Ministry and Art

Art as Ministry

“Art as ministry is about looking at things more deeply,” explains Ellen Miller, a working artist and co-facilitator of the Visual Arts Ministry (VAM) of Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The Ben Hill congregation had been doing ministry in art for over 12 years and has had a formal arts ministry for three years. Ben Hill is an example of a congregation that values artists who contribute their gifts to help people in the church and in the wider community relate to God and to social concerns. The idea of art as ministry may be foreign to many congregations. How do the artists’ gifts function to form us in faith or to help us bring wholeness to the world?

In an interview, Miller says, “God is the original artist and has given us gifts of creativity. It is the responsibility of artists to tell the good news with their art.” We, made in the image of God the Creator, can be artists, using our creativity to serve God by working toward shalom (peace, harmony, wholeness) in the world.

“One of the scriptural foundations for our art ministry is Exodus 31:1-6, in which God gives the gift of craftsmanship for the building of the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant,” says Miller. She explains that God gave Bezalel and Oholiab artistic gifts to work in gold, silver, and bronze and to carve wood and stone for the tent of meeting and its furnishings. Their work was for the glory of God and needed to be done by skilled craftsmen. Their work was ministry.

The Contributions of Artists

Through an endowment for an art ministry, Blacksburg (Virginia) Presbyterian Church invited Catherine Kapikian, artist-in-residence at Wesley Theological Seminary, to visit as an art consultant. Martha Dillard, an artist who chairs the congregation’s art committee, says that Kapikian “walked around with us and ‘read’ our church—how it felt, what it expressed to people when they arrived. Consulting with her helped the committee see visual aspects of the church building through new eyes.” The consultation helped enrich an art ministry that now has three components: commissioned art in several parts of the building, changing art exhibits, and opportunities such as forums in which parishioners and artists can interact.

Dillard comments on the contribution that art has made to her congregation: “Art provides a way of connecting with God that goes beyond words. . . . It helps people open up other dimensions of their lives. Beauty in any form can [envelop] people and give them a feeling of awe.”

Martha Jane Petersen is a clergy member and quilt artist in western North Carolina. I asked her what the visual arts contribute to the life of the church. She said that words dominate in worship, even in the music. Petersen continued, “The visual arts in worship offer an alternative way of relating to the Holy. The reflections in pottery, the play of light in windows, and the depth of colors in fabric tap into our feelings, intuitions, and engage our senses. This means we approach worship—and God—with our whole selves, not just with our minds. We totally participate in worship during Holy Communion, for in this sacrament all of our senses are engaged: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.”

Kapikian agrees that art helps to access the sacred and the holy. Although the church has used visual art in worship throughout the centuries, the Protestant Reformation brought an emphasis on the spoken word. Today, most worship services are still heavily worded; however, Protestant congregations are increasingly using art not only in worship, but also in education and community ministries.

Art and Social Concerns

Petersen commented on how art can raise awareness about social concerns and motivate us to act. She said, “Hanging art pieces in church halls and rooms can also highlight social disruptions [that] need our attention as a church. They can also convey a sense of calm and peacefulness when needed. They can stir our imaginations and energies to serve God more fully. Art does not have to be of a religious content, illustrating biblical stories for instance, to convey a sense of God’s presence and purpose in what we see.”

An example of raising awareness about social concerns is found in the art ministry of Ben Hill United Methodist Church. As part of the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the Visual Arts Ministry of Ben Hill sponsors a three-day juried art exhibit open to community artists. The exhibit includes photos, sculptures, paintings, and illustrations.

Another example of an art exhibit that raises awareness of a social concern is found at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. After the earthquake in Haiti, two members of the congregation put together an exhibit, using photos and artifacts, about their trip to that devastated country. The exhibit helped the congregation to visualize the conditions that the two women encountered on their trip.

Engaging Artists

There are many ways congregations can engage artists in ministry. I asked Petersen to suggest a few ways churches can offer hospitality to artists. She shared this list:

  • Offer space for artists to exhibit their work and to join in with congregational members to create art in the church. 
  • Invite artists to speak on art and faith or art in the Bible. 
  • Hire a part-time arts minister who will find ways to integrate art into church life. 
  • Provide space periodically for painters to work together with other kinds of artists. 
  • Provide studio space for artists. 
  • Offer an option during a family-night supper or vacation Bible school for adults to experience hands-on artwork. 
  • Hang artwork in the halls and rooms of the church. 

Ben Hill United Methodist Church is a good example of a congregation in which a visual arts ministry engages artists in many ways. It uses art made by members of the congregation for bulletin covers. It offers art exhibits, educational programs for youth who are emerging artists, gallery walks, and an art Bible study for youth and adults. The educational ministry includes both art history and studio courses, and one of the program’s leaders is an art historian at Emory University. Sometimes during worship services an artist will paint in response to sermons, prayers, or anthems. In partnership with Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, “VAM on the Go” sponsors two annual events: a vesper service and a Ben Hill night at the museum, both ministries that relate the faith community and the art world.

Artists can bring a number of gifts to a congregation that could support ministry. They can provide another medium, besides words, through which worshipers can experience the holy. They can model the creative process in ways that help others use their own creativity, not just in making art but in solving problems, planning projects, and strengthening relationships. They can model the experience of seeing a congregation’s ministries as partnership with God’s ongoing creative work in the world. In addition, of course, they bring their paintings, sculpture, banners, quilts, and other fabric art.

On the other hand, congregations can do much to engage with art and artists. For example, they can provide the hospitality of space for studios and exhibits, develop educational opportunities that involve art, and give attention to art in sanctuaries and worship services.

In The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and Christian Community, Robin Jensen sums up the value of art in ministry: “Art, if it is to have any use for the church, must be vital and dynamic, relevant to the lives we now live. It can affect us and even change us by addressing us at intellectual, emotional, ethical, and spiritual levels. Art can delight our eyes and inspire devotion. Art can deepen our understanding and enrich our worship. It can soothe, delight, and set us on fire.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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