Art and Aesthetics in the Stone-Campbell Movement

“Daddy’s Bible” Photo by: Krista Cannon

In the nineteenth century, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement relied heavily on human intellect and reason in both worship and spiritual formation. The movement produced congregations that were serious, unemotional, stoic, and staunchly rational. Deductive logic dominated the religious debates between Alexander Campbell and his opponents, while the “Scottish Common Sense” philosophy and dependence on the strength of reasoning were enlisted to delineate the line between faith and human opinion.

The movement was governed by headspace—judgment, analysis, and intelligence. This heavy focus on the cognitive aspects of worship strongly contributed to the absence of art in Churches of Christ. It is difficult for art to thrive in a simple, linear environment ruled entirely by the process of thinking and reasoning.

Many Churches of Christ in North America inherited convictions about austere church buildings and simplicity in worship from Campbell, who rejected the “showmanship of choirs and organs” and preferred the minimalism of congregational singing.[1] The theological rationale for the rejection of instruments in worship can be traced back to the rule of “where the scriptures speak, we speak; and where the scriptures are silent, we are silent.”[2] Many church leaders concluded that only a cappella singing was acceptable to God as a prescribed act of worship. As a result, it is one of the few art forms present in most Churches of Christ, and the existence of other art such as paintings, statues, or icons would be unthinkable.

By rejecting the full spectrum and power of the arts, Churches of Christ, like many Protestant evangelical Christian churches, have neglected a critical element in worship and spiritual formation.

Warren Wiersbe outlines the problem in this way: “There is a strange attitude in the evangelical world that moves people almost to delight in opposing and even destroying the beautiful and the artistic.”[3]

We have somehow understood that to be artistic is unspiritual and have been fearful of placing art above God.

The time has come for a renaissance of the arts in worship for Churches of Christ. We are still living under the negative influence of the Reformation in our view of worship and the arts, but there is a whole spectrum of color, a whole world of artistic and creative ways to communicate the gospel and worship God. We can no longer marginalize the value of the arts in worship in Churches of Christ. By doing so, we marginalize a significant part of God’s creation along with those among us who draw meaning and significance from the arts as modes of communication.

Robert Webber advocates that the church should embrace the integration of the arts in worship, he says, “We need to learn to trust the arts, to see, touch, smell, and hear what they have to say. The arts are an active symbol, a visible word, and a visual speech. They can and do speak. They can be used by the Spirit to communicate. But we have to learn to hear what the arts are saying, to befriend them, to let them live among us, worship with us, and serve as a vehicle of praise.”[4]

If we continue to only focus on that which is cerebral and rational in worship in Churches of Christ, we are denying the opportunity for the arts to create a sense of wonder and awe for our congregations, and to say what words alone cannot say.

[1]. Dale A. Jorgenson, Theological and Aesthetic Roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1989), 24.
[2]. Ibid.18
[3]. Warren W. Wiersbe, Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground? 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 130.
[4]. Robert Webber, Signs of Wonder: The Phenomenon of Convergence in Modern Liturgical and Charismatic Churches (Nashville: Abbot Martyn, 1992), 88.
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