Let me begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of all of you. I listen to you frequently. I want to encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing, but I also want to encourage you to downplay your “coolness.” You appeal to a certain niche in contemporary society. If you tweet something, it’s posted all over the Internet. All of you are cool. I’m a balding, pudgy white boy who is stuck in the 90’s. I’m the exact opposite of you. You and I, however, preach a message that transcends all the wrong reasons people may listen to us. We must reinforce this message continually by downplaying ourselves and our artistic expression.
John Piper at the Desiring God website answered this question in 2009 (audio and transcription here):
What are your thoughts on drama, movie clips, and the like in a church service?
I’ll start with the freedom that we have in Christ, and then I’ll move to the position that I operate in.
The New Testament isn’t explicit on forbidding using a screen to put the lyrics up, or to put the scene of a waterfall behind it, or to make the waterfall actually move behind it, or to show a picture of your fishing trip to illustrate the big fish that you caught and how your people should now go out and be “fishers of men.” The Bible doesn’t forbid it.
I’ll be gone in a few years and you can do whatever you want to do, but I believe profoundly in the power and the till-Jesus-comes-validity of preaching. And by that I mean the spirit-anointed exposition of the Scripture through clear explanations and applications of what’s there. There’s something God-appointed about that.
I think the use of video and drama largely is a token of unbelief in the power of preaching. And I think that, to the degree that pastors begin to supplement their preaching with this entertaining spice to help people stay with them and be moved and get helped, it’s going to backfire. It’s going to backfire.
It’s going to communicate that preaching is weak, preaching doesn’t save, preaching doesn’t hold, but entertainment does. And we’ll just go further and further. So we don’t do video clips during the sermon. We don’t do skits.
I went to a drama at our church four days ago. I believe in drama. I believe in the power of drama. But let drama be drama! And let preaching be preaching! Let’s have the arts in our churches, but don’t try to squash it all into Sunday morning. So I get worked up about these things.
That’s where I am on that. Free. Nobody is going to go to hell because of this, in the short run.
When I was in high school, there were many of us who identified ourselves as “Jesus Freaks.” DC Talk had a huge influence on many of the professed Christians in my high school. Most of the popular “cool” kids in my school were “Jesus Freaks.” Today, 12 years later, a very small percentage of these former “Jesus Freaks” are still involved in the local church. Unfortunately, many of these self-identified “Jesus Freaks” never repented of their sins and placed their faith and trust in Jesus. They were “Jesus Freaks” without trusting in Jesus. This reality should terrify all of us who preach, especially those who rely heavily on the arts to communicate the gospel.
When we preach with much artistic expression, we risk feeding our hearers’ sinful, idolatrous desire to be entertained. Since each of you preach through the art of rhythm and rhyme with music (rap), you run the risk of people accepting you while rejecting the Jesus you preach. In other words, when we use the arts to communicate the gospel, we risk losing the gospel. This danger is unfortunate, but is unavoidable. You and I, however, can diminish the danger by downplaying ourselves and our faddish art, and by exalting Christ. Since you’re not in a pulpit or rapping during corporate worship, you have more freedom, but the danger is still the same.
If we believe the gospel transcends the arts, coolness, and various fads (which we do), then we need to doubly make sure the gospel is the emphasis of our ministries. Since each of you carry out your craft with such excellence, you are in danger of winning a whole generation to yourself and your “fad.” You may have your own version of unrepentant “Jesus Freaks.”
How do we downplay ourselves, our fad, and exalt Christ? In order to answer this question, we must realize four things . . .
First, every communicator in Scripture used the arts.
One cannot deny that Jesus used the arts in His preaching and teaching. He often taught through the use of stories and contemporary illustrations. The Scripture writers also used numerous contemporary writing styles and genres to convey the transcending truths of God. Even the overall metanarrative of Scripture has been referred to as “the greatest story ever told.” The metanarrative is God’s grand artistic expression of redemption history.
Second, every human longs to be involved in God’s common grace, but their sin distorts this “God-shaped hole.”
God created all humans in His image so that we may mirror Him and spread His image throughout the earth (Gen. 1:26-29). As a result, we all have a natural desire to create. Thus, not only do all humans desire to create through the arts (common grace), they also appreciate the beauty (common grace) displayed by others who create excellently through the arts. The problem is that all humans are sinners (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:23). This means our natural inclination is to worship the gift instead of the Giver (Rom. 3:10-18). We naturally enjoy seeing and hearing excellent artistic expression, whether it be from the pulpit or the radio, but we often praise the individual without thinking of our Creator. Only the work of the Spirit in regenerating our sinful hearts will redeem us from this idolatrous, god-less view of artistic expression, and help us to recognize God’s handiwork when we see it (common grace: 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17, 23; 1 Pet. 4:11).
Third, every person who shares the gospel uses the arts in some form or fashion to express his or her message.
The conundrum in this whole ordeal is that you and I must use some form of the arts to communicate the gospel. Even John Piper uses the arts to communicate the gospel in some form or fashion. His books are laced with artistic expression, as are his sermons (although less than his books). Even the man who thinks he doesn’t use the arts when preaching, nevertheless, uses the arts (he probably just uses them in a poor fashion). Homiletics is called “the art of preaching” for a reason. As soon as a person tries to communicate something, the arts are used in this expression.
Fourth, the message must be the emphasis.
We exalt Christ through emphasizing the message. The arts serve the message, the message does not serve the arts. You and I must practice discernment. We must examine our hearers to see if their unrepentance can be laid at our feet. Some of this unrepentance is unavoidable regardless how much we emphasize the message or exalt Christ. Even Jesus had people who followed His ministry for the wrong reasons. What you and I must discern is whether or not we’re doing everything we can to exalt Christ as we share the gospel through artistic expression. We must examine our ministries daily to make sure we’re still in the ministry of the gospel for the God-glorifying reason: to exalt Christ, not to exalt ourselves or our artistic expression.
In conclusion, I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know. I hope this article serves as a reminder to all Christians that when our hearers accept us or our artistic craft, regardless how we communicate, this does not necessarily mean they accept our Jesus. We must realize that using the arts to communicate the gospel is unavoidable; however, we do have control over the emphasis of our artistic expression. Is our goal excellent artistic expression, or is our goal to express the gospel excellently through excellent artistic expression? The answer will be displayed in our artistic expression, regardless what we claim otherwise. Therefore, let you and I, afresh and anew, examine our ministries to see whether we’re exalting Christ through excellent artistic expression or if we’re hiding Christ behind our excellent exaltation of ourselves or our excellent exaltation of the arts.
Continue on for God’s glory alone friends.
A former “Jesus Freak”