted people to become light in a darkening hour. As believers and artists, we are made to remind a dying world that darkness does not overcome the Light. In the end, Goodness prevails over evil, Truth outlives all deception, and Beauty conquers despair. Committed pastoring and discipling of artists allows us to become saints equipped for our calling, to take up our place within the Church again, and to be a blessing of nurture to a culture so desperately in need of care and rebuilding.
Lancia E. Smith is the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Cultivating, and founder of The Cultivating Project, a disciplining initiative for Christians engaged in the arts. She is an Anselm Society Board Member, Artist Guild Member and Patron.