This piece was modified from a blog entry for the Lausanne Global Conversation. It is published with the written consent of The Lausanne Movement.
The conversation on arts and mission is long overdue. It is not a new conversation as it received considerable attention in the mid-twentieth century. Missiologist Andrew F. Walls provides a brief but informative history of activity engaging non-western art born out of a Christian context in his essay The Western Discovery of Non-Western Art. The arts have, in more recent times, been showing up in a variety of faith-based settings and in the process have got a lot of us talking about the arts – including those in the world of missions.
However, I think it is fair to say that arts and mission are reluctant partners. I borrow this phrase from a work published a few years ago pointing out how art and religion have been at odds – particularly in the twentieth century.
Let me briefly suggest why there is a reluctance to bring together art and mission. Artists are commonly uncomfortable with the idea of carrying a specific agenda in their work. They don’t wish to preach through their art. Many who do mission work are intent on being clear and direct in their message while art is often unclear and indirect. Art can be ambiguous, something a person in missions would want to avoid. But there are some other reasons for the distance between art and mission. Two things specifically, the first relates to our understanding of spiritual life, the second to our theological assumptions.
It’s common among those of evangelical persuasion to hold to a spirituality that disengages us from the material world – a pietism focused on the inner life. Art, by contrast, is sensual and naturally engages the material world. Theologically we have tended to diminish the importance of the doctrine of creation and along with it the cultural mandate. We are called to be stewards of the created order, crafters and those who engage the imagination for a wide variety of purposes. These are callings that often get neglected in our desire to focus on redemption.
There are signs of change. Renewed interest in the arts is evident in faith communities around the globe. Arts pastors – unheard of 20 years ago – are a growing breed in the west at least. Many Asian churches are giving serious attention to the arts by including art galleries and performance space for their communities. In Africa, South America and the Middle East the arts are so woven into the culture it is hard to exclude them from faith communities. Add to this the widespread movement to shed Western influences and to recover indigenous art forms for worship and it becomes clear that we are in an important transition time for arts and mission.
The question I would like to pose is, “How might we engage the arts in the missional task? I think it is evident that the arts are an untapped resource for mission among many who operate in the world of mission work. Music has an acceptability that is less common when it comes to visual art, drama, dance, creative writing and film.
The task of mission is one of communication. Art has the power to move us, engage us, and enable us to see in a new way. Art can open us to the truth of things in fresh ways, and it invites us to discover what we may not have known before. Drama, dance, story, music and visual image can be expressions both of the reality of our brokenness, and of the hope that is centred in the gospel that all things will be made new.
The Lausanne Movement has taken the initiative to publish Redeeming the Arts, a document, which is one of its occasional papers, LOP #46. Redeeming the Arts was shaped around a Lausanne Consultation in Pattaya Thailand in 2004. More recently (2008), the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission established a Task Force on Arts in Mission and published a special issue of their journal on that theme in the fall of 2010.
Although there are many examples of the presence of the arts in mission work, there is still a great need for more intentional commitment to drawing on the arts as a context for the missional task. This is something that can be done both in the communities where our local churches are set and in the global context where there is a need to bridge across our differences. Humanity finds a common ground in the arts, which in turn can create a safe place to explore the big questions of life.
I trust that these few thoughts will be a seed to generate some conversation on arts, faith and mission. There has been a rather long silence on the arts among us yet there are good signs that we are learning afresh how to speak about the arts and bring them into the circle of faithful living.
John Franklin is Executive Director of Imago, a national initiative in support of Christians in the arts in Canada. He is based in Toronto and, before joining Imago in 1998, he taught philosophy at Tyndale College. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in theology at Tyndale Seminary and Trinity College at the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto. His special interest is in theology and the arts. He also serves as Chair of Lausanne Canada and Co-ordinator of the World Evangelical Alliance – Mission Commission’s Task Force on Art in Mission.