When you think of the word “artistic,” the church is not usually not the first thing that pops into your mind. Sure, while there are some churches that are doing lots of artistic things either in programing or branding, churches that have a dedicated emphasis in being artistically-minded are few and far between.
The more common experience for artists in the church is that someone from the church will reach out to them with the intentions of wanting to try something new and different (and, of course, for cheap). Assuming this first hurdle is cleared, once the work of art is produced, it’s often met with a barrage of criticism from members because this new creation is not like the “old” or “traditional” art of the past. As a result, writers, graphic artists, architects, painters, photographers, musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, designers of all different kinds, and other artistically-minded individuals might find the organized church a frustrating place to work with, if they decide to work with them at all.
It didn’t always used to be this way though.
If you look at some of the oldest churches in Christendom, the interior and exteriors of many were aesthetic
masterpieces that spoke to all of the senses. One of my favorite ancient churches in this category that stands today is the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. Parts of it go back to the 6th century AD; like my wife, it’s beautiful inside and out.
Really, they don’t make churches like they used to anymore.
One caveat to this statement, though: it’s important to mention here that Catholic and Orthodox Churches still invest heavily in majestic buildings, beautiful interiors, and aroma that appeals to the senses. The Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Spain is an example and is set to be completed in 2026. When finished, it will be the tallest church in the world.
Why don’t Protestant churches do the same?
A lot stems from theological differences arising from the Protestant Reformation. Our disagreement regarding icons, images, and other art that might constitute a “graven image” led Protestants to avoid anything similar in their churches (due to space considerations, I’m not going to get into the theology behind this issue).
Now, if you enter most Protestant churches (but especially the smaller ones), the interiors will generally be simple, with the exception of some flowers, drapes, small paintings, and/or stained glass windows.
Here’s my thesis: I think it’s time to start making churches beautiful again, inside and out. It’s time for Adventism to embrace the arts.
Now, hear me out. I’m very firmly a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Wait until the end to cast into doubt my credentials and salvation. What I am suggesting is that when it comes to avoiding coveting beauty in churches, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater more often than not.
This stems from our history. Protestantism has tended to elevate logic and reason. As a result, feelings, experience, and art that speaks to the senses were left by the wayside. Or, we’ll claim to invest in the arts but only do so minimally or cast it off when it doesn’t match our vision of what art should look like.
Art In the Radical Reformation
If you look at the family tree of churches, Adventism has strong influence from the Anabaptist and Radical Reformation branch of the Protestant Reformation.
To give you the quick version, the Radical Reformation was a group within the larger Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and later, that wanted to return the church to what they considered “basic Christianity,” without all of the extra-biblical influences that they saw had creeped into the church over the centuries. This included a clerical hierarchy in the church, and theology, but also focused on changes to how churches looked and how liturgy (the church service) was practiced. They were not called radical in the sense of being weird or different, they were called radicals because they challenged the basis of medieval society.
They not only rejected the Papal system as God’s representatives on earth, they rejected anything associated with Roman Catholic influence. This meant that incense in church, out. Images and statues of any respect, gone. Fancy architectural buildings, goodbye (well, on this point, I should be fair. They really couldn’t build structures because they were persecuted by Catholics and other Protestant groups. It’s hard to build anything when you’re running for your life, really.).
Now, the Anabaptists were a subgroup within the Radical Reformation that did not believe in baptizing babies (known as infant baptism). They held that people must make a conscious decision to accept salvation and that it wasn’t enough to have been baptized as a child and be considered saved because your name was in the membership of a church somewhere.
While there were various Anabaptist groups in different parts of Europe, they were not a monolith. Yet, they all held a strong practice of Bible-study and emphasized having a strong personal relationship with God.
You might be thinking, “There were many good things that they believed,” and you’re right, they did. However, getting back to the issue of art, one of the challenges of simply elevating study of the Bible is that it risked making development of the mind a matter of greatest importance.
In contrast, Ellen White mentioned that there was danger in elevating the mind to the neglect of the body.
A Mysterious Interrelationship.–Between the mind and the body there is a mysterious and wonderful relation. They react upon each other. To keep the body in a healthy condition to develop its strength, that every part of the living machinery may act harmoniously, should be the first study of our life. To neglect the body is to neglect the mind. It cannot be to the glory of God for His children to have sickly bodies or dwarfed minds.–3T 485, 486 (1875).
Adventists followed this belief and tended to focus the development of the body to the betterment of diet, exercise and mental or emotional health. This is a fantastic practice. Yet, what do we emphasize when it comes to the development of faith? The mind. Have we forgotten that God can use art to convey truth as well?
Being Protestants, we believe in Sola Scriptura, that is the idea that we follow the Bible as our rule of faith and practice. Here are some verses to back this up. When God instructed the Israelites to build him a Sanctuary, he spared no expense and told Moses to get the best artists in Israel to build it:
“I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded
you” (Exodus 31:6).
“All who are gifted artisans among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded” (Exodus 35:10).
“All the women who were gifted artisans spun yarn with their hands, and brought what they had spun, of blue, purple, and scarlet, and fine linen” (Exodus 35:25).
More than that, he even told Moses that he had given his Spirit to an artist in order to make a work of art that connected God with His people.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship” (Exodus 31:1-5).
With this example, I’m not saying that our churches are the equivalent to the Old Testament Sanctuary. We don’t believe that. Let me put this point another way. The human body takes the world in through its five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. Out of these senses, which senses belong to the devil? Which ones did God create?
Am I saying that logic is not important? No. Am I saying the study of the Bible is not important? No. What I am saying is that when your basic church interior looks plain when the human body is designed to identify and appreciate beauty through its five senses, we reveal bias for cultivating truth only on a mental level as opposed to physical.
We as Adventists believe in the spiritual and physichal development of the body, mind, and soul.
Art as Evangelism
Here is where this bias toward the mind effects the impact that the church has on society today. Since the Renaissance, reason and logic were seen as the best ways to experience truth. This was especially true in the West. It’s no coincidence that once society began to become more literate and eventually started getting their hands on Bibles, that logic and reason would be the primary ways people took in truth.
Yet, how was the church supposed to communicate truth to a population that was generally illiterate in the Middle Ages and earlier? This is where art came in. Although people could not read the Bible and read about how God was majestic, when they walked into an impressive religious structure they got a sense of a God that was majestic. They might not be able to read that God is the author of beauty, but they could enter a church and experience God though their senses. As a result of this physical experience, their minds would be transported to something greater.
Thus, art in essence was used as an evangelistic tool to lead people to truth beyond what mere words could express.
Yes, this was one of God’s reasons for making the Sanctuary as beautiful as he did.
“No language can describe the glory of the scene presented within the sanctuary—the gold-plated walls reflecting the light from the golden candlestick, the brilliant hues of the richly embroidered curtains with their shining angels, the table, and the altar of incense, glittering with gold; beyond the second veil the sacred ark, with its mystic cherubim, and above it the holy Shekinah, the visible manifestation of Jehovah’s presence” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 349).
I’d dare say that in light of a society that is quickly becoming post-Christian, post-truth, and post-logic, a rational argument on the basis of Sola Scriptura is not enough anymore.
Moreover, when even general Biblical literacy in the church is at a crisis point and at an all-time low since Bibles were widely available to people after the Dark Ages, it’s time for artful truth-telling to make a comeback. It’s time for an investment in the arts. Let me say that again and with more emphasis: its time to stop short-changing our artists and hoping they will “do a work for the Lord” for a discount while we have no problem shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars on a “traditional” evangelistic series.
Art is evangelism.
The intention is not to create theology in art, but to reveal theology through art. Again, in order for that to happen, Adventism and the Protestant Church will have to embrace a part of its humanity that has been generally overlooked for more than 500 years.
As Anneliese Wahlman said in a fantastic essay about reclaiming art at the Lightbearers Website:
If God cared enough to dedicate entire books in the canon of Scripture to poetry and song; if Jesus cared enough to spend a significant portion of His time on earth to being a storyteller; and if He cared enough to fill His house with colors, music, texture, and beauty, then He is a God who values and invests in the arts as a way of telling us and the world who He is. And maybe we should do the same.