I’ve recently been trying to think what the next new thing is going to be in mission - what are the areas that we’re not working in yet that we should be doing in? Maybe because last night I was helping to build an installation for our worship event at Greenbelt, the answer came to me: the use of the arts as mission.
As Protestants we’ve had a tortured relationship with the arts through history: theologically we hate them, but the will to express ourselves through them has proved irrepressible. So just as soon as Luther kicked out all the icons and paintings from our churches for fear that they were becoming an idolatrous distraction from God, church music started to become more and more complex. Plainchant was replaced by harmonies, then counterpoint, then full orchestration, then Hillsongs. Today, of course, a long and elaborate “worship” session (which has become equated with singing) is de rigeur; the worship leader is the new iconographer, with a little bit of rock star thrown in. If church art was idolatry, how much more has church music become. (This is not an original thought; I read it on someone’s blog but I forget where.)
But while there are clearly sections of the church which are staunchly anti-arts, I think we’re starting see elsewhere a realisation that we don’t have to hate the arts. Music was a given. Christians in the Visual Arts started in 1979. Image, Ruminate, and of course, Greenbelt itself, testify to a resurgence in artistic expression amongst Christians - and equally to a wider acceptance of art in Christian circles.
What about mission, then?
Again, since we have been so music-centered for the past, oh, four hundred years, the use of the arts in mission has historically been restricted to music - and not much of that; the focus has been mainly on music for (congregational) church worship, rather than music as worship, much less music as outreach.
Traditionally heathen music was regarded as demonic, and so needed to replaced with good Christian (read “Western”) hymn tunes, such as the melodies that Wesley collected from the pubs and streets of his day. But recently the discipline of ethnodoxology has emerged to try to construct culturally appropriate worship music; my own mission has founded the Resonance team to do this as a short-term mission opportunity. That’s still mainly in the realm of congregational worship music, although they do do a bit of performance music as well.
It’s a start, but I think we need to be thinking about the next stage: ways of getting our message across which are culturally appropriate, through artistic media. I think filmmaking is going to be a big thing for mission quite soon. From my context in Japan, Jitensha is an excellent example of this. (And that makes an important point - I’m not proposing anything revolutionary and there are people doing this already, but it’s still seen as niche; but I do think that this form of mission, like the other arts expressions I highlighted, will become progressively more mainstream.)
What does this mean? For starters it means that we will be need more missionaries with creative skills; that’s a challenge. But the flip side of that challenge is a wonderful opportunity: missionaries who do have creative skills will be encouraged to use them, and not turned into drab sermon machines.
I’d like to start thinking of some of the other ways that mission can engage with the arts; I do think that this is a missing area at the moment, and I do think it’s going to change.