The Church and Cultural Relevance

The role of the arts in contemporary worship and evangelism

With a passion for contemporary worship in the church and relevant communication with the culture, David Fellingham expresses his belief that the arts are integral to both.

David Fellingham (Photo by Tom Butler)

In recent years, the renewal of worship has been a significant aspect of contemporary church life. Hymns in archaic language with a musical style rarely heard outside of church congregations have been gradually superseded by “the contemporary worship song.” Of course there are many older hymns that have a theological and poetical timelessness that will never lose their place in church worship, but generally now, across most denominations, the worship song seems here to stay. Often written with simple melodies and chord structures, these songs have an immediacy with which people can easily identify. When dressed up in good arrangements and excellent musicianship and interpretation, worship songs can compare with contemporary songs, making them culturally relevant in today’s world. This has helped to make worship more accessible and relevant to unchurched people today and connects church with what is happening in secular culture.

Contemporary Worship

Vineyard, Maranatha, Integrity, Hillsong and Thank You Music all represent different “streams” of what is happening spiritually across the world, with their songs helping to identify their message. The crossflow between these streams—as songs become available to the body of Christ at large through published albums and music—can only be healthy in helping us to understand one another, bringing a greater sense of unity to the church worldwide.

Contemporary worship has a definite identity that is affecting mainstream Christianity. The danger with this development is that without a true understanding of worship from a biblical and theological perspective, current worship expressions can look like a cosmetic addition to a church that was becoming irrelevant in the way it presented itself to the modern world. Externalism has always been an issue in church life. When commercialism is then added and a worship industry develops, the dangers become even more acute.

So we need to clarify the true nature of worship. Is there a way of expressing ourselves to God that is acceptable to Him yet relevant to the modern world? Is contemporary worship artistically limited? Is it spiritually relevant? In one of their earlier albums, Joshua Tree, U2 sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Years on, is this cry still coming from the heart of a church that, while being renewed and made more relevant, is still searching for that extra something that reflects more of the expansiveness of a mighty Creator God?

Renewed Interest in the Arts

Another development in contemporary worship is a renewed interest in the arts. Historically, artists have not had an easy ride in expressing themselves within the context of church life. The questioning of an artist’s spiritual integrity by labeling anything visual as idolatry has caused much hurt and misunderstanding. It would be a common view that the artist only has a role in expressing and interpreting the gospel—seeing art as a means to an end. Such a utilitarian view denies the intrinsic worth of the artist, and art itself.

However, as contemporary worship has developed, grown and impacted the church at large, many Christian artists have started to emerge from their closets, enhancing what has happened musically with dance, drama and the visual arts. Many worship conferences now make space for seminars and teaching, and give opportunities for artists to express themselves. There is, however, a suspicion that this is an add-on rather than being intrinsic to the whole.

Questions need answering about worship and the place of the arts in the contemporary church. To gain answers to our questions, it is vital that we go back to our primary source of revelation, the Bible. It is in the Bible itself that we understand God’s plan and purpose for our salvation, God’s purpose for the earth and God’s purpose in having a church, a people in whom His presence will dwell. The church is essential in God’s strategy for building loving relationships in community, evangelizing the world and declaring His glory in praise and worship.

The Kingdom of God

Many of the Old Testament prophecies point toward God having a people who will declare His fame in the earth. The Old Covenant gave us a hint and shadow of what were to become real and dynamic communities, filled with the love and power of God, with anointed leadership. This was to be the strategy for implementing the rule of God in the earth. The church is to be the instrument of the Kingdom, not only reconciling men and women to God through personal salvation but also bringing the rule and government of God into all walks of society: education, law and order, trade and industry, the media, leisure, politics and everything else that makes up the fabric of society. It is not only personal redemption but also community and cultural redemption that the church is called to. It is not until Christ returns and everything will be gathered up under His headship that we will see such a vision fully realized. But we still have a mandate to work towards that end, bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God into all areas of life and society.

Artists who are Christian should see their calling and gifting in the context of such a vision, as should Christians who are scientists, educators or politicians. Their art, therefore, has a two dimensional aspect: one toward God, the other communicating to the world. It is therefore vital that we have a true understanding of the nature of worship because our motivation foreverything we do should be God-centered.

Art that is tagged onto worship or art that isutilitarian in its purpose is missing the whole point about our relationship with God and how we relate to Him. Worship is not about what we do in a worship time, whether it’s singing hymns, worship songs, painting pictures or doing drama. It is about our relationship with the Father, through the Son Jesus, by His Spirit.

Worship as a Lifestyle

There are many Old Testament words that have been translated as either praise or worship from the original Hebrew. All true worship is based on the Old Testament word shacah, which means to bow down in reverence, to prostrate oneself. Shacah is often used to denote coming before God in worship. When the enslaved Israelites “heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped” (Ex. 4:31). Bowing is an attitude of submission and obedience. It involves giving ourselves unreservedly to God.

Other words have physical implications such as shouting, dancing, speaking out and raising hands. Worship in the Old Testament was about heart attitude and a physical response. The physical response without the heart attitude was not acceptable to God. In the New Testament, Jesus says that the true worshippers are those who worship in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23-24). The word for worship used here is proskuneo, which means “to come toward to kiss.” It is an expression of heartfelt and intimate love. Paul, writing to the Philippians, says, “We also worship by the spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.” The word translated worship here is latreuo, which expresses an inner attitude demonstrated by righteous living. The word appears three times in connection with sacrificial ministry (Rom. 9:4, Heb. 9:1,6). It also appears in Romans 12:1 “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Worship is demonstrated by lifestyle. We live to praise God in whatever we do.

In view of this, everything we do in life should be as an act of worship, motivated by love for God. When we understand this, it frees us from the sacred/secular divide and through our understanding of the grace of God frees us to be ourselves. What great news for artists. All our God-given creativity is an expression of worship to God, whether it is consciously God-focused or not. If our heart attitude to God is right, we can be free to express ourselves. God who has made us as creative beings loves to receive our creativity back, giving glory to him, not by our skill, but by our heart attitude.

Therefore, a worship time in church can be enhanced by broader expressions than just music and singing. Integrating artists into the worship team can bring a richness of expression and color, helping people to understand the words they are singing. Movement which interprets truth can bring an added dimension, helping people not only to grasp truth intellectually but also to allow their emotions to feel the impact of that truth.

The Arts in Worship

In Scotland, a crazed gunman entered a school, shooting, wounding and killing several children. The tragedy of this event greatly impacted the nation. In our church service the following Sunday we wanted to pray for this situation, for the bereaved families and for the horrible effect this had on the local community. It was, however, difficult to know how to pray or what to pray. In the worship team we had a cellist who began to play an extemporary lament. As she was playing, a dancer began to move using a rag doll. The visual and aural combined helped people feel the pain and emotion of the event which then led to a deep and moving time of prayer, not only for the tragic situation but also for the children of our nation.

Many churches now function with video projection for songs. Using visual images as well as words to help understand the song can again enrich worship. Scripture reading interpreted with drama can help make passages memorable. These are all obvious ways in which the arts can stimulate and encourage the act of worship.

A lot of progress has been made in encouraging artists in this way, but for most artists this would be a very narrow utilizing of their skills and creative gifting. Ultimately the church’s act of worship needs to be in spirit and in truth, and so openness to the Holy Spirit in His gifts and graces with a strong focus on biblical truth will help to keep a church on solid foundations.

A good church will be strong in worship, community life, social action, prayer and evangelism. If a church functions with these characteristics, the role of the artist within the church is to help bring clarity. It is important that the arts do not define a church but that the church be defined by the word of God. The arts can then help to bring clarity to that definition. The arts will never replace the preaching and teaching ministry within the church, but in the context of a church’s community life as well as the meeting time, artists integrated into the whole of church life have an important contribution to make.

The Arts and Mission

Artists can have a key role in the church’s mission. The arts connect with our culture and help us to have a voice in a hostile world. Most church mission and evangelistic programs are based on a confrontational style that seeks to get the unsaved into our buildings, where they encounter cultural expressions and values that are totally alien to their experience of life. The value systems of our modern world are so radically different from Christianity that we need to learn to engage and communicate with a world that does not understand what we believe—or the words with which we communicate. The arts are able to break down some of those communication barriers and open people up to receive the truth of the gospel.

I often wonder if our evangelistic efforts would be more successful if we gave more attention to preparing the ground to receive the gospel. In the parable of the sower, the seed is the message of the kingdom, and it falls in four different places. Some falls on the path and the birds eat it. Some falls on rocky ground where the plants start growing but are withered by the sun. Some falls among the thorns and choke the plants. The seed that falls on the good, prepared ground yields the harvest. With this principle in mind I have seen fruitful evangelism where the arts have prepared ground for the seed of the gospel.

We encourage this in our church in Brighton, England, by creating a number of events where artists are free to be themselves and use their creativity. These events give Christians and non-Christians the opportunity to interact and make friends in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. We have found that as barriers have been broken down, people have been prepared to hear the gospel.

There is a well-known local dance school where some of our church members are students. When we ran our own dance school as a church, culminating in a dance drama production of Pilgrim’s Progress, two teachers from the local dance school came to watch, somewhat skeptically because this was a church production. However, they were not only impressed by the quality of what they saw, they became curious about the church and what we believed. This eventually led to their conversion to Christ, and they are now church members.

Art exhibitions, poetry readings, jazz concerts, painting and drawing workshops are all regular events that relate with our local community. A recent highlight was putting on a performance of Handel’s Messiah with soloists from the English National Opera. Accompanied by a professional orchestra, the choir was made up of local people, Christians and non-Christians alike. The standard of performance was excellent, but the most powerful memory was that of seeing people sing the Messiah with people who actually believed what they were singing.

Ultimately, evangelism has to be confrontational because the gospel is a clash of kingdoms. However, where churches are developing a strong sense of community, the artist has a key role to play in encouraging and stimulating a quality of life that non-believers will find attractive. When the arts are encouraged and nurtured, worship will be enhanced, and the church will be able to engage the culture in meaningful ways.

In his book Whatever Happened to Worship? A. W. Tozer says, “If the Holy Spirit should come again upon us as in earlier times, visiting church congregations with the sweet but fiery breath of Pentecost, we would be greater Christians and holier souls. Beyond that we would be also greater poets, and greater artists and greater lovers of God and His universe.”

David Fellingham is a songwriter, worship leader, conference speaker and author. Before he went into pastoral ministry, he was a professional musician, working as a conductor, composer, arranger and teacher. He is currently on the leadership team of Church of Christ the King on the south coast of England, where he is director of media and communications.

[This article was originally published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts, Belhaven 2006]

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