Lessons From Fine Art: Does The Church Need A New "Perspective"
In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti changed the entire landscape of painting. In his book Della Pittura (On Painting) he published the mathematical cheat code that allowed artists to paint pictures in a realistic way. No longer would people be painted abnormally large and their houses comically small. Backdrops could obtain accurate scale and people could now exist within different planes on a single canvas. The cheat code in Alberti's book was the first published art theory that pertained to the discipline of perspective.
Often times we just assume that the grand masters of art had a supernatural ability to see and paint. But Art historian Richard Howells points out that art, especially art dealing with replicating reality, rests on foundational schemata or design principles that are necessary to produce the desired results. Alberti's theory of perspective is visually present in many paintings of the time period. One of the denoting marks was the presence of tiled or checkered floors in the paintings themselves. This helped the artist stay on track toward a realistic work. The schemata was a blueprint on how to get the desired result. It could be followed closely or losely. It could be manipulated to greater heights or poorly implemented, but rarely would it be absent.
Art is not the only institute that relies on schemata for organizational creation. The church itself, through every single period of church history, has had contextually refined schemata on how to organize itself to best accomplish its stated task. Always being on the edge of a new development in church running means that new cheat sheets are being developed all the time. As we turn our attention to a few of the church schemata we should first look at what informs the church cheat sheet. This discussion is ideal for those beginning new churches, but is also extremely valuable to those in established churches in hopes that they can better understand why they do what they do.
Informants for the Church Cheat Sheet
If you know anything about the church planting movements you will know that there are a variety of "how-to" guides for establishing a new congregation in a local demography. If you are familiar with the term "evangelism" you should also know about the massive quantity of approaches to spreading the gospel correctly. These how-tos are equivalent to Alberti's theory of perspective. They are cheat sheets to make it easier for other to replicate results.
But what informs these cheat sheets? Alberti used mathematics and empirical science to evenly divide a canvas in such a way that a painting to could look real. The Church has many informants to their modus operandi. They range from the extrememe pragmatic to the rote patterns of the past. Here are just a few:
Modern "mega-churches" seem to be the predominant source of the newest blueprints. Vineyard, Purpose Driven, Seeker Sensitive, Revival, Relational, Missional, et al, are some Churchy buzzwords that you might have heard and perhaps didn't understand. They are simply theories on how to run a church organization. For the most part, they assume that if their methods were successful for them, they should be successful for everyone. Yet, there are still so few megachurches around.
Still, the buzzwords that emanate from these mega-churches are good conversation starters. Even if the blueprint of one church will not copy well onto another church in another context, at least pastors and church leaders are talking about how the church can better fulfill the Great Commission. Do we get bonus points for trying anything that might work even if it fails? I doubt it, but the grace of God extends far beyond our meager attempts to "win the lost at any cost."
Secondary to Scripture, the cultural context should be the most referenced cheat sheet for church leaders. Each community has a unique history. The people of the community change as the community changes. What affects the people - tragedy, economic failure, success, etc., changes the dynamics of the community. Both the good and bad experiences of the community will change the people of the community. Unfortunately, it is not a 1-to-1 transfer of good and bad. What is good for some members of the community may have been bad for others. These events are what causes divides in the community.
The church needs to be ever cognizant of these divides because the church exists as a hallmark of redemption - primarily between God and man, but secondarily between peoples who were torn apart for one reason or another. For this reason, we should be weary of the blueprint model mentioned above. Communities are different and therefore churches are different, or should be, at least.
A quick word about judging another church from afar is prudent. Just because you don't like how a church operates or ministers does not mean that you and your tradition are absolutely correct. Most of those who look down upon other churches from a distance have done zero work in discovering the cultural context of the people who attend that particular religious community. If it is not violating the Scriptures, you should let it be. Perhaps you need to search yourself and answer this: is your disapproval rooted in jealousy or is it actually a violation of the Scriptures? Does it offend your sense of tradition or is it a sin in the sight of God?
Simply put some churches operate on the principle of "that the way things have always worked." Their history is the primary skemata for their approach to ministry. This is by no means a bad thing, as some of the most progressive minds would like you to think. Without history and tradition, our actions can be separated and then devoid of any real meaning or purpose.
The Old Testament system of sacrifice, which was later completely fulfilled in the death of Jesus, was a tradition that was linked to a specific purpose. A family would sacrifice an animal and through that action would become aware of their sin, receive forgiveness and atonement for that sin, and move on to the next phase of life with a clean heart before God. The tradition was at the very center of the Israelite faith.
Splitsville: Traditions and Intent
But what happens when tradition gets divorced from the original intent? The Israelites faith would slowly drift to other gods and religious systems that provided a more relevant or exciting religious experience. A most grievous sin in the sight of God.
Tradition can very easily morph into rote and boring repetition. The tradition loses its transformative power because the tradition becomes acting for acting's sake. When we do "because we have always done" we begin to worship the tradition instead of the God that is always making things new. In this scenario sin becomes increasingly enticing, many people leave to seek other gods, and the Church as a whole suffers.
So do we throw out tradition altogether? Certainly not! And the wisdom of the ages has proved this to be a good thing. How do we know this? Because almost every church that you walk into will have familiar elements. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Why are all churches are practically the same?
Walk into any church and you will encounter a fairly ordered experience of singing, preaching/teaching, giving, and prayer. These will come wrapped in a variety of tempos and personalities, but the structure is almost always intact.
But why? It seems directly linked to the Old Testament example that was carried through to the New Testament Christian gatherings. People gathered together, sang Psalms or "Spiritual songs," brought an offering of currency (money or otherwise), heard the Word of the Lord proclaimed and explained and then the people departed back into society and to their occupations.
This is a good example of relying on tradition. The same elements are present throughout the centuries and thus provides a common practice of faith for all in the family of God. A good non-religious example would be the way that national holidays are celebrated. An American Christmas centers around gathering, singing, giving, eating, and douglas fir trees (real or imitation, does not matter). The elements are the same but the coordination and implementation of the celebratory events is what personalizes the tradition to each individual family.
The same is true for local congregations. The elements are usually similar, but the coordination and implemenation is what makes the aspects personal to the local congregation. Tempo, style, flair, and flash lives right along side contemplation, silence, stillness, and meditation. The church is the most diverse weekly expression of tradition in the history of mankind.
And some people hate it. Why? Most likely it is because we as people can have the tendency to dismiss what we do not understand or are unfamiliar with. Growing up in one tradition may unfortuneately blind you from the beauty of others. It is sad and grievous for sure. I can understand standing against doctrinal error - that I reccommend - but I can't understand or condone the hating of other churches because they don't fit your preferred pace.
But our task is not done. We have covered three areas that inform the overall church skemata, but we have to ask ourselves an important question: Is it time for a new church cheat sheet that allows a break from the current modes of worship. We turn again to art for some insight.
A New "Perspective"?
The goal of the painter-artist was to find a way to most accurately portray reality on a canvas. How closely could you match the medium to the actual object. The struggle of depth and perspective was a long one, but once Alberti and others unlocked the puzzle of the depth and perspective and new age of painting flourished.
After a while, however, painting as attempted reproduction became the norm and the true artists turned their attentions to the metaphysics of art. That is - what could art really communication, or rather, what could the artist really communicate through their art. The grand masters of realism eventually gave way to artists such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock who both were masters of realism in their own right, but they shed the constraints of reproduction and produced artwork that looked at the world differently. In some ways you could say that their art was not about the subject as much as it was about the artists were trying to say. The medium was the message, as Marshall McLuhan likes to say.
McLuhan holds the stance that what we communicate - the message - is not as important as the way that is has been communicated - the medium. A religious example may illustrate this well. The message is that God loves us and wants to reconcile people to himself. That is the message. That is communicated to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the method. The message is true, but it is applied to the lives of those receiving the message by the impact of the medium, that is how the message is communicated.
If McLuhan is correct then we are forced to ask ourselves the question, "What is our church, the medium, actually communicating?" The thought is at least danced around in this blog on the Myth of the Empty Church (No, sadly, it is not about us). The choice of bi-vocational ministers and half-empty buildings communicates the message in a very particular way. This has an impact on the audience's reception of the message, but here is not the place to muse about whether or not the effect is positive or negative.
If McLuhan, Pollack, and Picasso understood the impact of medium over message, isn't it time that all local congregations do so as well? And this goes beyond making sure the church building is clean and that there are parking attendants in place. This conversation needs to strike at the very heart of how we do church. We need to ask ourselves if the great message of the gospel is being ill-communicated by the way that we do things. Are we blinded by traditions, cultural context, and mega-buzzwords? Do we adhere to a certain style strictly because that's all we know or worse, all we are comfortable with?
As we close I will leave you with some opinions - take them as just that - on the Church as the medium.
The Church as Medium.
A half empty building struggles to have life and vitality in the same way that an over capacitated building will struggle with stillness and silence. But neither are accurate measures of success or failure.
Your meeting space matters. A neglected building might accidentally communicate a neglected soul. A well-polished building might accidentally communicate the desire to hide a dirty soul.
Implementing tradition is important. Maybe it is time to take a hard look at liturgy and how it ties into the entirity of people's lives. Tradition is an important medium to communicate the Gospel.
Be afraid to make changes is a sin. But so is following your own wisdom over the wisdom of the Spirit. Do what God is telling you to do for your local congregation.
Technology won't save you. However, you must remember that technology is the functional savior of the masses. It is the medium? What is the message?
If we can find lessons from fine art that help us better understand our church and our world than maybe it would benefit you to take a trip to a local museum and just pray. Maybe you can start to see with some different eyes and God can speak to you in a different way. The mediums and messages of this world are constantly adapting, so perhaps the church should be too. And so should you.