What do you think of when you hear the word "outreach?" For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the door-to-door evangelism my church did when I was younger. Every Thursday, we visited people church members had suggested and talked to others we met along the way. With each encounter, we prayed for the chance to explain the gospel and lead someone to Christ.
But have you ever thought of art as a form of outreach or even a pathway to discipleship?
Famous artist David "Lebo" Le Batard once said, “I think the role of the artist is to take whatever it is they believe in and put it out there so the public can see it.” I would go one step further to say the Christian artist's role is to get the gospel out there and explain it so that people may believe.
If we do it right, making art can even be part of our Great Commission work. We can create art which brings glory to God and displays His greatness to mankind in a way that causes people to follow him. That sounds a lot like outreach to me. So, how do we get there? Here are a few suggestions for the "creatives" in our midst.
1. Communicate Clearly
I recently wrote an article about how and why leaders should encourage art in ministry. Now, this article is geared more towards the artists—no matter how (un)comfortable you are with using the term for yourself. The main point remains the same: meaningful Christian art must start from the Godward heart and communicate gospel truth in the real world. In short, it's all about the message, not the medium.
Author Sam Leith reminds writers and speakers in his book on rhetoric: “We exchange information because it is either useful or delightful, because it does something for us... Humans are desire machines.”
People want to be compelled, and the gospel is the most compelling story of all. It's both useful and delightful, so our faith should be an unending source for our art. We just need to dive deeply into it and communicate it rightly.
Most artists feel a sense that their art must be made, almost compulsively. Overlay that with the way a true understanding of the gospel compels us to share, and creative Christians should find themselves "filled by the Spirit: speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord." (Eph 5:18-19)
2. Make Art that Awakens Longing
With that in mind, our goal as artists should be to remind people of the longing of their souls and the only source of satisfaction. But how do we do that?
First, convince through the senses, and connect to what your audience already believes, knows, and understands. If you're a painter, use symbols that make sense to your audience. If you're a writer, make sure your readers don't get lost in technical terminology. Let them fill in their own gaps to begin with and make sure you clarify afterward.
Creating gospel-centered longing is not the same as longing for its own sake. Don't understand what I mean? Take, for example, a Hallmark movie. They are great at creating a world of longing—for the perfect little town, a sweet romance, beautifully decorated trees, and easy conflict resolutions.
But Hallmark movies create a kind of longing with no real end—except maybe some "retail therapy" at your nearest crowned corporation. Meaningful Christian art should awaken longing and begin to point to a real answer in Christ—though hopefully not with a Jesus Juke.
3. Create Something Honest
Ever been disappointed by a corny and simplistic Christian movie or play? They're nice, but I wouldn't necessarily call them "art." Too often, we're tempted to describe the world as we would like it to be, not as it is. The good guy gets the girl, the prayer is answered "yes" and then some, and the broken relationship is restored—usually within minutes of an apology.
These stories make us feel good, but they don't necessarily deal with the harsh realities of life this side of the already and not yet. Instead of marveling in God's goodness, it usually makes me look around and think, "That's nice, but I don't see God working that way here." Nonbelievers will smell the insincerity, as well.
As an artist, you don't have to create what you feel "should be" to display God's goodness. Sometimes, the good guy remains single and experiences the richness of communion with God and the church. Sometimes, a prayer is answered with a better "no." Sometimes, people aren't willing to offer us forgiveness, even though God always does.
Personally, these are the stories that reach deep into my heart and remind me of the beauty of the gospel. They're every bit as "feel good" and actually bolster my faith for the real world in which I live.
4. Wait for the Arc
That said, art as ministry should be for the benefit of others, not just for yourself. If you have a dark story to share, do it. But first, wait for it to arc so you can have the right perspective. Until then, you're likely just unloading your pain on others.
This isn't to say you must wait for a happy ending before you can create something. If you draw on God's promises, the unfinished or sad story can still point to Christ—think about the psalms of lament. Wait until you can communicate gospel truth, and make sure you collaborate with others, as well. In so doing, you can share something helpful instead of welcoming people into your cloud of self-pity.
5. Write Bad Songs
With all these suggestions, you may start to feel intimidated about getting started at all, but don't let that get you down!
Musician/author/generally cool guy Andrew Peterson tells a story of a young songwriter who asked him to autograph his cd—yes, those ancient devices—with some advice. Peterson wrote, "Don't write bad songs." After some reflection though, he had to amend what he'd written, because he realized the bad songs are a necessary part of the good ones.
If you write enough bad "songs"—or create enough bad art—and are willing to subject them to collaboration and process, you're likely to come up with something really good in time.
6. Kill Your Darlings
Unfortunately, the process of making those "bad songs" into good ones can hurt. After all, art requires a lot of work and humility.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the old writing advice to kill your darlings. "Darlings" are those favorite parts of what you've created, things you hold most tightly to in your art—even when you realize they don't really work.
Often times in the process of creating, you make something you think is so profound, so cool, so artsy—a "darling"— but it doesn't quite fit, is unnecessary, or (worst of all) is just too complex and flowery to be understandable. In that case, you must cut it out and not look back. It can be painful, but if we remember our goal is clear gospel communication and edification of others, it helps put us on the right path.
This one's fairly self-explanatory but also very important. Prayer is necessary for life and art, so we and our audiences can benefit from us making our creative time a little more devotional and prayerful. Paint to good worship music. Write after some good time in the Word. Pray while you work.
Remember, if good art comes from a Godward heart, praying through your process will not only make you a better Christian but probably a better artist, as well.
Happy creating, friends!
Marie Burrus is UBA's Communications Specialist. She manages, edits, and contributes content for UBA's blog, website, UBA Voices newsletter, and social media outlets.