Christian Artists and the Worship of the Church
by Rick Jensen
I will never forget that moment. We had talked, planned, dreamed, laughed and cried and now there we were at the front of the church listening to the pastor who would soon declare us Husband and Wife. Surrounded by friends and family, dressed as well as we could afford, we sang songs and prayed and repeated after the pastor; first myself and then my bride, word for word, until one little word caused a pause…and then a blink…then a longer pause.
Finally my wife, eyebrows raised in a skeptical arch and more than a little fear in her voice, repeated quietly: “…submit?”
We had read the vows before, and she had voiced no concern. In that wonderfully dispassionate way theology can make the world into simple abstrac-tions, we read and studied and agreed. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ… Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 21, 22, 25). Amongst the flowery words we felt easy with—love, honor, cherish, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer—we wove in submit and it seemed to fit so well we kept it; until the moment when it became, for the first time (but not the last), reality.
My wife recognized something that day—something we all, at our core, instinctively react against. Submission is giving up your will and doing the will of another. In that sense, it is like death. In the world, to submit seems ugly and evil, bringing up images of violent oppression.
But a Christian is called to submit, not out of fear, but out of love. This is a bold, courageous sense of the word—to die to self out of love for something greater. We give ourselves over to the One who has already given himself for us. Just as we love because we were first loved, we submit to the Father because Jesus did it first.
What does this mean for the Christian Artist?
Artists today, we are told, fight against submission and seek to express themselves freely. There are no bold or courageous acts of submission; the world tells us it is an attack, and the artist is our vanguard against it. Thus there seems to be a clash of identities in how artists are viewed, and how they as Christians are called.
We need to seek a language to navigate our way out of this, to allow artists to express themselves as God has gifted them, yet acknowledge that they belong to Jesus and thus they are called to submit to the Father.
But how does this work? What should it look like?
Let us turn to the example the Church provides. As I have worked to involve music artists in worship, we’ve tried to submit everything we do to a larger goal while still looking for ways to express ourselves by giving voice to our talents, gifts, passions and preferences.
When we play a song, it has a purpose: to create space that allows people to respond to what God has done, and give him glory, honor and praise for who he is. Within that framework, there is great latitude to move and be creative; indeed we must be creative, since (among other things) we must take into account:
- the story of what God is doing in the community,
- the congregation and its culture/aesthetics (how they naturally express themselves),
- their spiritual state,
- the physical space,
- and finally the collective creativity of the artists.
This calls for great creativity – yet also submitting that creativity to the goal. How does that translate directly to the artist?
As a group, it means out of love for the people around us, we submit ourselves to them. We may have a LOT of fun playing something in 7/4, or adding a tremendous amount of dissonance, or creatively writing something new. Each of these elements may enhance something artistically, but they may detract from the goal of calling people to worship God. So we limit ourselves artistically to serve our purpose—worship.
This translates to the individual as well—each of us individually submits to each other in our playing and singing, to support the song (as the song submits to the larger goal of worship). I may really like to play loud and fast, but in any given song I may need to play something different—or not at all—in order that the song may be what it needs to be. (If you’ve ever sung Tenor in a choir, you know what I mean—I’ve done pieces where there may have been three notes to sing; boring for me, but essential to the whole piece). It may be that you play things you don’t like so the song can be what it needs to be, and people may worship.
The comparisons go on, since we should do the same with our preferences in song, style, manner, dress, material, media, or whatever. There are times when I choose a song for worship that I don’t particularly like, but realize it is the right one for the service at that time. I submit my preferences out of love for the people around me.
We say art helps us tell our story, and communicates what we believe about God, the world and ourselves. If this is the case, then Submission is also an art—it tells the story of who God is, and who we are because of what he has done. It is performance art, an ongoing public display of joyful death and life in Christ. It is learned and practiced, like a craft.
This type of submission is God-honoring; and even bold and courageous. For though it feels like death, because our identity is in Christ we die knowing that we cannot die; in each “little death” (the shadow of death) we find life in Christ.
My wife and I grow and move in fits and starts, but God has been gracious to show me where I must die for her, and shows her where she must die for me. We submit to one another in love, and so our love is strengthened.
As artists, we practice this submission regularly. As we do so, we embody it more in the rest of our lives, and the act of practicing it becomes an example to others about how we can die because we are alive in Christ.
Rick Jensen is a worship leader, songwriter and ministry leader who has served in Seattle, Nashville and Saint Louis. Currently pursing Masters in Education and in Worship, his passion is seeing people equipped in the worship arts to serve the local church.