An issue that I continue to run into as I research the Christian church’s support of the arts is that of the quality of the art object, particularly the assumptions that artwork in the church is usually ‘cringe-worthy’, and high quality, interesting art in the church is hard to find. In 1981, Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis Schaeffer) published a book titled Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, arguing that because of the Church’s dualistic view of the sacred and secular as well as its utilitarian reduction of the arts, it has lost the pursuit of quality in the arts and, as the title suggests, is addicted to mediocrity. While Schaeffer’s argument is reductionist and perhaps a bit harsh, I wonder if it has shaped a corresponding shift in ideal: the pursuit of excellent art in the church.
Willow Creek Community Church, a large non-denominational church in the Chicago area, has significantly informed the way that this ideal has come to pervade certain streams of evangelical thought. Pioneer of the “seeker-friendly” church, Willow Creek utilizes the arts as an important part of their strategy for making a seeker’s experience of church comfortable and inviting. While their emphasis has shifted over the past few years, part of their legacy in the arts, I think, is replacing the addiction to mediocrity with the aspirational pursuit of excellence in all that they do, including the arts. In addition to holding excellence as one of their core values as a church, when it comes to defining what excellence is, they do so with explicit reference to Schaeffer’s accusation. Instead of mediocrity, ‘excellence’ is closely aligned with ‘our best’. In a book written about Willow Creek’s arts ministry, Rory Noland writes: ‘Pursuing excellence means we do our best with what we have, to the glory of God. He is worthy of our very best… [God] modeled creative excellence for us. Seven times during the Genesis account of creation, God stands back, looks at what He’s created, and says, “It is good.” It’s obvious that we serve a God who delights in creativity and values doing things with excellence.'
I want to focus on two reasons behind this shift towards the pursuit of excellence in the arts followed by a couple of questions to get discussion going:
1. Excellence is meant to be an antidote for perfectionism. Because we know that in our fallenness we will never be perfect, excellence corrects this pursuit by suggesting that the artist’s aim is to do the best he/she can with what he/she has. By being released from having to be perfect, artists in the church should be free to develop their skills and even be given space to ‘fail’ on the road to getting better. This happens within the framework of giving God our best. For Lynne and Bill Hybels (founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek), this should be natural for the Christian: ‘We sincerely love the church, because we see it as the bride of Christ. And so it’s only natural for us to want to offer our best. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 it says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” We strive to honor Him with the sacrifice of our service…’ Conversely, for Noland, ‘[i]t doesn’t honor God when we bring Him less than our best.’
2. Excellence has evangelistic potential. Noland writes: ‘Excellence is also a powerful witness for Christ. Most non-Christians who ever end up in a church expect the music to be lousy and outdated.' Excellent art challenges the presumed expectations that a non-Christian would have when coming into a church, and this display of excellence has the potential to point to Christ. It also combats the converse of excellence – mediocrity – which, according to Schaeffer, results in ‘the ludicrous defacing of God’s image before the world’. 
While the first reason might bring freedom and release, I wonder where the second reason leaves the artist. While it might give the arts an evangelistic justification, is God’s image that fragile? Can/should the artist bear this responsibility?
Sara Schumacher is Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions and an ITIA PhD Candidate, researching contemporary church patronage of the arts.