“We can’t support that?” the campus ministry leader informed us. “Not unless you include a tract or share the gospel in some way.” My college roommate Dave and I had requested some material and volunteer support from the parachurch organization for a new project Dave had initiated. He wanted to show God’s love on campus by raking leaves, cleaning frat houses, and providing hot chocolate on cold mornings. The ministry leader would have none of it. Showing kindness and love was not enough. For these acts to carry real value, he said, they had to be accompanied by something more.
That experience 20 years ago was my first encounter with the evangelical value of efficiency. One of the blessings of the evangelical tradition is it’s commitment to proclaiming the gospel–a call that many other streams of Christianity have abandoned. This missional focus, however, is often accompanied by a tyrannical urgency that results in the devaluing of every other call. If the direct missional value of an activity cannot be demonstrated it is often dismissed as useless or at most a distraction from the saving of souls. The result is what I call “evangelical austerity”–the shedding of all activities and investments deemed unnecessary for soul-saving.
Evangelical austerity not only explains the campus ministry’s refusal to help us rake leaves or clean up beer cans, but also the dreadful architecture of many evangelical buildings. A few weeks ago I was privileged to preach at the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. The building is a soaring cathedral of stone and stained glass that seems out of place on this side of the Atlantic. The beauty of the space not only assists but also provokes worship. I can’t remember the last time I felt similarly inspired within an evangelical church dominated by screens and theater seating.
Beauty, whether in the form of actions or architecture, is not a high value for most evangelicals. The urgency of the mission doesn’t afford the allocation of the time and resources necessary for the cultivation of beauty. Sure, we appreciate a well composed hymn or an excellent song in worship, and we would never denounce a beautiful act of Christian kindness, but the expectation is that our songs, art, and actions carry some practical missional purpose. The song must communicate a theological truth. The painting must have an explicitly Christian theme. The provision of a cup of cold water must include an invitation to attend Wednesday’s Bible study.
In this regard evangelical austerity has something in common with the Soviet Union. In her book about the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum explains why the Soviets feared abstract art. “Art was supposed to tell a story. It was supposed to teach. It was supposed to support the ideals of the party.” Abstract art, however, was open to interpretation and carried no discernible message. Therefore the Soviets went to great lengths to display only art, music, and architecture that conveyed a clear message.
The task of ensuring all art served the party’s purpose rested with Alexander Dymschitz, head of the Cultural Division of the Soviet Military Administration. He famously declared, “Form without content means nothing”–a sentiment shared by many church leaders today. Applebaum explains that for Dymschitz “there was no such thing as art for art’s sake. There was no such thing as art reaching into a spiritual or wordless realm.” The mission of the state dictated everything’s value. This was true of art, activities, and even people.
One might assume that Dymschitz was a strident opponent of the arts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dymschitz actually insisted that artists be distributed more bread, meat, and vegetables than others in post-war Berlin. When asked about this preferential treatment Dymschitz replied, “It is possible that there is a Gorki among you. Should his immortal books remain unwritten, only because he goes hungry?”
Likewise, I don’t know any church leader who would utterly deny the value of art. Most churches put astronomical amounts of their budgets into buildings, worship services, and theatrical sound and lighting. But like the Soviets, they only enthusiastically supported the arts that explicitly advanced their narrow agenda. To the Soviets beauty had no inherent value. They insisted that beauty submit to practicality. Their worldview had no capacity to value anything or anyone that did not advance its mission—a fact manifested in the austerity of socialist societies and horrifically revealed in the murder of millions of people by communist regimes deemed unnecessary to the state.
Is the value of evangelical austerity that different? When we evaluate everything and everyone based on their missional efficiency, are we not adopting Soviet-style utilitarianism in the name of Christ? Where in the church are we acknowledging that beauty can exist for its own sake? Where are the prophetic Christian voices declaring to our R.O.I. culture that not everything must be measurably efficient; that God has imbued his world with the impractical, wasteful quality of beauty to remind us that value is not limited to usefulness? True Christian faith must embrace that not all things exist to be used. Some things exist simply to be adored. This, after all, is the essence of Christian worship. Andy Crouch explains the link: “If we have a utilitarian attitude toward art, if we require it to justify itself in terms of its usefulness to our ends, it is very likely that we will end up with the same attitude toward worship, and ultimately toward God.”
Are we not already there? Has not worship become merely a means to an end for both leaders and laity. For many leaders worship is a means of evangelism, outreach, or church growth. For many laity it is a way to feel energized, receive practical advice, or pacify God. How few of us view worship as David did in Psalm 27:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.
When the church embraces the uselessness of beauty, when we surrender the need to make everything missionally practical, we may also come to a deeper receptivity to the mystery of God’s grace. Daniel Siedell writes:
Art is about discontinuity and contradiction, which is how grace is experienced in the world, as an alien intrusion into a world that deceives us into believing that we are defined by what we do, not by what Christ has done. And so we are compelled to prove ourselves, to make something that justifies our existence. But art is not just doing and making, it is also receiving, and hearing. It is not just an achievement; it is a gift. It is devoting one’s life to something so futile, inefficient, and in many ways useless, that it becomes a means of grace.
I am of the growing opinion that for evangelicalism to flourish again we have to become less focused, less efficient, and less austere. We have to rediscover the paradoxical tension between missional urgency and indulgent beauty by affirming the callings of both missionaries and artists, and by no longer forcing beautiful worship to be subservient to effective evangelism. Both are necessary if God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This tension between missional austerity and wasteful beauty was felt by a community of artists in the 1930s. Their words might apply equally to the Church in the West today. Meeting in Europe under the growing shadow of war, they would say to one another, “How can one think about planting roses when the forests are burning?” To which they responded, “How can you not plant roses when the forests are burning?”