I frequently hear questions like these: “In the big scheme of things, are the arts really all that important? If I really want to help people, shouldn’t I become a missionary or pastor or doctor or firefighter, rather than a dancer?”
“What difference do a few paintings make in a world threatened with starvation, injustice, and eternity separated from God? Maybe if a play shares the gospel it can be an evangelistic tool, but isn’t a musical comedy a gigantic waste? Aren’t there better ways for me to spend my time, or my church’s money, than on the arts?”
These are good questions, and they’ve been asked by many people, in the arts or about the arts, particularly as it comes to how we use our resources (money, time, and energy). And they’re not just asked by Christians. Arts organizations that are competing with social services for grants ask themselves every day, “Is making art in an affluent city for affluent people really more important than building housing for AIDS orphans in Africa? Than feeding the survivors of natural disaster or war? Than rescuing people out of sexual slavery?”
Christians have the added question of “Is what I’m doing really more important than saving souls?”
My answer? No. It isn’t more important, if survival – both physical and spiritual, through a saving relationship with Christ – is what the arts are “competing” with.
But is it a competition? Is survival our only aim and anything that doesn’t contribute to it is inconsequential? Or is there a role for the arts in our world that is vital – life-giving – and justifies investment?
Three questions come up in this dilemma:
- Are we all supposed to be focusing all of our resources on survival needs?
- Do we have the capability to meet these needs?
- What happens after we’ve met survival needs?
Are we all supposed to be focusing all of our resources (money, time, and energy) on survival needs?
If the answer to this question is “yes,” it seems to discount the individual gifting, calling, and opportunities we receive from God.
Certainly we are all supposed to be focusing at least some of our resources on the physical and spiritual survival of others. Scripture tells us to serve those in need, give generously, and share our faith – no exceptions. If I walked into a town full of starving people, and had the capability to give them food, but instead said “Now I’m going to perform for you a dance about food,” that would be irresponsible.
We artists need to push ourselves to serve others’ physical and spiritual needs, outside of and in addition to our preferred art-making practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard artists say, “My art is my ministry,” as though simply showing up in the studio every day met their obligation to the human race, and to God.
Yet “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (Romans 12:6). My friend Molly has the gifting, calling, and opportunity to give financially above and beyond the capability of many others. Molly believes God has pulled her out of art-making for a season, to work a well-paying job so that she can give to others in ways that would make a real impact on their ministries.
Molly gives naturally. It’s who she is. If I decided Molly’s way was the only way I could serve God and humanity, and I tried to emulate her – without the benefit of what God has given Molly – it would be an awkward fit, at best. At worst, it would keep me from serving God in the way he uniquely constructed and called me to do.
God is sovereign. We have to assume that how he made us, where he put us, and what he’s given us to work with all add up to a vital and empowered role for us, to work alongside him in his kingdom.
And we need to help meet survival needs in whatever ways we can, whenever we’re needed. This will require sacrifice. It won’t be easy to do both.
Do we have the capability to meet these needs?
Some of that capability may, again, be in the areas of gifting and opportunity. Or it may simply be in what we have in our hands at the moment the need arises.
If I have no food to give when I walk into the starving town, but do have a dance about food, then dancing is what I can do for the people there. And, perhaps, after I’m finished dancing, I can help the people look for food. Or, perhaps, the dance will help the people think differently about their need for food, or help them creatively meet that need in some other way. Or it might just give them a few moments of joy, and a reminder that beauty – and therefore hope – still exists even within their desperate need for food.
Again, God is sovereign. If the person he sends into the starving town is someone with a dance to give, but no food, God has a reason for that.
What happens after we’ve met survival needs?
If I walk into the starving town, and I have both food and a dance to give, certainly I should start by giving the food to the people. First things first.
Then what happens? Second things second. I dance.
Once the most urgent physical and spiritual survival needs are met, all efforts after that are Second Things. And Second Things are important, too. Second Things are the things we’re living for.
If I had both food and dance to give a starving town, and didn’t give them the food, it would be irresponsible. If I had both food and dance, and didn’t give them dance, it would be unloving.
When a mother sees that her child’s survival needs are met, what’s the Second Thing the mother wants? She wants her child to thrive. To make friends, to be content, to get an education, to look forward to the future.
When we share our faith, we want to give someone access to eternity through salvation, and give him a vision for what that eternity will be like so that, between access and entry, he can live differently with eternity in mind.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11)
“You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim.“ (Psalm 23:5)
Fish = First Things
Banquet = Second Things
Second Things are a preview of the paradise that is to come.
Most often, in less extreme situations than my starving town, First and Second Things are co-laboring in a duet entwining life (vita) and vitality. Sometimes a dance is needed more than a sandwich.
God created the world and humankind, and shared with us the task of cultivating his creation, and using it as raw material for creations of our own – of making it thrive and thriving within it. Then sin put our very survival at risk. What was the simple and easy reality of creation, completed by God, is now the complex and difficult reality of survival, requiring our daily effort. And yet our “cultivator” role hasn’t changed. We must be – survive – in order to cultivate and create. Yet cultivate and create is what we were designed by God to do.
And second isn’t a bad place to be. Just ask a silver medalist. So if we feel diminished, unimportant, because we’re not “first,” perhaps we need to ask ourselves what (and who) that’s about. Instead, as Second Things workers, let’s delight in our role as servants of God’s original purpose for humankind, and cultivators of one another’s thriving. In our church ministries, we shouldn’t have to choose between First and Second Things. The blessings of God are abundant enough for both!
So, yes, if you really want to help people, become a missionary or pastor or doctor or firefighter. Or become a dancer or sculptor or accountant or waiter or whatever God has created and called you to do. We all need each other.
Editorial Note: This Article was reposted with permission of the author and this an other articles can be found at Church and Art Network.
Luann Purcell Jennings is the founder and director of Church and Art Network. She is a veteran of more than twenty years of arts leadership, as a theatre director, administrator, and instructor; and in full-time church ministry, including six years running the Arts Ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC). Luann has studied arts leadership at New York University, Columbia University, Lincoln Center Institute, National Arts Strategies, and University of Tennessee (MFA).