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Prof surveys effect of culture on music, fine arts in church

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Today’s trend of giving people what they are looking for in the arts is influencing music in churches across the Southern Baptist Convention, a Southern Baptist educator told participants in Church Music Leadership Conference at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center.
Tim Sharp, director of graduate studies for the school of music at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., said the trend to cultural relativism has both strengths and weaknesses.
“Culturally relevant music is especially important as an evangelism tool,” he observed. “Music seems to be at the heart of church growth today. The kind of music chosen seems to signal what a congregation wants to do in church growth.”
Contemporary music works well for ritual moments, those occasions that are relevant only to a specific church and community, such as a homecoming or a family celebration.
The movement, he said, is creating a new “canon” of music and art. “Just a few years ago there was no category called ‘contemporary Christian music,'” he observed.
Using the culturally relevant approach works well in democratic churches, including Southern Baptist churches, he continued. “Music can be used to unite people.”
Among weaknesses he cited is that cultural relativism “satisfies for the moment, but it is not transcending.”
“Christian art is no longer prophetic,” he said. “Art stays at the level of the surrounding culture. It is reduced to the lowest common denominator.”
Sharp said organs and choirs are removed from the church in some cases because, the rationale goes, “I don’t listen to organ music anywhere else. Why would I do that at church?”
Another weakness, he said, is that art function is separated from its theological moorings. “For some artists, their art is all about their faith. When we are only culturally relevant, we separate that which excels.”
The other end of the artistic spectrum is aestheticism, using the best art. That approach distinguishes well-constructed music and art from the inferior, choosing to use only the “best” art in worship.
Strengths of this school of thought are a solid grounding of artistic values in the church and transcendence is made available to the worshiper, he said.
Its weaknesses are that the average person may not have the skills to judge or appreciate fine art; aestheticism can lead to a loss of participation; and this kind of art can be viewed as religious obligation. A potential problem is fine art viewed as idolatry.
The blended approach, found in many Southern Baptist churches, Sharp said, has as its strength “turning off the least number of people and allows for variety as long as central doctrines of salvation are not compromised.”
Weaknesses, he continued, are that all musical styles are seen as having equal value; people are kept comfortable; and growth does not occur.
To develop a fine arts ministry using the creativity of the church, Sharp recommends determining the talents, hobbies and interests of the congregation’s members and holding a congregational art show for all to submit their works. During the time of the art show, he said, sermons might deal with creativity as an expression of being made in the image of God. People could share during worship services the meaning creative expression has for them.
Depending on the number of people interested, groups for common interest areas could be formed in the church.
Sharp suggested offering occasions when creative processes are appropriate.
“For example, as a family night, give a theme such as manger/cross/tomb or world peace, asking persons to respond in various media.”
Options could include writing a poem, doing a dramatic sketch, working in clay or wax or making a banner.
Art shows featuring professional artists, inviting Christian artists to share their work and their creative processes with the church and organizing local, art-oriented tours with narrative from a Christian perspective are other possibilities for highlighting the role of fine art in worship.
Church Music Leadership Conference, July 11-17, was sponsored by the music ministries department of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Charles Willis