In this short blog series I’ve been exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation. Otherwise put: What do the artwork and architecture and liturgical accoutrements of your congregation reveal about its faith and identity? And how do they shape your faith and discipleship?
In my first post I explored how we might respond to the artistic heritage passed down to us from earlier generations. In the second post I considered the importance of contemporary, artistic expressions of faith in our worship and community spaces. Now in this final post I want to push us out of the church building, into the wider community.
Too often the church has thought of itself in terms of a fairly strict separation from the world. The church has failed to identify with the world – it has failed to live for the world, in the world.
While we have to think about these issues carefully (theologically speaking), I’m of the view that we can and must conceive a much more porous boundary between church and world. This doesn’t mean watering down faith convictions, but it will require transforming mindsets and structures and programs – and in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Such transformations must be defined precisely by our life for the world and in the world, since this is the only life that we can possibly embody in faithfulness to the one who is our life – Jesus Christ.
I’d like to suggest that we can think about this question of church/world through the lens aesthetics – specifically, with reference to urban or public art.
For most of us, aesthetic engagement with the “outside world” might include: a church sign, a stained-glass window lighted from inside the building, or an occasional banner adorning a facade. The purpose of these elements is generally to identify ourselves as Christian, to invite others into worship and community life, or even to express something beautiful. These may all have their place, yet it seems fair to subsume all of them under the rubric of “attractional” – meaning that these aesthetic elements are caught up in our attempt to draw people inside the building, and into the church. Further, they are often conceived and actualized without engaging with the wider society.
But I think we can do better than this – we can do more. To be more specific, we can think about (i) sponsoring public art in the wider community, or (ii) commissioning a piece of public art for an exterior church wall. Through such aesthetic engagement we can be drawn into the life of the community, contribute to a discussion about human life and flourishing, and articulate something of the kingdom life that we find embodied in Jesus and his way.
THE FIRST POSSIBILITY (SPONSORING PUBLIC ART) WILL DRAW US INTO CONVERSATION WITH OTHER COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS. Perhaps it’s an open question whether such community organizations will want to work collaboratively with the church – since they may view us with some hostility. Another possibility is that we do not have close enough relations with wider community organizations to be able to imagine such an aesthetic collaboration with them. In this case we first have to ask ourselves what kind of actions/changes/conversations would have to happen to get us to the point where such collaboration would be imaginable for everyone.
From there, the possibilities are as great as can be imagined. To the left is a mural that graces the wall of a restaurant just a few blocks from the church where I serve as minister – it is the result of a collaboration between private and public partners in our community. I’ve commented on its meaning here. And to the right is a mural similarly close to the church – also a collaboratively-produced piece. I’ve expressed my reservations about this one, here.
The church’s goals in aesthetic collaboration with other community groups could be various: the purpose of a piece of urban art could be to beautify, to highlight injustice, to discourage tagging, or to share the neighbourhood’s history.
One of the challenges of collaboration, of course, is that we may not get exactly we want – the end product may not exactly embody the hope or justice or beauty of the gospel as we might wish. But entering into conversation, and doing so with the gospel foremost in mind, is the goal. The fact that risk might be part of such a venture should not surprise us! To be for the world and in the world is always a risk.
THE SECOND POSSIBILITY IS THAT THE CHURCH ITSELF MIGHT USE ITS EXTERIOR WALLS FOR THE PURPOSES OF PUBLIC ART. Now some of our churches are not well located for such a piece of public art – and other church’s that are well-situated may not have a wall that works (though this excuse will be more difficult to defend!). Nevertheless, there are plenty of churches or ecclesial institutions that do have appropriate spaces. This blank wall at the Presbyterian College (near the heart of McGill campus) is a perfect example! It almost screams to be filled with a piece of urban art…
What kind of urban art – what kind of mural – might appropriately grace the exterior wall of a church building or institution? Well, since our life in Christ is for the world and in the world, any such mural would have to speak to the local community – in a language it understands, meeting it in its particularity. In fact, even here (with a piece of public art on church walls) collaboration with the wider community would make tremendous sense. Why not sit down with a local artist (even a local graffiti artist), explore some gospel narrative with him/her/them, and then invite him/her/them to embody that narrative with paint and spray can and imagination? Talk about a risk! But talk about serious engagement with the world!!
I have no doubt that there are plenty of such church wall murals out there across North America. I don’t happen to know of any. But wouldn’t it be an astonishing, life-giving, and tremendously faith-enriching exercise in which to participate? I can’t imagine it would be anything less.