From Our Partners

The Age of the Artist

From The Underground Network

One of the most influential books of the 20th century was written by a mechanical engineer, obsessed with industrial efficiency.

One of the first management consultants, Frederick Taylor did not just try to succeed in business; he wanted to shape the way business was done. And he certainly succeeded. Published in 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management would go on to shape American enterprise in a way that is hard to overstate. Scientific Management, or Taylorism, would introduce or popularize lingering ideas such as economic efficiency, productivity, and “best practices.” Born in an industrial age, these ideas not only helped businesses increase productivity and profitability, they came to define success in any endeavor. Taylorism certainly made its mark on the church as well.

Best Practices?

I was in a meeting just last year with some very sharp minds who were talking about innovation in the church, and we were asked to come up with a list of “best practices.” The problem, of course, is that innovation is the daughter of risk, and risk is never in a list of best practices. By definition the goal of scientific management is to minimize risk. We were really talking about art but using the language of science. We were asking the right question but using the wrong language to answer it.

We were asking the right question but using the wrong language to answer it. Click To Tweet

It is hard to deny the influence of business ideas on the church. Most conscientious churches care about metrics and deliverables. They consider their customers, develop strategic plans, lead through org charts, hire for job descriptions, subordinate to vision statements, and strive for efficiency—none of which are particularly biblical, just contextual. All these things made sense in an industrial and then consumer age. But is looking at the church the way one would look at a factory really helping us today? Are we inspired to lay down our lives for Jesus and his church when the goal is simply more? The super church is no longer appealing to the creative class. And the creative class is now everyone.

I hear leaders saying that they no longer want to be governed by the principles of scientific management, that it is time for a change, and yet they do not know where to turn for those changes. I submit that the answers we are looking for are waiting for us in the world of the artist. If business gave the church ideas that helped us to navigate and lead in an industrial and then in a consumer age, the artist will give us the ideas to help us understand the current creative age. Furthermore, ministry itself is looking more and more like art. The problem is that art intimidates us.

If business gave the church ideas that helped us to navigate and lead in an industrial and then in a consumer age, the artist will give us the ideas to help us understand the current creative age. Click To Tweet

There is a strange and demonic chasm between the world of art and the church.* Not only is our witness to the artists weak, our understanding and appreciation of their processes is almost nonexistent. This is not just a missiological problem, it is now an epistemological problem. We cannot fully understand the time in which we live and engage in creative mission without the input of the artist.

Mission is art. Prayer is art. Community is art. And these are the keys to reviving the church. 

Letting Go

At the annual Burning Man events, some artists bring works of art they have created over the course of the year and then burn them. Why? Because you cannot own or possess art, you can only let it go. What lesson is there for us to learn from this? We of all people should understand the soteriological significance of surrender, the impermanence of temples made by human hands, and the value of ideas such as virtue which can never be commodified.

We need the artist to tell us how to do what we have been called to do. We need the help of the artist to unearth the buried gifts of the church: imagination, risk, autonomy, expression, and inspiration. This is a startup world, and every work of art starts with a confrontation of the tabula rasa (blank slate).

Seth Godin offers a definition every five-year-old already knows: “The artist is someone who makes art.” Not just Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso. And if we are doing ministry in the twenty-first century, we are making art. The significance of a church is quickly becoming a matter of aesthetics, not size. In other words, a church leaves a mark not because it is big but because it is beautiful.  

For all these reasons and more, we wanted to make a gesture toward crossing the chasm. If you sense the need for new ideas and new ways of considering the work you do, we would welcome you into a two-day immersion. We are inviting the insights of the artist into the world and work of mission. We are welcoming their ideas, their sensibilities, their process, and their heart to give us new language and new perspective on what it is we have been called to do as missionaries, leaders, and planters.

We humbly offer this conference as a starting point for this dialogue.

And we would love for you to join us. 

*See the work of someone like Art Historian James Elkins, and his book “On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art


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