Tue 02 Aug, 2016

Church Art Projects – A Bluffer’s Guide

How do you avoid the usual pitfalls and engage the whole church in an art project?

Jonny Mellor / #church, #exhibition

In late 2014, our church (Churchcentral, Brum) started a preaching series called The Big Story. We covered the whole of the Bible in 20 weeks, zooming out from the detail of the Bible, to capture something of the grand narrative of God’s word.

As we set this plan into motion, my mind began to whir. Perhaps, we could get different creative people in the church to flex their artistic muscles and respond to different sections of the Bible in their chosen art form, I thought. Well, that was about 2 and a half years ago. My good friend Joel Wilson once told me that you should never be a slave to arbitrary deadlines and I have definitely taken his advice with this project! However, here it is. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and if I’ve learnt one thing from this experience is to never use tumblr again. However, overall I’m happy with the project.

As well as producing a workable online exhibition, it’s also helped me think through church art projects in general, so I thought I’d put together a few things that I learnt from the experience (and from other little schemes we’ve undertaken over the years) to help any of you guys who might want to do something similar in your churches. In this and similar projects, there are 3 key questions that I’ve found it helpful to ask. I’ll deal with two today and one next time:

What is the purpose?

For me, the main purpose of any project like this is two fold: encouraging artists and keeping creativity on the agenda of the church.

Our church has between 200-300 people in it and I think is pretty representative of most churches our size regarding creatives and artists. A handful of us would be reasonably developed in what we do, either professionals in the arts or at least those with a bit of experience, producing work reasonably regularly for an audience wider than just the church. Then there would be another crowd of people just exploring creative possibilities, full of ideas yet looking for a bit of a push into action. If possible, I always want to engage both groups as best as possible (I’ll explain this a bit more below). I want church to be a place where people’s artistic skills, developed over years of training and practice, are appreciated, but also a place that provides encouragement and opportunity for people with interest and enthusiasm to start getting involved in serious artistic creation.

I hope the project was of benefit to those who saw it exhibited and I also hope that its online incarnation helps some people engage with the Bible, however I’m fully aware that it’s not going to set the world on fire. Hopefully though it has (and will) help to make our church a more creative place, encourage some of our more experienced artists that we value them and support them as a church and also encourage those who are just getting going to keep pursuing their interest and start learning their craft more seriously.

How do you engage the church?

To achieve these goals though, the church must be engaged in the project. There are two common approaches taken in an attempt to engage the church at large with artists in the church and both usually end in demotivation and frustration.

Approach A: Shoehorn artists into a traditional church structure (Sunday morning service, evangelistic meeting, carol service, etc) and give them a very prescribed project (please do this to achieve this in this way.) Then assume this is a huge favour for the artists in the church to be given such a wonderful opportunity.

Approach B: Give artists a much looser brief and craft a project that they can be happy with. They put hours of work in to put on their play, exhibition, concert, etc and barely anyone from church turns up!

I, like the Buddha, opt for a middle path!

As a church leader, I am very reluctant to approach artists to produce work for a Sunday meeting or other church event that is going to be utilitarian in nature. (Unless of course we’re paying them). If I do ask someone though, I make sure that pretty much whatever they produce we will use. I’m not going to be suggesting loads of edits or trying to squeeze their work into my preconceived idea. This is not honouring them or their gifting. If I ask someone to produce work, I don’t want a product, I want them and I don’t want to put myself in the position that I’m likely to be rejecting ‘them’, or trying to change ‘them’ just because I want to illustrate my sermon a bit more powerfully.

My main danger though is to get people to put their heart and soul into work that nobody in the church will ever engage with. This can be equally demotivating. This is still the case if the work is seen by many people outside the church. An artistic project could be very well received outside the church, but if the church just let you get on with it, while ignoring the project completely, this can still lead to artists feeling unappreciated and detached from the church. I know because I’ve been there.

Therefore, I try to come up with church art projects that have fairly open briefs but still intersect with the church programme in a way that means that people from the church will actually see, hear or read the work. We’ve always found Christmas helpful with this.

Carol services have their peril for Christian artists, but they can also be a great opportunity. As regards the service itself, we’ve included songs, sketches and videos in the past, but what we’ve found most effective has been putting on art exhibitions at the carol services themselves and integrating some of the work into the service where appropriate. This means that the church have to view the work and respond to it as pretty much everyone comes to the church carol service. It also means that people will see the value of it as well, as their friends will come along and say nice things about it (hopefully).

Therefore, as a church we’ve set three art projects linked with Christmas. Firstly, it was ‘God. With. Us’ (pretty obvious link). Then ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ (A bit tenuous). And finally ‘The Big Story’ (Well, Christmas is in the Bible, isn’t it?).

‘What are You Waiting For?’ was my favourite example. We gave this question to the whole church and asked them to respond. We then exhibited the work in a local cafe that had some decent white wall space. We put on a launch event and ran the exhibition for a month. The cafe loved it, we got great feedback from the coffee loving punters of Brum, but of course, hardly anyone from church went to see it. However, I’d seen this one coming. We then reconstructed the exhibition in full at our church carol services and integrated some of the work into the service itself which focused on the hope that the Christmas story brings. (Get it? What are you waiting for?)

With the Big Story, we didn’t think it would be so easy to make this a public exhibition, so we showcased it at our carol services and then put together this online exhibition.

Anyway, I’ll finish off my thoughts next time. In the meantime, check out the project and please share in the comments any experience you have had of church art projects that worked.

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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