This particular post was kind of inspired by a good friend of mine who’s currently overseas on a short-term mission trip for a year. However, before he went overseas, he was always very keen on the arts (especially musical theatre) and had actually written and starred in some productions of his own.
Now, if you ever go overseas for a short-term mission (and I do recommend it, even if it’s only a few weeks), you will find inevitably that you start thinking about what kind of direction your life should take. In this case, my friend is thinking about whether he should continue overseas (where there is clearly a need) or whether he should go into the arts (where he clearly has a passion).
The overseas one is a pretty easy sell – you’d be a missionary, you could clearly chuck all your tasks you do there under the category of “serving God” and 100% of Christians back home would see your work as a valuable service to Christ.
But what about the arts? If he were to go into the arts, how do you glorify God in that industry? To give a brief quote from his email (and I apologise, mate, if this was meant to be super-private):
At the moment for me it’s still that tug between creativity and ministry - and even though people say they don’t have to be separated, saying things like “you could write skits and plays for church”, that’s really way way way below the artistic levels to which I aspire.
I can tell you now – this comment completely resonates with me, and it’s something that I’ve spent the last two and a half years throwing around and thinking about. So, partly to answer my friend’s question of “how are we to think about the arts as Christians?” and partly to get some of my own thoughts down in writing, I thought I would write a series of posts about the issues facing Christians and their work, and particularly how this impacts on work in the arts.
I don’t profess to be an expert in these things, and I’m always open to learning new things, so my thinking may change over time. But for the present time, this is where I’m at, so hopefully you will bear with me in this thinking.
To start with, I wanted to briefly lay out in this first post, what the current state of Christianity seems to be (or at least Australian Protestant evangelicalism) as regards work and the arts, and then hopefully in subsequent posts, I can talk a bit more about how we got there, and whether there’s any errors in our thinking.
As the title of my post suggests, the state of Christianity and how it relates to culture seems rather vague and ill-defined. On the whole, Christians aren’t going to the extreme of separating ourselves from culture (though there are groups like the Amish and Mennonites and the stricter Baptist churches that do consider it important to cut themselves off from anything worldly), but on the other hand, we haven’t really worked out what to do with culture.
Are Christians meant to embrace it and enjoy it? Or are they meant to be suspicious of it? What are we supposed to do?
The guidance that we hope to receive from our ministers and churches often only seems to relate to church life, how we relate to one another, and evangelism. There may be the occasional sermon on money, but that’s usually about how we should be giving more of it away. Certainly, in my 28 years on the planet, I could probably count on the fingers of two hands (and probably it’s only one) the number of sermons that I’ve heard specifically dealing with work. Apart from one sermon on movies, I can’t count any that dealt with the arts. (And even then, the sermon was on how to approach films as a movie viewer. It’s a whole different kettle of fish, if you wanted to work in the film industry.)
And of these sermons, the exhortations about work usually fall into three categories. 1) We should use work as an opportunity to evangelise. 2) We should use work as an opportunity to make money to support real Christian work. 3) We can work in a Christian manner and so in the way we treat people, etc. we will be working as Christians.
Now, all of this is well and good, but if you think about it, if this is all there is, it ultimately devalues the work itself. After all, you can evangelise, whether you’re a receptionist or a lawyer. You can make money to support Christian work whether you’re a garbage man or a computer programmer. You can treat people in a Christlike way, whether you’re a day care worker or a sales person.
However, if the only thing that is important is the way you work, the money you make, and the specific conversations about Jesus you have – there’s not a lot there – and this is immediately obvious to anyone who’s in the working world. Regardless of how good an evangelist you are, if you get to spend 5% of your work time talking about Jesus, you’re doing well, and it will probably be less. With regards to the money, your pay cheque will be cut probably once a fortnight, and you can choose how to give the money away then, but that’s five minutes thinking – the rest of the two weeks is spent actually doing the work.
Now, on the final point, certainly, the way you work is important – but think about it: if the work itself is meaningless, what difference does it make how you do it? (As an example, in Russian prisons back in the day, the quickest way of breaking the spirit of male prisoners was to get them to carry rocks back and forth all day from one end of the prison yard to the other. You know why it broke them? Not because of the physical arduousness of the task – but because all their work was meaningless.)
However, as opposed to this glaring silence about “secular” work or “ordinary” work, there is an almost constant spotlight thrown on “Christian” work. We’ve often heard that we need more ministers, more missionaries, more Christian workers.
So, it would be very easy to come to the conclusion – and I think most people have – that a select few people are doing the hard yards working for God full-time, and the rest of us are taking the softer option of working for God part-time.
So as a result of this distinct lack of guidance in the area of things , Christians seem to take one of two approaches. Either 1) they become consumed by the perceived emptiness of the “secular” stuff they are doing, and sign themselves up to as many rosters, church committees, etc as possible to relieve the guilt or 2) they don’t even think about it, and happily show up to church activities on Sunday and maybe a couple of mid-week events, and then live as pagans the rest of the week.
So, why, you might ask, don’t more Christians speak up about it?
It’s complicated, but I think there’s a number of reasons why:
1. There is such a respect for preaching and ministers in our churches, that we assume that whatever is talked about (or not talked about) is the extent of the Christian life. So if your minister is not talking about work, or the arts, or politics, or whatever, then the average congregation member is going to think: these things are not important to Christians. If the only type of Christian work and ministry you hear about from the pulpit is that of full-time Christian work, or evangelism, or how you treat other people, the congregation will assume that this is all that is imporant.
2. At the level of ministers and churches, there is actually still a fair amount of debate going on as to whether there are two categories of work – Christian ministry work and other work. Depending on where your minister sits on that spectrum will determine what you’re hearing from the pulpit.
3. I’ve never heard this mentioned, but I suspect that because a large majority of people hate their work (at least as far as the statistics show) and are really “working for the weekend,” as the saying goes, it’s very easy for Christians to agree that somehow there’s something fundamentally pointless about “secular” work. I would argue that the hatred of work (or boredom, if hate is too strong a word) comes out of the wrong approach to work, but that’s for another post.
In fact, that last point, I think, is particularly significant, because it was the turning point in making me think about these issues. When I first got the idea in my head, that I wanted to work in the arts (helped along by the ever-brilliant What Color is Your Parachute?) , the first thing that I realised was that it would be tremendously enjoyable to work in the arts. As soon as the idea of enjoyment was in my head, the immediate suspicion was, “Well, hang on, if you’re going to enjoy it, how do you know you’re not just being selfish and working for your own pleasure rather than God’s glory?”
So that’s what began me on this journey.
Anyway, next post, I’ll have a look at why I think the modern church has got their sacred/secular divide from, and how this impacts the way we view things as Christians nowadays.