What can a Christian Visual Artist do for your church?
How can a visual artist help transform your congregation?
Is your congregation just going through the motions and you want to see more lives transformed? Maybe you've been feeling like you, as their pastor, need to do something a little out-of-the-box.
And then one Wednesday night you reluctantly bring it up in your church's board meeting. You say, "Let's think of something creative here." After an awkward silence of looking at their notepads, one of the board members, the retired art teacher whose ears were burning the moment you said 'creative' pipes up and says, "Maybe we can have someone come do art for us or something."
If you want to spice up the Sunday services there are a few ways you can go. Or if you want to display intriguing art in your lobby, that can show people you appreciate the arts. If fostering a deeper transformation is what you are looking for, probably a multi-faceted, pastorally trained artist in residence can help you even more.
Not many of the artists do all of the following services but maybe you can pick one that does what you need.
Live Painter / Event painter
If what your congregation needs is something a little prettier than your face to look at while you preach, a Live Painter may be what you need. The artists, or at least art appreciators, in your congregation may say to themselves, 'now they're speaking my language. I want to talk to that artist after the service.' The good ones also add an element of performance and sometimes a big reveal of sorts. Lance Brown is a good example of this. Keep doing what you do, Lance! You're rocking it. These guys look legit as well.
A lot of times they will paint something that looks abstract and at a critical moment near the end of the service they flip it upside down so we finally recognize it is the face of Jesus or something.
Craig Hawkins is also a great live painter/sketcher. He's fine artist and an art professor for Valdosta State. You'll see him mentioned in a couple of the other categories too.
I've done a bit of this and it's a very rewarding experience to be praising God with the strokes of my brush in time with the music of the worship team.
One example is when Douglasville UMC hired me for their missions weekend. They told me the theme was planting a seed, growing it, producing fruit and then going to harvest. So I drafted a design and painted it over two 1.5 hour sessions during their missions weekend.
Or you may want someone who can take sermon sketchnotes, which are notes of the sermon with accompanying visuals. This happens in real time and usually done a few minutes after the sermon ends. Here's one I did for Columbia Drive UMC in Atlanta.
pro. She even wrote a book for those who want to learn how. I have it. It's comprehensive and great. Marsha Baker also does great work. Raven Henderson also worked (at the Sketch Effect) and built a facebook community of sermon sketchnoters. There is likely someone in your city that you can bring in to do this.
But of even more value is recognizing those people in your congregation that take notes with pictures. This is important because you can train and empower your congregation to engage with your message this way. When I come to do sketchnotes for a church, I often give a workshop on how to do sketchnotes. I've taught it to kids (who often pick it up better!), middle age, as well as the elderly (it's maybe unexpected but elderly ladies are my most common attendees!)
But the transformational ability of teaching them how to do it is you are empowering your congregation to find a new and personal way to engage with your message.
Some of the auxiliary benefits of this are that, if your members who take to sketchnoting get good, often other congregation members will ask if they can take pictures of their notes. The sketchnoter then feels like their gift is appreciated by the church body. I post sermon sketchnotes in my church's facebook group and it regularly gets more interaction than most of the church's other posts.
Here's an old example from my home church. (Or you can see a lot more here)
It's harder to do this in a large format, though many people do it (I do it for The Sketch Effect for corporate meetings). This involves putting a 5' wide piece of foam core on a couple of easels and having a holster of heavy duty markers.
I've also projected the sketchnotes on to a screen during sermons. For one church we did a pre-recorded video of me sketchnoting the sermon, and they played it as the message came together. This gives that large-scale interaction with visual content that reflects the message.
This could be as simple as inviting an artist or group of artists to display their art in your space. It's great for them because they get exposure and a chance to sell their work. But it also communicates to your church that you value beauty and support the arts.
Craig Hawkins, again, does this well. He has shows of his art in legitimate galleries so a show at your church, or facilitated by your church would bring some high quality art, and conversation, to your congregation.
Here's when I have done this before in the entryway to North Decatur UMC.
But an even cooler way, and usually more permanent, is to hire an artist to do a large-scale installation. My friend Willis Norman does murals but some of my favorite work of his was he installed 1000 origami cranes in a beautiful swooping swarm above the pews in the sanctuary. Absolutely stunning and beautiful.
One of my favorite church artists (as well as a personal hero of mine) is Scott the Painter. He first marketed himself as a painter but I've heard him later regret branding himself as just a painter. He is one of the most gifted, compelling, interactive and uproarious speakers I've ever listened to. He paints while he talks through funny and touching videos he's made and even does karaoke with the crowd. He has a few messages which he tours around the country to give based around very real and powerful themes of not giving up when all hope seems lost, doubt in crisis, as well as the value of art to the church.
He's also very present on Instagram and Twitter so you can build the hype with your congregation by tempting the millennials (and others) with his beautiful, thought-provoking posts before he even gets there.
Craig Hawkins, again, gives art lectures as a career, so he's skilled at giving talks on art and the church.
One of the talks I give is to help church members find their mission. It's actually two, 2-hour, hands on workshops. I have animated slides and stories (very much inspired by Scott's style above) and I give time to process the questions which I think have the power to lead you to your mission. It is a curriculum/presentation I have developed and helped dozens of people find what they are best built to do.
Giving talks outside of the services is also a powerful way to get the group smaller and let the congregation members who are more interested to get to know the artist in a more intimate way, while hearing a message that might be more built for them. Because, you know, us artists are just kinda weird. And weird attracts weird. But depending on the talk (like Scott's or mine) anybody could benefit from it!
I've found a desire within congregations to learn to do better art.
Craig Hawkins, quickly becoming the superstar of this post, gives art classes at his university so he is more than qualified to teach art to a congregation.
I've given basic art lessons to adults (and am supposed to go back to one church to teach their kids).
I also give a workshop after Sunday services in which artists are welcome to come present their ideas for art pieces to the group and get feedback. Although this hasn't happened yet, the plan would be to schedule an art opening at the end of the partnership where the congregation can display their work, drink wine and nibble on crackers to bask in the glory of feeling like legitimized artists.
My goal with this is to really get people excited to unlock their gifts that bring them passion and life. And I like to encourage them to make art that reflects, somehow, their spiritual journey. I desire to do this not only because it will it be an outlet for their passions where they find fulfillment, purpose and "flow," but so that it can be a way they share their story, and therefore minister to others in their congregation.
My other passion is writing. I've written over 600 blogs on my spiritual journey and published a handful of books. So, since there are almost certainly some writers in the congregation, I make myself available to give feedback and help unblock their writing projects.
My format for that was to commit to being at a certain coffee shop every morning for an hour if anyone wanted to show up to practice the habit of daily writing, or to talk through their project. I want to unlock their passions and their ministry because I think that gives purpose, enjoyment, a medium to process, explore and sometimes share their internal journey.
This may look like a traditional art show, with wine (grape juice for the baptists), choral music in the background and charcuterie to nibble on as people enjoy mingling, perusing and a talk by the artist. Fun Friday night event to involve people in while inviting the public through the doors of the church.
This also gives a time for the congregation to get to know the artist and explain how they were doing a painting of their grandma but she died before they finished. "You should really finish that painting, Henry. It would still be a great homage and might give you some closure, bro."
But there are other ways to do this as well. The purpose of much of my art is to paint the human experience and then frame God (sometimes subtly) within the same art. And I know that standing in front of a painting with distracting people walking by doesn't give space for the full effect.
So I've been animating my art (I mostly do digital art so it's a little easier Photoshop + AfterEffects). And I've put them in a movie that asks questions for the viewer to ponder and then follows it up with scripture. And I've added music to emphasize the whole effect. The event is meant to be experienced like a movie. One pastor even suggested we do it at the local coffee shop so that it attracts the non-churched crowd. We turned down the lights, optimized the projector and the speaker system, gave a brief introduction of what this would look like, and pushed play.
This is also great for the artist because it exposes the congregation to art in a way that can transform them deeply, and they may choose to buy a print of the art so they can remind themselves of what it meant to them.
Artists that produce resources for churches
Again, Scott the Painter does this well. He has produced a set of free "Stations of the Cross" images that he allows churches to use. They are super hip and easy to install indoors or out (with his downloadable guide) and people seem to respond very well to them.
Again the ladies at "A Sanctified Art" are a powerhouse of materials. churches can buy/download and use them to walk their congregation through a season together (advent coloring journals for example) or simply make the materials available for the congregation as a resource to pursue on their own.
I was inspired by Scott the Painter to do my own Stations of the Cross. But I realized that I could merge the contemplative power of Mandalas with the purpose of contemplating Jesus' pain to create my Stations. I also turned each one of them into animated videos so that the contemplation could be guided, have movement, and be accompanied by emotive music. I'm also producing these as a coloring book devotional to help teens and adults color their way through the stations of the cross as another form of tactile contemplation.
Branding and Bulletins
Some churches who have limited budgets need a little help with branding. This may seem like the most immediate need. And since artists are usually more capable to do it, they may get that request.
But be aware, it's probably not their first desire, as artists are often opposed to being pigeon holed into being simply graphic designers or lackeys to flesh out someone else's marketing material. And if they do graphic design and they're any good, they're used to much bigger corporate payouts. But I was given beautiful leeway to do it for Columbia Drive UMC and made a video out of it as well. I got to work it into one of the sermon allegories/illustrations I presented.
Also, the art can be used for the bulletins. The artist may be a little disappointed if that's all you're using their sweat equity for, so if you can also use the art as their mini sermon they present after yours, they'll be more inclined to do it. Here's some I did and it helped knowing they would use to help publicize our partnership. And I knew it was a need, and I figured out a way to do it quickly by modifying the work I had done for another church.
Also, you can motivate the artist if the piece they produce is the type they could sell prints for later. So asking them to make to too specific to the bulletin that will be thrown away after Sunday may be a little impolite to their efforts.
Present art as a mini sermon
I like to partner with the pastor to create art and/or story which will reinforce his message. For example I got to do that with both North Decatur UMC and Columbia Drive, and present it to the congregation every Sunday of our partnership for a few minutes after the sermon.
This requires the pastor to give the artist his main intent on the sermon earlier on in the week, and it requires a pretty quick artist. But if they've worked in corporate/freelance world at all, they should understand and be capable to at least deliver something a little bit interesting.
This is different than a Live Painter because the art can be created ahead of time and brought to the service.
Combining their other arts (book clubs)
A lot of creatives have more than one outlet of creativity. And hopefully they've found ways to join the two. First, this is good because it can set them apart from other "painters" or "sculptors." A sculptor who is also a videographer, or a painter who also sings while live painting is more interesting.
But a partnership with an artist can not only be a chance to give the artist space to lean into their other passion, but to give a more faceted way of giving back to your congregation.
Like you're probably getting sick of hearing from me, Scott the Painter did this really well. He included not only stellar preaching and storytelling, but even his passion for karaoke into his talks. I told him once how I like that and he said, yeah, just use what you have! I had an interest in Karaoke so I included it in my talk.
My other passion is writing. I'm better at art but passionate about telling a story, and explaining ideas through words. I've written hundreds of blogs about my spiritual journey and a few books.
Two of them in particular make good book clubs. So I use my other passion to do that, and use it as an opportunity to attract another segment of the congregation into conversation. One is called Absent Landlord, and is a modern and gritty allegory about a bunch of broken people all trying to get the best room in one big house.
When we come together we see who has read the chapters, if not enough have, we read a selection together. Then we discuss the spiritual themes I was subtly placing behind the story.
The other book we go through is a book in which I've recorded of miracles from Ethiopia called, "Signs of a New Kingdom." I haven't actually had a church take me up on this one as a book club yet, but I recorded 200 pages of first-hand testimony of miracles when traveling to Ethiopia. I've had people tell me things like, "Your book was really good. We need to do this as a book club at our church!" Or, "I've used this book as a devotional for the last month." So I think it's a good candidate.
It's the creator in me (and other artists) that often customize us to produce something that represents our internal journey which we think can help others. So an artist probably has resources to give that others may not.
Artist in Residence (conclusion)
Artist in Residence is a church's partnership with an artist over a more extended period of time. This one by Allyson Darakjian was a nine month partnership with Grace Seattle. They customized what the partnership looked like according to her artistic curiosities and the needs of the artists in the congregation. Her tasks included collaborating with musicians to create, leading a "The Artist's Way" book club, and following her own artistic explorations. She noticed that it really had the power to connect, and minister to, and unlock the other artists' passions and spiritual journey. The way they set it up it also connected many artists and clergy in the region in a joint experience of collaboration and exploration.
Scott the Painter did probably the most famous artist residency at Saddleback church. checkout the stuff they did here. It's so inspiring. If it's not obvious by now, I'm a total fanboy.
Another Artist in Residence program is for the Sheen Center in New York City. They are not primarily a church, however. They are a Catholic ministry whose purpose is to forward the arts in the city. Another one in NYC is Faith and Work's artist in residence program. Go, NYC!
If you'd like to look through some Christian artists, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA.org) is the main repository of serious pros.
But ideally, the artist in residence is not just ministering to the artists and clergy of a church, or just exploring their art, although if you just want to support the arts, you can do that. After all, the Sistine chapel was not commissioned to attract other artists in, but instead to speak to the masses. Ideally anybody in your congregation with a fascination for the mysterious, or a longing for beauty can be drawn in. And if it's done right, over a month of meeting and conversation and listening and pastoring, the congregation can be transformed.
Artists have the power to unlock understandings and ways-of-being that sermons and bible studies can't. (seriously go to one of Scott the Painter's shows)
But to do this well, they probably can't only be painting in a space that used to be a nursery on the second floor. They will need to be called upon to express their journey. To do the hard work of displaying their vulnerable heart to the congregation. It is that sensitive and intuitive, beauty-seeking heart of an artist that drives them to create beauty from broken things and what has the power to meet the brokenness with beauty for your congregation as well.
Find an artist who has had to go through a lot of counseling, it's probably a good sign they have a difficult story and have something of deep value to teach. And at that point, they probably have a lot of empathy.
If they have an ability to preach, this is great. Find an artist that went to seminary and has some chops in theology, pastoral care, and preaching, you're one step better. If you find an artist that you can pay to stay with you for a month or more, even better, because how often does a sustainable change happen in one event.
The power of an artist in residence is far more than just their art. The right type of artist in residence has their sails lifted a little higher, ready to sense the moving of the spirit. Their hearts are usually a little more battered because artists are often more sensitive to pain and beauty, and they now should be ready to present to your people about the healing they have found.
Whereas the pastor has to kind of have it together, as the stable and emotionally-balanced leader, and has to preach along long-established tradition and theologically sound lines of doctrine, an artist can ask questions. She can be honest about her brokenness.
An artist is meant to provoke. An artist is meant to poke a little and make the viewer a little uncomfortable, because they need to be asking some new questions. If they do their job right they are the prophets among us.
And so, if you feel like your congregation is just going through the motions. And needs a little bit of a jolt, and to be inspired by beautiful visuals, poetry and a compelling story, perhaps an artist in residence program is something you should start crafting.
I try to partner with churches for one month and provide as many of these options as possible because I think transform takes better when you have that long, and that many ways to get it into, and out of, your soul.