What Your Congregation REALLY Thinks About Art in Worship

I know a lot of my posts recently have played to the right-brained among us, so here is some quantitative research for my left-brained colleagues….

Some churches in our tribe are more open to integrating the arts [1] in worship than others, but I wanted to know what people REALLY think about the arts in worship in Churches of Christ. So, in September 2016, I launched an online snowball sampling survey through Facebook as research for my Doctor of Ministry program at ACU. It was designed to explore attitudes and beliefs about the arts in worship by members of Churches of Christ. The goal was to collect between 300-400 responses but within one day the survey had grown to nearly 1,300 responses! I think I struck a nerve.

65% of the respondents were women,  35% were men, and 75% consider themselves to be artistic or creative on some level. However, when asked whether they feel creative at church their responses were mixed (Table 1). In the same way, Table 2 shows the mixed response to the question, “My church is welcoming and engaging of arts and artists,” where nearly one third of the respondents chose the neutral option. Both of these questions would have been more appropriate in an interview format where follow-up questions could have been asked. Further research is needed in this area and it would be interesting to compare the new data with the research of Andrew Greeley who argues there is a negative correlation between church attendance for Protestants and artistic imagination.[2] According to his research, Catholics do not experience this kind of creative impediment.

Table 1: I feel creative when I am at church.

Table 2: My church is welcoming and engaging of arts and artists.

The results became more decided when respondents were asked about the ability of the arts to communicate, help worshipers engage during church, and remember the message of the sermon. Over 90% of respondents said they agree or strongly agree that the arts are able to communicate in ways other methods cannot communicate (see Table 3). Seventy-two percent of respondents acknowledged that the arts help them pay attention better in church, and 83% agree or strongly agree that the arts help them remember the message of the sermon. While 75% agree or strongly agree that creating art during worship helps children and teens better engage in worship (see Table 4).

Table 3: The arts are able to communicate in ways other methods cannot communicate. 

Table 4: Creating art during church helps our children and teens better engage in worship.

The survey also addressed some of the objections to utilizing the arts in worship. Only 19% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that creating art on stage during worship is a distraction, while 55% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Nearly 26% responded with the neutral choice to this question, which could suggest they do not hold an opinion or they have not had the opportunity to witness art being created during worship. Only 9.5% agreed or strongly agreed that they perceive artists as performers who want attention, while over 70% disagreed with this statement. Finally, over 85% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that the arts have no place in Churches of Christ (Table 5).

Table 5: The arts have no place in Churches of Christ.

The views about the arts in the life and mission of the church were the most encouraging. Over 77% agreed or strongly agreed that utilizing the arts in worship will allow more people to use their gifts at church. A foundational belief of the Stone-Campbell movement is the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5). Therefore, encouraging artists to use their gifts at church will open up space for more people to participate in worship. In addition, 89% of respondents think the life of the church can be enriched by the arts. From a missional point of view, 86.5% of respondents agree or strongly agree that artists and churches should collaborate to spread the gospel (see Table 6), and 90% believe the arts can help our culture connect with God (Table 7).

Table 6: Church leaders and artists should collaborate to spread the gospel.

Table 7: The arts can help our culture connect with God.

Nearly 80% of respondents answered in the affirmative to the final question, “Do you think Churches of Christ have unique obstacles or hang-ups to utilizing the arts in worship?” The respondents were given the opportunity to expand their answer in an essay format. Several recurring themes emerged to explain these hang-ups. There were 83 references to “heritage” and 347 references to the Church of Christ “tradition” of not including art in worship. Here are a few examples of common responses, “Reliance on ‘traditions’. Fear of trying new things. We’ve just never done it that way.” Another theme that emerged was the perception of the arts as entertainment instead of worship. However, closer inspection of the reference to “entertainment” shows the majority of respondents used it as an explanation of the obstacles and absence of art, not how they actually view art in worship. There were only four references to the “five acts of worship” which could indicate it is either no longer taught in many Churches of Christ, or it no longer has significant influence as a traditional philosophy.

Conclusion: While members of Churches of Christ acknowledge our heritage that did not allow a place for the arts in worship, those beliefs have changed in favor of incorporating the arts in worship now. The respondents view the arts as both a powerful means to communicate and a vital tool to spread the gospel. The arts help worshipers of all ages engage in worship and remember the message of the sermon. Overall, the attitude of those surveyed is overwhelmingly open and welcoming to the arts in worship.

Before anyone dings me on my quantitative research methodologies, here is my disclaimer: The survey had multiple weaknesses including the inexperience of the investigator for writing and collecting survey data and coding the results. Second, a professional researcher should have been recruited to ensure the survey was standardized for proper quantitative data collection. Third, the survey offered a neutral option for the likert scale questions, which left room for interpretation without asking the respondents to choose a definitive answer. Finally, the survey questions might have appeared to lead the respondents to answer in a particular way. In spite of these weaknesses, the survey adequately completed the task to assess attitudes and beliefs about art in worship in Churches of Christ.
[1]. The term “the arts” is used in a broad sense to include the classical forms of art such as painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, dance, music, and singing, as well as modern forms like graphic design, photography, set design, video, film, musical instrumentation, etc.
[2] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 12.
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About Heather Heflin Hodges

Heather Heflin Hodges is a wife, mother, visual artist, itinerant preacher, and follower of Christ. She holds a Bachelor degree in Communication, a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, a Masters of Divinity, and has been in ministry along side her husband for over 20 years. She is currently completing a Doctorate in Ministry at ACU with an emphasis in Preaching and the Arts. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Wade, and their two sons Caleb (16) and Elijah (15). She is passionate about art in worship and spiritual formation and loves to inspire others to use their own creativity to the glory of God and the beauty of the church. Heather is our newest Featured Author at Wineskins. You can visit her blog at www.heatherheflinhodges.com
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