Reflections on Catalyst Festival: The Work Behind The Work

One of the explicit goals of this year’s Sputnikzone at the Catalyst Festival was to show something of the work behind the work.

This emphasis was specifically to clear up the common misconception that artistic works of value simply materialise out of thin air. They are products of thought, practice and usually years of dedication. We wanted to help upcoming artists just starting out to know what lay ahead of them- the responsibilities and the joys- and also for churches in general to understand that if they want to value the finished product, they must also value the dedicated labour that will necessarily precede it.

This is especially important in churches like those in the Catalyst sphere of Newfrontiers (our gang!) When I reflect on my experience of charismatic Christianity, I recognise that so often, there is a love for the spontaneous and an expectation of God’s dramatic, instantaneous intervention, but this can lead to undervaluing the necessity of putting in the work, of perseverance, of the hard slog. I mean, if the gifts that we value most highly can simply be deposited on us by the Holy Spirit at any given moment and entirely by grace (gifts of the Spirit like those listed in 1 Corinthians 12 for example), there is surely limited point in putting time into developing other skills and talents. If our hope for the turnaround in our nation’s spiritual climate rests squarely on Revival, why bother working hard to get involved in every area of our society to slowly and patiently influence and transform? Although these conclusions do not automatically spring from the premises, this thinking seems to be quite common. I personally think we should value the gifts of the Holy Spirit more than we do, and I regularly pray for a dramatic and sudden intervention of God in our times. However, as with so many things, this is not an either/or, and as one side of this equation has been promoted so vigorously in our churches, I’m more than happy to redress the balance somewhat.

As Christians, we must be those who are willing to give our lives for the kingdom. Please excuse the non-artistic digression, but take the gaining of wisdom as an example. In James 1:5, James instructs his readers that if they lack wisdom, they should ask God and ‘it will be given to you.’ I’ve often heard this Scripture used as a foundational verse about how to to get wise. How do you do it? Ask God, and he’ll give it to you. Bish bash bosh! Microwave wisdom that springs from a moment’s prayer, rather than a lifetime’s labour.

Proverbs gives a very different picture. How do we get wisdom according to the book of Proverbs? Well, it starts when we’re children, at which point we need training in which way to go (Prov 22:6). From that point, we give careful thought to the paths our feet should take by learning how to control our tongues, our attitude to money, to work, to how to get ahead in life. The key word is ‘learn’ (1:5, 24:32, etc) . We learn at first through ‘the rod’ and then as we become wiser, through rebuke (25:12), advice (12:15) and instruction (1:8).

And of course, learning takes time. James 1:5 points us to the fact that God in his grace can help us when we’re in a tight spot as an exception to the general rule, but the rest of his letter, which is basically a remix of the Old Testament proverbs, points us back to the same foundation for wisdom. Wisdom is learnt through a life lived pursuing it, not received on the back of a moment’s prayer in an intense spiritual experience.

This really shouldn’t take us by surprise. Nobody would advise a student preparing for an exam- if you lack knowledge of your subject, simply ask God and it will be given to you. The same would go for a sportsperson who wants to get into the olympic team. We revise, we practice, we prepare, we learn. And funnily enough, the same is true for artists.

Therefore, at the festival it was great to highlight artistic motivation through the exhibition and reveal what drives people to make work in the first place. I was also delighted to have two seasoned craftsman, Rob Cox and Chaz Friend, creating live pieces throughout the festival, so that people could see in real time, the work involved. The most instructive thing in this regard though was Rob’s ‘A Walk Through Isaiah’ exhibition. Rob had created a print for every chapter of Isaiah and for the first time ever, at the festival, the whole body of work was exhibited.

Rob is no hobbyist! He is a man who has given his life to developing his art practice, and his passion for his art form and expertise in his field spill out of him in even the most fleeting of conversations. Hopefully, walking round his exhibition, people will have discerned the dedication, blood, sweat and tears that went into this fabulous project. In case this went below the radar, myself and Phil Mardlin paid Rob a visit just before the festival, to try to capture something of the process that goes into creating a Rob Cox print. Here is the result, which we showed in the madebymotive exhibition.

So, if you’re just embarking on your creative journey, please take note that you’ve got some work to do! It is a genuine joy to learn your craft, but there is a responsibility to dedicate yourself to this pursuit. To become an expert in your field. To experiment with different techniques and identify which ones you will master. If you’re serious about becoming excellent, formal education may be helpful (depending on your discipline). There are no short cuts and I’m afraid praying for ‘anointing’ won’t get God to do the work for you. Please do pray. Pray for the strength to persevere. Pray for wisdom to know your capacity and how you should be using your skills. Pray that God would keep your eyes on him as you navigate the potentially perilous waters that most art forms present. But then learn, prepare and practice. Put the work in! And have fun while you do it!

And if you wouldn’t consider yourself an artist, but would like to see more excellent artists in your church, give artists the space to do this. I’d give a special plea to church leaders:

  • Don’t try to fill your artists’ timetables with church activities and responsibilities and understand when they say they can’t commit to this group or that serving opportunity. This won’t be true for everyone, but it is very possible that those people who are spending their evenings and weekends reading, writing, painting, drawing, acting, or generally ‘being creative’ are not engaging in a frivolous hobby, but learning a craft.
  • Don’t overly emphasise the bubble of Christian culture- excellent authors will not grow out of Christian paperbacks, songwriters will not develop the expertise necessary to speak into our culture from a diet of contemporary worship albums.
  • Be careful about platforming instantly accessible art in your meetings and through your church communications that is made by people who have not sufficiently learnt their craft. There may be short term benefits from showcasing such art, but if the artists we exhibit on the walls of our buildings, in our Sunday meetings and through our evangelistic events are full of the Holy Spirit, but don’t have a depth of experience and expertise, we are actively downplaying the importance of craftsmanship and those in your congregations who have spent decades on their art will feel devalued and misunderstood. And they will probably leave. Or get grumpy. Or both.

For previous reflections on the festival, try this link. Next week, I’ll explain why we try not to talk too much.

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