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Why Are Some Churches Nervous about the Arts?

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Some churches are cautious regarding certain forms of artistic expression, especially during worship services. Varying across cultural contexts and denominations, this hesitancy or apprehension can be due to several reasons. There is much that can be written and discussed about each of the following factors. Here I will merely mention and touch on a few:

  1. Conflict with beliefs and values. Some churches are concerned that integration of art may include some artistic expression that may be considered to be 'profane' and provocative. (Note: Interestingly, the word 'profane' literally coming from Latin roots meaning 'outside of the temple' - desecrating what is holy. Also, 'provocative' comes from Latin roots that means 'to call towards, to call forth, to challenge'.) Some churches may worry that some artistic expression could promote ideas or behaviours that contradict their conservative or traditional religious beliefs. While this may be true in some instances, one significant question could then be, 'Are the beliefs and teachings biblical and rooted in sound theology?' Further, 'profanity' can seep into sanctioned worship service elements, musical or spoken, apart from overt artistic expression. And, a big part of the mission of the church is to call people towards following Jesus and his mission, and to challenge such things as injustice, inequity and more.

  2. Lack of awareness of arts theology. Further to the first point above, leadership of many churches can benefit from a greater awareness of arts theology. Chances are that it is not going to make the effort to attain this knowledge without possibly some advocacy and facilitation of people who have an appreciation of the need for churches to have a certain amount of knowledge of arts theology.

  3. Fear of negative influences: Churches may be concerned about the influence of secular culture on their congregants. There may be a worry that engagement with arts forms that are perceived to be outside the realm of what is deemed to be explicitly religious art could lead a person away from their faith and to compromise their spiritual commitment. Often the opposite is true: engagement with secular culture can foster healthy and productive dialogue and reflection. In addition, popular arts culture is can often be referenced and cited in sermons (the word that I will use here for what can be also be called [spoken] messages or homilies). A significant question here is, 'What is influencing what here? - secular culture influencing the church, or vice versa? Historically, the church has contributed much to society artistically.

  4. Misinterpretation or misrepresentation: Religious organizations may be cautious about how their beliefs and practices are portrayed in artistic works. They may fear that artists could misinterpret or misrepresent their faith, potentially leading to misunderstandings or negative portrayals that they believe may harm their community or religious message. I believe the answer here is not avoidance but rather vetting. Just as church leadership can strive to ensure that songs sung and sermons shared are theologically sound, it can do the same with in the area of artistic expression.

  5. Historical controversies: Throughout history, there have been instances where art has been used to challenge or criticize religious institutions. This context may result in some churches being hesitant towards the arts due to them associating artistic expression with potential conflicts or critiques. One problem with this perspective is that a person or group who wants to criticize a church, group or the global Church does not need art to do so.

  6. Worship style and focus: Some churches prioritize a more reserved or traditional approach to worship, focusing on prayer, scripture, and rituals. In such cases, there may be less emphasis on artistic expressions within the worship service, leading to a perception of nervousness or lack of enthusiasm towards the arts. Not only have the architecture and decor in some of these historical settings featured artistic excellence and proficiency, but there are many ways in which the arts can be included and integrated within the services, programs and events of a church or group.

While some churches are nervous regarding the arts, others show leadership in the area of the arts and are committed to continuing navigating the challenges outlined above. It is important for churches and religious organizations to actively embrace and promote various forms of artistic expression within their communities. Art can be celebrated and appreciated within religious contexts as a means of fostering spiritual reflection, cultural enrichment and holistic engagement of the senses and the whole person.

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