The Church and the Arts

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about Christian art or, more generally, the relationship between the Church and the arts. Do you think our churches today are places where artists feel encouraged to use their gifts in the worship of God? Most people know that there is a strong historic tie between the Church and the arts, which is an important part of this discussion. But I also want us to move into thinking about the role that art and therefore artists can still play in the Church today. After all, God is a master craftsman, an artisan. Who are we to think that our worship won’t be enhanced by engaging with the artists among us? 

The earliest forms of Christian art are likely different from what you might imagine. Most people probably picture famous pieces like Da Vinci’s Last Supper or perhaps Raphael’s Madonna and Child. However, those works are from an era where Christianity was the dominant religion in the Western world. Early Christian art is quite rare and arose when Christianity was a minority religion experiencing intense persecution. Because of the dangers that faced early Christians, any art had to be hidden in plain sight. Tombs dated between the 2nd and 4th centuries have been found with artistic carvings where Jesus was symbolically represented as a lamb, anchor, or fish1. Despite persecution, the Church grew rapidly. Eventually, Christians were so numerous that Emperor Constantine declared it the State religion (whether he did so out of a genuine conversion or because it was a savvy political move is highly debated). It was only after this that the Church became a patron of the arts. 

In the centuries following Constantine’s reign, artists were often supported financially by the Church. Some of the greatest and most famous works of art were borne of this patronage. For example, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. While it is easy for us today to appreciate such singular creative works, we often forget what truly enabled these artists to create. The Church was able to support artists out of its wealth, and let me be clear the Church was fantastically wealthy. The money was obtained in various ways, for example, a 10% tithe that all citizens had to pay, charging for various religious services, and striking business deals that even today would raise eyebrows. While calling Christians to lay up treasure in heaven, the leaders of the Church enriched themselves on earth.

It is important to note that there are many examples of individuals and monastic orders who vehemently opposed this unbiblical wealth. The Reformation found its beginnings in one such man, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. Luther, along with other protestant reformers, rightly desired to rid the church of what they saw as idolatrous and elitist worship practices. Simply put, the Reformation reminded the church of the priesthood of all believers. But in all that was rightly removed, we may have lost something of lasting value.

I read an article that claimed that, as Protestants, our greatest strength and weakness is that we are the first religious tradition premised on universal literacy2. In the era before the printing press, the visual arts (including music and dramatic performances) were heavily used in the church to convey not only the stories of the bible but also their beauty4. The introduction of the printing press–which in turn encouraged literacy–made such visual arts less valued. I do not mean to suggest that the Church suddenly ceased to engage in the arts. For example, Rembrandt was supported by various Christian denominations (post Reformation) enabling him to create some astounding pieces of art— a favourite of mine and Will’s is “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” But over time, this devaluing, in conjunction with the Reformation’s rejection of the Catholic art tradition, led the reformed church to largely part with any intentional encouragement of the visual arts.Thankfully, this seems to be changing as more and more churches seek ways to engage with and encourage the arts as worship. 

I love how visual arts invite us to encounter the Biblical story through the eyes of artists. Creative representations can be powerful, sometimes in ways that transcend words. The beauty captures and draws us in, enriching our worship. I believe the artists among us have a gift that can and should be used to magnify and glorify God in our corporate worship services. Speaking of a famous composer, Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth says that in his music, “he heard the physical world being enabled to praise God…[the composer] simply lets himself become the vehicle of a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah”. This is what the artists in our midst have the opportunity to do, not just as individual worship, but also for the benefit of our congregations. 

There is something in that quote that makes me long to create a “fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah” too. The good news is that in our own unique giftings, we have the opportunity to join in. I will admit that I sometimes wish my gifting was in the arts, especially because all of my siblings are (annoyingly) talented in this area. And while I could lament that they have something I do not, I can also allow their gifts to lead me to worship. So once again, I put this thought to you. God is a master craftsman, an artisan. Who are we to think that our worship won’t be enhanced by engaging with the artists among us? 

Please enjoy some of the sermon art from the last few series accompanied by the passages of scripture the artist reflected on while creating. While these pieces were all created for worship, I do want to give credit to the creator. The following are digital drawings by historian, artist, and my brother Anthony Wood. And (shameless plug) if you want to see more of his personal work, check out his website and his Instagram @pintlerpainter to see his landscape oil paintings (largely of the mountains I call home).


1Meyer, 2021

2Harris, n.d.

3Harris, n.d.

4Begbie, 2019



‌Begbie, Jeremy. 2019. “6 Works of Classical Music Every Christian Should Know.” The Gospel Coalition. June 21, 2019.

DeYoung, Kevin. n.d. “The Church and the Arts: Some Common Ground and Some Common Sense.” The Gospel Coalition.

‌Harris, Micah. n.d. “Why Churches Need Artists | Mere Orthodoxy.” Accessed February 23, 2024.

Meyer, Isabella. 2021. “Christian Art – a History of Christian Artwork and Biblical Paintings.” August 20, 2021.


Article published March 2024