When Mako Fujimura came to the U.S. from Japan in 1990, he was amazed to meet many artists who had grown up in Christian homes but rejected the church and their faith. "It's shocking how many of them there are," says the New York painter.
These artists, many at the top of their field, grew up hearing the gospel. "But their creativity was not welcomed," Fujimura says; many now live lives far from their Christian upbringing. He prayed about how to minister to them.
In Japan, Fujimura's art had provided a powerful way to share the gospel when artists, critics, dealers, and collectors he met through his shows would ask about the spiritual content of his work. Their response was so overwhelming that he asked Christian leaders to help him set up a structure to reach out to them. The resulting ministry, International Arts Movement (I AM), has branches in New York and Japan.
"Many times the church is blessed with creative people but doesn't have the right perspective to empower them," Fujimura says. I AM attempts to fill the gap. Artists meet together in cell groups to support, mentor, and disciple one another.
I AM also hosts events where Christianity can be explored through artistic expression. Says Fujimura, "If you're called to be an artist, you're called to be in the world but not of it. Therefore, you need accountability, you need prayer, you need groups that understand your creative side."
ADULT SHOW AND TELL
Like Fujimura, Chicagoan Dave Carlson, whose production company makes television commercials and music videos, also has a passion to provide a safe place for artists. Six years ago, after learning that a member of his Bible-study group was a poet, Carlson hosted an "Art Night" so members of the group and their friends could come and read their poetry, sing, dance, perform monologues, or share whatever they wanted—a kind of "show and tell for adults," he says.
With the first Art Night a big success, Carlson hosted others. Soon, as many as 60 people would pack his apartment to observe the latest work from professional artists or nurture artists exploring their creative side for the first time.
Art Night became a place to bring non-Christian friends looking into Christianity. "It's a safe environment to explore spiritual issues," Carlson says. The vulnerability and acceptance found at Art Nights became an integral part of developing a sense of community that Bible-study members found lacking at church. "When people are trying to search out their spirituality, artistic expression is one of the deepest ways they can connect to God and to one another," he says.
REDEEMING THE ARTS
In Livonia, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, Christian artists flock to a similar event at Trinity House Theater. The Common Room was begun ten years ago when Lauren Garfield wanted to encourage Christian artists to produce new and excellent work. "I found art in churches either boring or not current. It didn't have integrity," she says. With her friend Timna Peterman, Garfield developed the Common Room, adapted from 1600s Oxford College when the "fellows" gathered in a room after dinner to be amused and informed.
"We give Christian artists a place to do their art—and churches haven't always done that," says Janice Leach. She and her husband, Jim, are directors of Trinity House Theater, where the Common Room is held twice a year. Susan Vanderbrink, a professional dancer who has performed there, agrees. "I think Christians need to be communicating well in the performing arts and the visual arts. This is a good context for people to keep working and growing and getting better at it."
Similar to the format of Saturday Night Live—or what Garfield calls "Garage Theater"—the show brings together poetry readings, sketches by local playwrights, storytellers, black gospel choirs, multimedia shows, modern dance, monologues, satire, and stand-up comedy. Garfield and the others try to create a joyful, even wacky, atmosphere. Once local artists were given Etch-a-Sketches and asked to create masterpieces for display in the theater lobby. Common Room events have been so successful that the 95-seat theater is usually packed on two consecutive nights.
Paul Patton, a founder of Trinity House Theater and the Common Room, has transplanted the concept to Regent University in Virginia, and another group has started the Common Room in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
HEALING THE SCHISM
Fujimura believes the real objective of innovative ministries should be to heal the division between artists and the church. "There's been a great schism and fear in the evangelical churches over imagination and creativity. I can certainly understand that; I think creative types have many deep issues that are difficult to handle," he says. The ultimate goal of I AM is to steer artists back into the church where they can find discipline in a loving community and be encouraged not to stop being creative and "fit in" but to celebrate their creativity.
David Fitch, a Ph.D. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a core member of the community that hosts Art Nights, believes the church desperately needs artists. "God cannot be expressed purely in the mundane, everyday logic and cognitive language of our life. Art expands beyond all that. If you don't have art, you're going to have a hard time relating to God."
Fujimura believes understanding and redeeming the arts is key in reaching the world with the gospel. "Unless Christians are empowering creatives who are Christians to come up with alternatives that reflect God's glory and character, we'll not be effective at all."
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more