Johann Bach . . . Where are you?
September 2017 – In 1970, a visiting pianist at a church was critiqued and dismissed by a pastor because something about him just didn’t quite sit right with the church congregation. That was when vocalist and pianist Byron Spradlin – who was in the congregation that day – realized something amiss.
“This pianist was from a different culture,” Spradlin noted. “We’ve got a society moving away from God, not toward Him, and people in the arts are the most powerful people.” He recognized that Christians in the creative arts have potential to connect to the larger culture.
Yet Christians too rarely find ground for a serious approach to the arts. Before the eyes of the world, if they make a claim to faith, the worth of their artistic expression is often demeaned by the secular culture.
Spradlin saw need for artistry in the church and for God in the culture, and founded Artists in Christian Testimony in 1973, an offspring of his own musically diverse career and engagement with ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Jews for Jesus. With ACT International, artists are mentored for missions in the church and around the world.
Artists are connectors who bring the essence of their faith and ideals to people at a universal level.
“We have to think of being like the Levitical priests of the Bible, responsible and called out to stand before God and minister to Him and connect others to Him,” said Misty Tolle-Stiffler (left), director of worship arts at Man O’ War Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
Formerly a musician in Broadway productions, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and director of school and family programs at Carnegie Hall, Tolle-Stiffler knows all about high standards of excellence carried over from her education at the Julliard School. Yet, she gave up the pinnacle of her career, and moved from New York City to Kentucky to learn what could be accomplished by getting on her knees before God.
When Mitchell Tolle, her dad and himself a well-known artist (See AFAJ 2/13), asked her to serve as worship leader at the church he pastors, it was something all her training had not prepared her for.
“My whole approach to being a worship leader and reintegrating classical music as a believer in Christ has been to keep prayer at the center of my life,” she told AFA Journal.
The power of her artistic leadership is that it is well done and encompasses the nonbeliever, even as it heightens the sensibilities of the worshipper.
“I’m thankful for my classical music training,” she said. I know it plays into the success of our music programs. When the world is going out to concerts and events, they encounter excellence. So we make sure that everything is top quality in our productions – and those are ways we connect to the community that wouldn’t normally step inside a church. But it’s tied to God and Him being the One exalted.”
The Christian’s art translates into a worldview that magnifies God, and mankind made in His image.
In Saving Leonardo, Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey chronicles how art forms have changed over history to express the dominating worldview of the time. In the past, art embodied meaning, order, and beauty, because it reflected the Christian worldview.
Now, more often, art is abandoned to dissonance, fragmentation, and absurdity, having been hijacked by philosophies that reject the worth and guiding purpose of a universe held together by God’s hand.
Pearcey quotes Dana Goia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a tax-funded agency most noted for funding the bizarre and the blasphemous. Goia acknowledged, “All art is a language – a language of color, sound, movement, or words. When we immerse ourselves in a work of art, we enter into the artist’s worldview. It can be an expansive and glorious worldview, or it can be [a] cramped, dehumanizing worldview.”
Thus, it is more important than ever for Christians to be propelled to the forefront in all manners of artistic expression. In this way, quality is matched with meaning for the eyes of the world.
It is because of the Christian worldview, too, that art should be encouraged by the church, Tolle-Stiffler emphasized. Art is not just worthwhile on the human level, but as a recognition of God’s glory and His handprint on each life.
“There is a part of our soul that, in the way we’re made in the image of God, has an innate need to make beautiful things,” she told AFAJ. “We need to create because in that way we are like our Creator.”
In the worldview of Christian art, both God and man are exalted by the proper expression of their nature.
While the role of art in church for the sake of worship and community may be quickly recognized, the involvement of church in the arts is less prioritized. The arts are not just an asset to the church; they are a responsibility.
“In the times of Bach and Michelangelo, so many incredible artists were basically on retainer by churches and religious organizations,” Tolle-Stiffler said. “Part of the reason people like Bach were writing sacred music is that they were literally employed to do so by the church. You could just say, ‘Well culture has changed from a spiritual perspective,’ but part of the big shift is that the church is not investing in the arts. If we relegate all creativity to the world, we’re not able to pour Christian values into those art forms, or into our communities.”
Because art is an integral part of worship and imago dei (image of God), as well as a mode of instruction in Christian worldview, it should belong to the church to sponsor and uphold – for its own sake, and not just as a church-building tool.
Spradlin expresses in a video interview on the ACT International website, people in music and arts have more than just utilitarian capabilities but function as strategists in leadership, development, and community.
“We need to affirm these people … so they will step into what God designed them to be for the church and for humanity in general,” Spradlin says.
Pearcey echoes those thoughts in Saving Leonardo, writing, “Where are today’s counterparts to Bach? Where is the music and art that expresses biblical truths so eloquently that it invites people to embark on a search for God? Christians must go beyond criticizing the degradation of American culture, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on positive solutions … The church must once again become a place with a reputation for nurturing artists.”
Christians in the Visual Arts is a network for artists, galleries, educational facilities, and churches with the goal of creating a relationship between the arts, the church, and the secular world. One of its goals is to encourage churches to sponsor and host an art presence.
As an example of one way that can be done, Grace Point Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, has created Story: The Gallery at Grace Point, a public art gallery. The gallery hosts art camps, changing exhibitions, and opportunities for artists. Visit gracepointchurch.net/story-the-gallery-at-grace-point.