When an entire village of Bolivian Indian ranch workers came to the Lord several years ago, some missionary friends of mine were faced with some steep questions.
What do we do with this village of people who now know the Lord as Savior? How do we teach them to study the Bible when most of them don’t read? When they have no Christian music, what do we suggest they sing? When they have no liturgy in their own cultural expressions, through what communal practices do they express their reverence, confession, praise, and worship of their God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ?
In this case, my missionary friends did the right thing. They encouraged the Bolivian Indian believers to create their own musical expressions. They understood the importance of culturally proper communication and affirmed that it would be both appropriate and wise to sing songs they composed themselves and carry out their gathered worship in familiar and heartfelt expressions.
When evangelization happens in its fullness, the goal for new believers is to see them establish what I call indigenous Christian community formation; culturally relevant expressions of their faith and worship that pluck their deepest heartstrings. Since true worship is that which flows out of our inner Godward heart expression, to connect with that core place in the person or the community, it must move through heartfelt, familiar expressions. So, no matter where the Lord’s gospel engages a person’s heart, out of that heart—saved, liberated, and changed by the gospel—will spring indigenous expressions of song, movement, rituals, liturgies, and décor.
Artistic communicators and artistic expression specialists stand central to developing indigenous Christian community formation.
Also, in many parts of the world, often due to a lack of literacy, much communication will necessarily be through artistic or imaginative expression. Music, drama, storytelling, painting, architecture, mime, puppets, crafts, festivals, movement, ritual, food, décor, etc, are all forms of artistic expression through which and in which the community will worship, learn, disciple, and celebrate. And if these expressions (expressions we often in the Western world call ‘the arts’) are not culturally familiar, there will be less-than whole-hearted worship, communication of the gospel will be less effective, and the community of believers will grow slowly, all because the Christian faith expressed seems foreign, awkward, or simply ‘not me’.
It should be clear from the above that artistic communicators and artistic expression specialists stand central to developing indigenous Christian community formation, though often they are not being valued. These artistic and human expression specialists are Christians endowed by God with unusual wisdom in imaginative design and expression.
This definition is based on the family of terms related to the Hebrew idea of craftsman—a person unusually wise at imaginative design or expression. Musicians and singers fit into this larger category as well. They may be pastors, teachers, musicians, painters, writers, managers, factory workers, farmers, or housewives. They are simply Christians with the God-given ‘unusual’ amounts of these imaginal capacities. Everyone possesses ‘imaginality’, but not everyone has these unusual capacities of aesthetic sensitivity that produce culturally relevant song, lyrics, poetry, storying, movement, visual expression, environmental sensitivity, and such. They also possess vision and ability for actively incorporating appropriate artistic forms and methods into worship, teaching, discipleship, and evangelism.
People generally hear and understand with their hearts long before they hear and understand with their heads. And their heartstrings are generally plucked, not by the academic or the apologist, but by the artist and the poet. This reality leads me to shout from the rooftops that Christian musicians and artists play a critical role in world evangelization. Where the Great Commission has truly been carried out, the penetrated cultures most often worship and proclaim their faith in their own heart-languages and cultural styles.
Where the Great Commission has truly been carried out, the penetrated cultures most often worship and proclaim their faith in their own heart-languages and cultural styles.
These heart-languages and cultural styles are very often revealed through indigenous artists who are arts ministry specialists or imaginative expression specialists. Whether in ceremonies, liturgies, or pageants where visual, music, storytelling, or other dynamics of gathered expression are used, it is usually the arts ministry specialists who help facilitate the believing community in its public and private expressions of worship.
‘Now, worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism [. . .] It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it,’ writes A.W. Tozer. And the most valuable jewel is worship that makes sense in the context of one’s own culture. It requires symbols, metaphors, and rituals that help connect people with the invisible realities of God himself.
These kinds of worship activities demand that we take the realities of God and his truths beyond the languages of the head into the languages of the heart. And that realm is so often the realm of artistic expression. God has specially equipped present-day worshiping artists to express beyond words the realities of God‘s supernatural person and kingdom. Therefore, we need to proactively recruit and deploy these worship and arts ministry specialists into the fabric of the church and her mission.
As a young believer I realized two things quite clearly: one is that church leadership was (and still is) slow to trust artistic specialists; and the second is that the arts community rarely accepted Christian artists. Out of that realization I sensed God assigning me to help equip artists and musicians for the greater cause of world evangelization. I also realized there were few ministerial structures that would take these artistic ministry initiators seriously. So these God-inspired passions led to the launching of Artists in Christian Testimony International (A.C.T. Intl), a mission agency comprised of musicians and artists, and other creative ministry-initiators of all kinds, each of whom is committed to indigenous worship and Christian community formation.
Even after 50 years of effort in this area, this resistance still exists in the minds of church leaders, although many ministers and missionaries are more open to the importance of artistic and musical strategies in ministry and missions. And there are not at all sufficient ‘ministry-facilitating structures’ readily provided for those few recruited who understand the strategic nature of artistic expressions, methods, and strategies. They have not been given enough room to experiment in developing ministry contexts for gospel-engagement, discipleship, church planting, and hybrid worship curating.
Artistic Christians need at least three things to sustain a ministry: vision, leadership, and structures.
From the start, A.C.T. Intl has been committed to empowering musicians and artists for world evangelization and holistic ministry by helping people worship and proclaim Christ in culturally relevant ways and equipping the church to bring relevant worship to the nations. These are keys to our overarching ‘Christian’ mandate of reclaiming the cultures of the world for Christ through music and the arts. Artistic Christians need at least three things to sustain a ministry: vision, leadership, and structures. Therefore, A.C.T. Intl exists to provide all these three areas. We need many more mission agencies who are intentionally trying to find and send out artistic ministry practitioners.
We have expected from the beginning that similar movements mobilizing artists into ministry could happen in other regions of the world, since creative kingdom servants exist in every culture. Before long, the Lord directed us to locate in Nashville, Tennessee, now known to the world as Music City and the Home of Christian Music. Soon thereafter, we saw a huge pool of musicians and artists that were mostly waiting for that big recording contract. We thought of ways they could gain valuable experience through prison ministry, without pay or fanfare. A.C.T. Intl’s Prison Ministry was launched to provide a hands-on ‘learning by doing’ training environment for evangelism. As our Prison Ministry grew, it provided vision, leadership, and structured opportunities for artists, musicians, dancers, and actors.
We also realize the need for more in-depth training, equipping those artists who feel God’s call to ministry. This observation has led to the formation of our Arts-Ministry Training programs—now called uSeminary.org and Worshipedia.org. These programs explore biblical theology, biblical strategies, and biblical skills for arts ministry by providing a high-quality, low-cost environment whereby experienced arts ministry specialists can crystallize and communicate their wisdom. We currently have three online portals for our educational services: uSeminary (https://useminary.org), Worshipedia (https://worshipedia.org), and uSeminary Publishing (https://www.useminarypublishing.org).
The A.C.T. Intl community of creative artists have helped give ongoing direction to those already in ministry. Two early examples were contemporary musicians Marty McCall and Scott Wesley Brown. Both brothers had joined me at different times in hosting a monthly A.C.T. Intl Christian Musicians Fellowship, which focused on caring for Nashville musicians. As the pastoral strengths in Marty and Scott surfaced, God moved them both to take leadership roles in local churches by adding worship pastoring to their touring ministry. Others connected to A.C.T. Intl went into short term music outreaches abroad. Once getting involved in ministry outside the walls of the local churches, it became an easy next step to move into short-term missions and on-going ministry endeavors through artistic methods and strategies.
World evangelization cannot adequately happen without the involvement of arts ministry practitioners and imaginative expression specialists.
Creative kingdom servants and worship and arts ministry specialists are feeling God’s tug toward ministry. Many are ready to respond to mentoring and guidance. But God‘s people need to identify them, involve them, develop structures that deploy them, and intentionally encourage them toward energetic involvement in spreading the good news of his kingdom. World evangelization cannot adequately happen without the involvement of arts ministry practitioners and imaginative expression specialists.
So if you are creative, ask God to give you the focus and intentionality to go deeper in your daily worship walk with him, and take immediate steps to make your artistic passions and skills available to him for his purposes. If you are a church servant-leader, in any capacity, I urge you to look for artistic people in your sphere of influence. Then when you see them, care for them, connect with them, affirm and admire them, resource them, and envision the powerful ways God wants them to serve him. They are the ones he is equipping to express his glory in worship, tell his great story of Jesus’ provisions of forgiveness and access, and serve as his beautiful vessels through which his Spirit will work in the lives of many.
World evangelism will especially flourish through the beauty of the Lord’s artistic servants being released to declare the glory of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. May you become an advocate for engaging and caring for this rich pool of creative artists for the gospel.
Byron Spradlin is the Lausanne catalyst for arts and 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 50 nations. He is an artists-in-missions-and-ministry specialist who has served the Christian community as a Bible teacher, church planter, worship pastor, evangelist, professor, recording artist, published songwriter, and arts-missiologist in over 50 countries, and a thought-leader in the role of imagination and the arts in the church and her missional mandates.