Highs and Lows of being an Artist in the Church

I know how blessed I am by my church though most of the time I wish only for a few deep connections.  

But a mega church blesses others when they can put on a quality mini-conference.  This weekend I attended the Pulse Arts conference sponsored by Blackhawk in Madison, WI.   It’s a unique event that brings together worship leaders, songwriters, visual artists, dancers and anyone who considers themselves “a creative” for a 24 hour blitz of music, learning and rubbing shoulders with others of a kind.  For one brief period it feels normal, even great, to be an artist and a Christian.

Two years ago I met a few artists at a Pulse event who have since then became more than acquaintances, though not quite friends. I am collaborating on a Stations of the Cross art show in a few weeks with six other visual artists and a half-dozen or more musicians.  This materialized from relationships made at the Pulse conference.  I had to put myself forward as wanting do something collaborative. Oh how I hate to put myself forward — It’s so scary.  More on that later.

Ego and Self-esteem.

Is it just creative types that are the unlikely and slightly grotesque blend of both insecure and full of themselves?

I speak for myself when I say that it is hard to be a creative and a follower of Jesus’ teachings.  We know we must be original, even imaginative.  We know we must put ourselves forward, promote ourselves and our work.

At an event like Pulse where there are some who have “made it” the conversations were dominated by the singers and songwriters who haven’t made it who are full of puppy dog, hero-worship.

I went this weekend wanting, even needing, to have deep discussions about art and faith — mostly our deep faith as an artist.  In that aspect I was a little disappointed.

Creating Art for Art’s sake.

(Who decides what’s good anyway?) 

Creatives live with the tension between our need to be fresh and original, all the while knowing there is no new idea under the sun. We also know for a fact that unless you promote yourself you may toil in obscurity forever.  But self-promotion is an anathema, at least to me.

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about this connection between making “good” art, success and self-promotion. 

Someone promotes themselves really well and gets a ton of attention for their thing, whatever it is.  I look at it and think it is about nothing.   Do I simply not know quality when I see it? How do “the Arts” and artists in general win, if we’re simply promoting (and opening doors) for our friends without being objective about the quality?  Yes, that’s the way the world works.  And if I’m unwilling to play the game, should I just give up now?

Before you start thinking I’m just whining because I haven’t personally been “discovered” I hope you will read on.  It is so much more complicated than that.

Essentially, art is useless.

We all know that.  We have complex reasons for creating.

In the positive column, the reasons are many. We hope to help others escape or enter a different place in a good beautiful way through the images or words or ideas or music we make.  We hope to challenge someone to a different way of thinking.  One of the sessions talked about creating for or out of a renewed sense of wonder with the world God created. We create to challenge and to point toward injustice and ugliness of the world, in the hopes of bringing change. And especially if we are believers, we create out of a wish to comfort and console, to move others toward the consolation of God.  This is not a Hallmark conclusion, but as Tolkien said in his essay On Fairy Stories, we accept “the happy disaster” of this life. Tolkien the master of language and communicating even made up a word for “the happy disaster” calling it eucatastrophe.

As artists who are Christians we are able to create a sacred space in time for others that accepts the long defeat of this life and yet also reflects the hope we have in Jesus.                                                      

I suppose in the end I was able to see very clearly this weekend that the “experts” are simply people a little further down the path, who are pointing out what they have learned.  Depending on their facility to talk about it, the depth of their self-awareness, the richness of their experience with Christ, and how well they tell their story, they may or may not be able to help someone else.   But there is no magic to it.

I also faced that no matter how much you may believe that you are creating something worthwhile, something more than “useless art” the tension exists that success for the artist, just like everything else in the world, and can be simplified down to being popular and cool. Yes, we’re all still living in a perpetual hell of high school.  Each of us has within us something unique to give, because we are gloriously different from one another, and yet sadly that doesn’t guarantee success.

How does One Succeed? These are the people who succeed: (mostly) Those that have a combination of skinny good looks (yes, even Christians idolize youth), an ability to communicate well with others and a willingness to do self-promote, to learn and work the system, a tireless belief in themselves and lastly a strong ego.  They are the ones that usually “make it.”  Yes, cynical me.  There are exceptions of course.

Downward Mobility of Christ

Ironically this success formula is nothing like what we Christians are called to, which is the downward mobility of Christ.

In the end I realized that I must be willing to do some of that self-promotion and there is no shame in it, if you don’t want to toil in obscurity.

But as it is equally imperative to create from an inner, original space.  And it must not, dare I say cannot, be motivated out of a desire to succeed–to reach the big time.  I must create from that place of absolute acceptance that I have received from God, the place of being loved by the Holy One.  God made only one of me, only one of you.  Do the thing he has given you, your creative work, out of that place.

Lay it down, yes your best work, as an offering to the Holy One and continue to create, write, dream, and give of your heart.

Not gazing out, or up toward the desire for success but looking down, setting it down as an offering to God. 

It may seem like you are giving away little pieces of your heart to just a few people here and there.  (Okay, I speak for myself when I say that.)

But I was encouraged this weekend.

I came away still believing that word followed by word, image by image, song by song, we are making sense of the world through our art.

Yes, we are to work



toward a perfection that is found only

in creating for the Holy One.

9 thoughts on “Highs and Lows of being an Artist in the Church

  1. I got angry Mel when I read: “essentially art is useless”. …what an amazing statement for you to make…


    1. I could and should say more. It comes from the idea that others put on artists that what we do isn’t useful. Serves no purpose. It is a feeling projected from the culture toward those that create. I don’t agree with it. Perhaps I wasn’t clear.


  2. I have been a photographer since I first picked up a camera in 7th grade. But I began worshipping with my camera when I was in college. I felt God leading me as I learned and photographed. I donated my photography to the churches I attended and various non-profits as a way to add to my giving.

    For some reason since my seizure it’s different. I haven’t really picked up my camera. I have turned down paying photography jobs. I am not sure what has changed. I miss it but not enough to make myself do it. I am sure God will show me…something through this. I will just wait.

    In the meantime, thank you for writing this. I LOVE arts in the church and love to see churches putting art in their buildings, services, and outreaches. Our church has a hip hop Sunday 1ce a month and features graffiti artists, breakdancers, DJs, hip hop artists, and poets. Other Sundays we might have dancers, singers, and/or show a short film clip. My photography has been used for newsletters, our website, and other church promotional materials. I think church and the arts are a great combination.


  3. Hi, Melody. This is an interesting site and I’ll explore more in time as there’s a lot of content. You’ve hit on an interesting phenomenon of creative people in church and there’s a lot of honesty here. I think there’s a need for bridges between artists, leaders, businessmen, etc. As Paul talks about how a body needs eyes, ears, nose, etc, the church needs the many different people to thrive. Best thing is to do what we can do to serve the leader’s vision.
    As for success, I intend to have good content and win as well though it’s a long road to go.
    Anyway, I’ll catch ya later. -Josh


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