Byron Spradlin on Missions and the Role of Artists

An interview with Lausanne’s two-term catalyst for the arts

Byron Spradlin | 13 Apr 2023

Byron Spradlin has seen the Lausanne Movement grow since its inception in 1974 through today, playing integral roles in the Second and Third Lausanne Congresses. As he finishes his second and final term as the Lausanne catalyst for the arts, he provides some reflections on the importance of the arts and imaginative expression as we head toward the Fourth Lausanne Congress.

How did you become involved with global missions?

In the summer of 1966, I went on a summer mission trip to Japan with 49 other students and my guitar. That uncorked a proclivity toward mission in cross-cultural settings. Two years later I joined a Christian music group and toured Asia, where I made a deep commitment to the Lord and gave God my music as well.

When I returned to the University of California at Davis, I began to write songs coming out of becoming a campus Christian activist and music evangelist. But I never saw myself as a singer-songwriter-type trying to get a record deal, which I did get, to tell you the truth. I probably did three-thousand-plus concerts between 1968–1971. But I saw myself more as an evangelist, a Bible teacher, and a missionary.

I began to sense God’s specific assignment in my life: to disciple those with music and arts backgrounds and see them worked into the fabric of church and mission ministry.

During this time, as I traveled to many different churches across 25 nations, I began to sense God’s specific assignment in my life: to disciple those with music and arts backgrounds and see them worked into the fabric of church and mission ministry. At the same time, I felt a call to indigenous Christian worship formation. It began to make sense to me that the church needed to express itself in terms of the culture it was reaching. And to meet that need I knew that artistic-ministry personnel were strategic.

How have you been involved with Lausanne over the years?

In 1974 I was in the room when Moishe Rosen, the leader of Jews for Jesus, received a letter from Billy Graham, inviting him to be a participant in the First Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Moishe did not go, instead sending one of the other early founders of Jews for Jesus, Tuvya Zaretsky. But Moishe did attend the 1981 Lausanne gathering in Pattaya, Thailand, which led to the formation of the Lausanne Consultation for Jewish Evangelism (LCJE), the Lausanne Movement’s first issue network, which I also joined.

In 1987 I was invited to attend the Younger Leaders Gathering in Singapore, where I led the Tuesday night worship. In 1988 I was invited by the Lausanne leadership to produce the second Younger Leaders gathering, held in Washington DC. There, Dr Ralph Winters, well-known to Lausanne for introducing in 1974 the existence of ‘unreached people groups’, (I’m smiling as I remember this incident) came up and told me, ‘. . . the music is too loud.’ I responded (hopefully with deep respect but still directly), ‘Dr Winter, these are Boomers, they need it to be loud to be culturally appropriate.’ I’m not sure how that went over with him, but I know I did not have the volume turned down. And I got no bad feedback from the Boomers.

Then in 1989 I was delighted to be on the program committee for the Second Congress held in Manila, where I was also the stage director and helped design the general sessions. In 2004 in Pattaya, the Arts track wrote a Lausanne Occasional Paper (LOP) called Redeeming the Arts. And I, along with Ed Willmington and Clay Schmit (from Fuller Theological Seminary in California), planned the main-session worship for the Third Lausanne Congress held in Cape Town in 2010.

After that Third Congress, in 2012 the Lausanne leadership formalized issue networks, and I was selected to head the Arts Network. Later I suggested the word ‘catalyst’ as the title for the various representative leaders of Lausanne’s issue networks. David Bennett, the global associate director for collaboration and content, liked it. It’s the word we still use today.

Let’s go back to your connection with Jews for Jesus.
How were you connected with them, and how does this relate to your calling to arts ministry?

Two years after I felt God’s call in my life (September 1972), a Jewish music group of messianic believers came to sing at my church for the evening service. They were brought by Moishe Rosen, our speaker that night, later to become known as the founder of Jews for Jesus. They’d been together for five weeks and had been doing messianic music. They were not talented musicians, but they sang tremendous, Jewish-sounding, gospel-messaged songs!

After the service, I went up and offered to coach them. They accepted my offer, and I prepared them for their first national tour in the summer 1973, on which they were proclaiming that Jesus (Yeshua) was the Jewish Messiah. The group was called The Liberated Wailing Wall. It was the first street music team for what would become known as Jews for Jesus.

Both The Wall and my music evangelism efforts needed a ministry organization. So Moishe Rosen and I put that ministry organization together, calling it Hineni Ministries, which would oversee both Jews for Jesus and what a bit later I labeled Artists in Christian Testimony (A.C.T.) International.

We were asking questions like, ‘What does a Messiah-Jesus-centered Day of Atonement celebration look like?’

To reach fellow Jews, Moishe didn’t use apologetic literature, the norm of the day. Rather, he leaned into artistic strategies as he embraced Jewish humor, graphic design, cultural symbols, and Jewish liturgy forms, including Jewish music. For example, in those early days we were trying to create ‘Jewish-Christian’ (later to be called ‘messianic’) worship services, weddings, and many other ceremonies. We were asking questions like, ‘What does a Messiah-Jesus-centered Day of Atonement celebration look like?’ ‘What does a Jewish-believer Shabbat worship service look like?’ And many more scenarios like this.

Since its formation—which really took shape when I, a Gentile, started coaching the street-music-evangelism team for Jews for Jesus—A.C.T. International has focused on mobilizing and equipping artistic and innovative ministries and missionaries for Christian work around the world. We provide artistic and other innovative ministry entrepreneurs the coaching, accountability, organization, non-profit status, and administrative systems they need to move forward in ministry.

And, as a missional part of the church, we help the church embrace, understand, and facilitate the tremendous value of artists and the arts for Christ’s redemptive work throughout the world.

ARTICLE

The Critical Role of Christian Artists and Musicians in Missions

World evangelization cannot happen without them.

Could you tell me more about the role of the arts and artistic ministry specialists in global mission?

Artistic ministry specialists are central to global mission because they are the key people who are capacity-ed by God to help indigenous communities create Christian culturally-expressed community formation. They are the ones God has ‘specially capacity-ed’ to draw out of and shape a given culture’s worship and communal forms and expressions in line with who they are.

In Exodus 31, 35, and 36, God called Bezalel and Oholiab, two gifted craftsmen, who were ‘unusually wise at imaginative design and expression’. It is essential in this generation to mobilize the same sort of artists into global missions because they are what I call the ‘imaginative expression specialists’.

Artists create environments wherein people touch the transcendent realities of life, living, and interacting with God himself.

Artists are not special, in terms of our essence. Everyone is equally important to God. But according to these passages (Exodus, 31, 35, 36, and many more), God has designed some people as having an unusual capacity of imaginative ability. For example, I didn’t know my daughter would end up becoming a professional ballerina when we put her in dance classes as a child. But she had an imaginative and artistic capacity that was bigger than most others.

Artists are specialized. We shouldn’t think ourselves higher than we ought, but we do have unusual capacity for these things. And it’s a stewardship. Therefore, it becomes a dynamic of our service to the Lord and others on his behalf. We church leaders must grow to understand that these ‘artistic kingdom servants’ are strategic to the life and work of the church, not simply as baubles of entertainment or as non-essential specialties. The dynamics that artistic-specialists bring are what reveal our humanity (in some of its highest and most beautiful ways).

Artists create environments wherein people touch the transcendent realities of life, living, and interacting with God himself. We are more than computers. We are humans, designed by God to relate to him intimately, which takes all the dynamics of intelligence he’s given us: rational intelligence, imaginal intelligence, and emotional intelligence. All three dynamics are in play (as God designed) for us to have intimate fellowship with him! And artistic kingdom servants are key to helping humanity step into these places of intimacy.

Lausanne is critical to the evangelical mission movement in the 21st century. So then, and therefore, artists are even more important now than ever before.

What are some of the wins and challenges for the arts as we look toward the Fourth Lausanne Congress coming up in September 2024?

The win is that we artistic kingdom servants are part of the conversation. One of the challenges is to make sure that issues of artistic specialty and expression stay involved in the theological conversations and the strategy conversations, not simply the program. We must have both ‘experience’ of artistic worship and interaction as well as more thought-filled biblical-theological conversation about the roles of artistic people, strategies, and methods—both in human community in general, and in missional activities in specific.

Lausanne is critical to the evangelical mission movement in the 21st century. So then, and therefore, artists are even more important now than ever before—both in the theological and strategic conversations and in the outworking of missional methods and practices.

Byron Spradlin is the founder and president of Artists in Christian Testimony Intl, a missions and ministry sending board for artists and creatives, now with over 700 artistic and innovative staff touching 52 nations. He is an artists-in-missions-and-ministry specialist who has served the body of Christ as a Bible teacher, church planter, worship pastor, evangelist, professor, recording artist, published songwriter, and arts-missiologist in over 50 countries, and he's a thought-leader in the role of imagination and the arts in the church and its missional mandates.