by Gary Corwin
Both in evangelistic outreach and in church development, varying manifestations of the arts have taken center stage in a number of contexts.
Displaying his creative bent, Professor Andrew Walls of Edinburgh University has occasionally alluded in his speaking and writing to a friendly little Martian. This ageless fellow visits earth during various centuries to see what is going on. Walls’ point in making the reference is usually to highlight the progress of the world Christian movement and its changes during various times and epochs.
It strikes me that if this little Martian were to visit earth in our own day, he might remark at how quantifiable and scientific the missionary enterprise has become. All of the emphasis on plans, numbers and strategies, as enduring and necessary as they are, might lead him to conclude that there is little place for the arts in missions today. Were he to look more carefully, however, he would see in a number of quarters a remarkable contradiction to this trend.
Both in evangelistic outreach and in church development, varying manifestations of the arts have taken center stage in a number of contexts. Appreciation for their usefulness has likewise become more widely acknowledged in recent years. This writer has personally been impressed with some remarkable evangelistic approaches using the arts. These have included a Latin American symphony conductor who plied his trade in an Islamic land, a violinist who labors among the societal elite in an urban cultural center in South America and a potter/ sculptor who works among nomadic Muslims in West Africa. And these evangelistic forays seem to be just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to its usefulness in evangelism, culturally relevant use of the arts is now almost universally acknowledged as crucial to the worship experience of God’s people everywhere. This is important progress. There are now significant networks of worship leaders/artists with a vision for this global task. Furthermore, much is being done to assist local believers to employ the arts with biblical integrity. Churches are developing their own worship styles with strong indigenous roots. This is something for which we can all rejoice.
It is useful in this context to remind ourselves as missionaries (even artistically gifted and perceptive ones) that great humility and sensitivity is still needed if our contribution to an artistic renaissance in worship around the world is to be a blessing. If we are not careful, much of the stodgy and dated Western worship styles that were introduced in the past could simply be replaced by new Western fads. The goal, rather, is vibrant, dynamic, and evolving worship that is both true to the Scriptures and in tune with the artistic culture and styles of the indigenous church.
There is another part of the arts/ missions story, however-missions as art. At a time when "wars and rumors of wars" is a stark and present reality, even in long-spared North America, it is good to pause and consider the true nature of the divine drama of which we are a part. War, rather than peace, is the natural order of things since the Fall, and times of peace and prosperity, in the long view of history, are simply dramatic interludes. Battles fought, elections won, nations rising and falling-all these things we think of as the essence of history-are actually just part of the play’s setting. At its core, the drama called history is the story of God building his church. All the rest of the stuff that fills the newspapers is nothing but stage props.
I have often reflected on how the great North African theologian, Augustine of Hippo, must have felt as he lay dying in 434 AD as vandals surrounded his city. The great Roman Empire was collapsing around him. The barbarians were literally at the gates. Did he have any idea that what looked like complete calamity would be instrumental in God’s hands for the Christianization of Europe? Or that Europe, in turn, would be instrumental in carrying the gospel to large areas of the rest of the world? We must never forget that above all else we are part of a divine drama. The climax of that drama will have some from every tribe, language, people and nation surrounding the throne of God, worshiping the glory and majesty of the Lamb that was slain.
Yes, the arts are playing an important role in missions today. In both culturally relevant evangelistic outreach and in church worship development, the trajectory is clearly upward. We can rejoice that the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer (Ps. 67) is becoming more and more evident: "May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy…"
But at least as important, we should remember that the unfolding story of missions is itself God’s great work of art. The Lord of the universe is the ultimate playwright, as well as the ultimate performer. And how it all ends is not in doubt.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM.
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