Over the years, I've met so many artists who struggle in their lives with everything from creative expression to finances, relationships to addiction, spirituality and their relationship with God. Most of the time, the overwhelmingly popular view of life among these friends tends to lean towards one of two areas; mailbox mentality or starving artist.
On the Christian side of life, many believers embrace a popular fallacy that says something like "get saved, obey God and He'll do the rest because God's in control." Everyday, these artists go out to their proverbial mailbox hoping that today is the day God blesses them with the desires of their heart, only to be disappointed.
The other view of life among almost all artists is one I call the starving artist mentality. This one is pretty familiar to most creatives in that it presupposes that life as an artist is hard, you'll never make money, to sell your art successfully is to "sell out" and you just have to settle for an existence laden with poverty or at least the lack of prosperity.
Thank goodness, I found a better way based in God's Word that is based on how the Kingdom of God works. Here's the 5 ways you can choose to thrive as an artist in God's Kingdom:
One of the questions I get a lot from artists and creative types is “How can I do what I love creatively full-time?” Many times what’s underneath that question is a feeling that they know there’s more but they feel really bogged down with all the issues that life and a full-time job entail. Deeper still are feelings of being overwhelmed, frustrated and dissatisfied with life as they currently know it. Couple that with the fact that almost all creatives are major dreamers, always believing that “the grass is greener” and you’ve got a recipe for some moody artistic temperaments to begin to flair up! I’ll do my best to put this into perspective.
First off, just because you are an artist doesn’t mean you have to do it as a full-time job that supports you financially. GASP! I know, I know, you may think I’ve just broken the cardinal rule of all artists, but it’s the truth. True art and creativity are expressions of our heart – they are overflow of what we are about on the inside. Some people’s overflow is for themselves alone where as others may be for their family, local church, region or nation. Many people are creative but not everyone is called to be a full-time working artist or musician. Believe me, if you’re not called to it then please don’t force yourself there prematurely. It will lead to a place of you hating your art, being way more frustrated than you are now, and feeling tons of anxiety because the thing you just knew you were supposed to do is not really that at all. The main point here is that you have to know in your heart of hearts with great clarity what it is that God’s called you to do and then begin to walk in that direction.
Now you may already know what it is that God’s called you to do but your frustration is that you’re not there yet. This is common for all dreamers. We can see the end result but get really upset because we’re not seeing it manifest in our lives right now. So what to do? I call it building a bridge.
You see, we’re all on a road to somewhere. It’s up to you to define that somewhere with the Lord. The fact remains however, that there is much for you to experience, receive and learn in the process. Honestly, if God were to just place us right now into the fullness of what he created us for we would totally screw it up. Why? Because He’s still forging those attributes that we need in our life so at the right time we’ll be found ready to take the reigns of destiny and go for it! Let me offer a few signposts for you to follow as you build a bridge to your dreams.
Nobody becomes an artist just to worry about paying the bills.
Nobody becomes an artist just to have something to do or to have a job.
We become artists because after trying everything else in life we finally were not happy unless were doing the very thing were created to do. We become artist because there’s this thing inside of us that won’t quit burning until we give it expression. We become artists because we can’t do anything else authentically.
For many of us that journey of self-discovery has taken a lifetime. We’ve all worked jobs we hated, just for the money in order to get to do what we loved at night and on the weekends, dreaming one day that this could be our real job. We’ve all sacrificed more than many will ever know in order to get that burning in our creative bones out somehow.
Sometimes I wish that I could have just POOF gotten it when I was in college and started out on the creative road to success but my journey probably like many of yours has been a long, windy, scary and exhilarating road that brings me to where I am today. And it’s that journey that we all have in common. Each so very different and yet each exactly the same. It’s our stories that bind us together.
So, it sounds like we should have this idyllic life experience of life, love and creativity but for many artists – maybe even you – that’s far from reality. Too often our story becomes one of trying to make ends meet, sacrificing creativity for profits, making things that sell instead of making things that inspire us all in a package of too little sleep, growing frustration and an overwhelming feeling of ‘is this really worth it.” I wrote this book to tell you that it is worth it. You’re worth it. I also wrote this book because I have a passion to encourage you on your creative journey and to move from just surviving into thriving.
Understanding the unique identity that makes us each ‘artists’ is not as easy as simply grabbing a paintbrush and putting color to canvas. For thousands of years, humanity has struggled with what it means to be an artist, even to be creative. The Greeks and Romans even thought creativity was the result of channeling daemons or a disembodied spirit they called a “genius” who would live with, speak to, inspire and create through the individual. Then the Renaissance came along and the focus shifted to the artist being the genius and humanity being the center of creativity, leaving little room for the divine. Even today, the questions remain; is creativity simply some random act of chance, the result of tenacity and hard work, an encounter with divine providence or a culmination of all of the above.
We can’t do it all ourselves. We’re not wired that way. We can’t just make it happen and in fact we don’t have what it takes to be all that we desire. That smacks in the face of our good old American work ethic but it’s true. However, when we take what we have been given, mix it with hard work and thankfully offer it back to the Giver and humanity as a gift with a heart of joyful expectation, we will always find we have more than enough – fulfillment, creative inspiration and yes, financial provision. Otherwise we end up in the typical ‘starving artist’ scenario which is based in fear, scarcity and control: working more, getting less, never thinking our work is good enough and always existing in a place of lack and frustration.
Our creative sensibilities are not simply the result of well-executed skills or practice made perfect, but rather collaboration between a divinely invested gift, the Giver of that gift and the hard work of artists who steward well the gift entrusted to them.
(excerpted from Chapter 1 of “Crafting Your Brand: Strategies for Cultivating a Successful Creative Career” by Matt Tommey.)
Ok, so I know you’re probably saying “What the heck?” as you read the title of this article, but take a breath and put away your stones. Really… my heart in this article is to get Christian artists to think for a moment why it’s so important that we get outside the walls of the local Church with our creative expression.
We’ve all felt it… a suffocating insulation that leads our heart to say “I can’t do this any longer! There’s got to be more.” What if, just for a moment, you considered the idea that God created this uncomfortableness that seems to be calling you to more. What if it’s the Holy Spirit that’s calling you out into the marketplace with your creativity? Some of you would celebrate but for some artists this feeling is something that’s to be embraced, but rather suppressed because of their own religious mindset. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ver heard from Christians who are artists telling me stories of how leaders have encouraged them to “lay down” their creative expression in the marketplace in order to “serve the Lord”; as if to say it’s not godly to get paid for what you do creatively or that the only way you can serve the Lord is within the context of the local church. As Jack Taylor says, “I’m not anti-church, but I am pro-Kingdom.”
Here’s seven thoughts I hope will give you the courage to step out of feeling insulated and into the wide, beautiful, freedom-filled place of the Kingdom that Father has for you within culture.
7. A Variety of Experiences Inform Our Art: Creative depth and spontaneity are the results of an artist’s combined experience, skill, connection to their spiritual source and inspiration. The more an artist enlarges their capacity, the more opportunity they have to create with God. Artists must continue to fill their “creative well” with great art, music, writing, life experiences and beauty in order for the Holy Spirit to have something to move upon within them.
6. Worship Can Happen Anywhere: God lives in the spontaneous worship expression of his people – not just in a church service. Worship can happen anywhere people offer their heart and creative expression to God. In that context, all creative expression becomes an invitation from the artist to God to release His power and presence in and through their art.
5. Called to Go and Tell: The Gospel of the Kingdom, as preached and modeled by Jesus, has always been a go and tell message, not just come and see. Everyplace artists place their feet – and artwork – they carry the Kingdom.
4. Artists are Cultural Prophets: Artists are prophetic messengers to culture who are designed to release the light and life of God in places that need it the most using language that can be understood without religious jargon. It’s been said that “if good preaching and good singing were going to change the world, it would have already been done.” People are hungry for an encounter with God and artists are uniquely equipped to translate the Truth of the Kingdom through their creative expression.
3. Big Fish, Little Pond: The local church was never designed to be the complete venue for all creative gifting and expecting such can lead artists into deep frustration. It has been said that “Impression without expression leads to depression.” Most of the creative gifting inside the artist community can and should bless, build up and edify the church but it finds its full expression in the marketplace.
2. Receiving Your Provision in Alignment with Your Design & Assignment: The marketplace provides opportunity for artists to both make a living from and share their art with people who are willing to invest in their creative expression. Financial provision for artists allows the time and freedom to focus on the art making journey. For everyone in the Kingdom, God releases ideas that generate money in the marketplace to create our provision in line with our specific assignment.
1. Institutions Typically Breed Insulation. While it is essential for every artist to be relationally connected to other believers within the body of Christ for their own spiritual health and community, they must resist the temptation to withdraw from culture and lose their voice. Involvement in the wider culture informs our worldview and allows authentic relationships to develop. Institutions breed insulation but relationships birth relevance.
So what do you think? Let me hear from you in the comments below!
“Why is Christian art so bad?” This question was posed to me on live radio several years ago when I was doing a book tour for The release of my first book, ”Unlocking the Heart of the Artist”. There I was, live before millions of people around the world on a big time morning radio show in downtown Chicago. I was trying to encourage artists and at the same time felt that punch-to-the-gut sort of feeling that said “what in the world am I going to say to this?” Fear, anxiety and anger and a little bit of laughter all bubbled up at the same time. I’m not even quite sure what I said at this point but throughout the years, that question has stayed with me and informed everything we try to do in equipping artists at The Worship Studio.
What would lead someone to even ask that question? I mean frankly, we don’t like to ask such hard questions in the Christian community. Most of the time, we like to stay all positive. It’s kind of like those kids on American Idol that can’t sing. Think about it. Somebody’s mama told them they could sing. Their whole life they’re thinking “Wow, I am awesome” and then they get up on national TV and everything changes. (Just in case you need a break, here’s the 10 worst American Idol Singers. Enjoy!)
In church, it can be like that for an artist. All you hear is how anointed, talented and called you are but rarely do artists hear really great constructive critique that can enable them to grow. Sure, we all like to edify, encourage and strengthen each other but sometimes we need to have a little bit of iron sharpening iron. Sometimes, somebody’s got to call a spade a spade. I guess today, that’s me.
You see, I believe if we’re honest we know the answer to this difficult and sometime offensive question; “Why is Christian art so bad?” Much of what is deemed Christian art or “prophetic art” today is much more spiritually-based, spontaneous expression or spiritual processing than it is skillfully created art. (That is not a slam on spontaneous expression or spiritual processing through art by the way.) In that context, the artist may seek to communicate passion, desire, vision and prophetic unction but because of immature artistic skill that only comes with time, preparation, creative development, mentoring and creating tons of work, the result does not carry the transformative power which the artist seeks to convey. The result is not inherently bad, it’s simply the immature expression of an emerging artist.
The challenge for all of us artists who are Christians and who desire to have our work release the light and life of God – to release transformation and change the atmosphere – is to move beyond the simple transcription of spiritual inspiration to the place where we treat those inspirations as seeds; seeds of promise, seeds of potential, seeds that must be planted in good soil and go through the maturing process before they can bear fruit.
Believe me, as you mature both creatively and spiritually, your interpretation of inspiration changes drastically.
Unfortunately, that process of development is often looked down upon or minimized because of the tendency to over spiritualize this creative process. I call it “playing the God card”. Sometimes if an artist inherently feels that the inspiration they carry is from the Holy Spirit and that their responsibility is to communicate that inspiration through their artwork, there can be a real resistance to constructive critique. You’ll hear defensive responses like “God gave this to me” or “This is what the Holy Spirit said to do” when in reality, that is the artists’ interpretation of what the Holy Spirit said to do based on their own spiritual and creative maturity. When any of us lose the ability to be teachable and what we do whether it be creative or otherwise and we miss the opportunity to mature. Believe me, as you mature both creatively and spiritually, your interpretation of inspiration changes drastically. Why? Because you have more options; more techniques, mediums, processes and ideas. As your creative capacity expands so does your ear to the Spirit.
The question for all artists is “How do I skillfully create art and grow in artistic maturity while nurturing an authentic spiritual connection?”Here’s five things that I hope all artists will incorporate into their artistic development as they grow into creative and spiritual maturity:
I was a 1 talent artist looking for 5 talent results (Matthew 25).
“Go Back and Re-Learn Your Craft”
When the Lord began to speak to me about the next season of my life in 2008, the first word I got was not about raising up an army of artists or being a father to artists or writing books or speaking at conferences around the world. The first word I got was “go back and re-learn your craft”. Although I have been making baskets for probably 15 years at that point, the Spirit spoke a very clear Word to me. As I interpreted that Word, it became clear that even though I had done basketry for a long time they were key things that I was missing, key techniques that I had not mastered, core understandings that I had yet to incorporate into my creative process. Until I gained mastery in those areas, no matter how much passion or desire I had to release the light and life of God through my work or to have influence as an artist, it just wasn’t going to happen. Why? Because I was a 1 talent artist looking for 5 talent results (Matthew 25). Yes, I could have rebuked the devil and prayed for a miracle – and that may have made me feel better – but as I have found throughout my whole creative and spiritual journey, God is more concerned about the process then he is about the outcome. He’s concerned about stewardship, faithfulness and tenacity. I begin to understand that if God could trust me with the responsibility to develop his creative investment in me then he would trust me to pour out his Spirit through my work.
Plant the Seeds of Inspiration
Creative inspirations are like seeds. In and of themselves, they are worthless unless they are planted in good soil and allowed to come to maturity. The tendency for many artists is to paint the seed, sing the seed, give away the seed or even try to sell the seed rather than plant the seed and wait. For seeds to come to maturity, they must be planted in good soil, die and then give way to life. You must also die to your own preconceived notions of what the art should or should not look like based on how you interpreted the seed.
You must give inspiration the soil it needs to mature into fruit. You must also die to your own preconceived notions of what the art should or should not look like based on how you interpreted the seed. Rarely does the seed look like the fruit and unless you allow the seed to die and then come into maturity, you’re probably missing much of what Holy Spirit is actually trying to speak in and through your creative process.
What does this mean practically? Leave room for mystery. Journal your inspirations, record them on Pinterest, create a vision board, meditate on them with the Holy Spirit. Allow them the time and space to come to fruition. Otherwise, you’re giving away simple seeds or fruit that’s not yet ripe.
Find a Mentor
Hello! This is huge and yet so many people resist this part of the journey. All of us need people to speak into our creative journey and they don’t always have to be Christians. Yes, I said it! Can you believe it? Consider Bezalel for a moment. Yes, he’s an incredibly talented, Godly, Spirit-filled artist in the Bible but in reality, mosts of his artist training came from master artisans in Egypt. God can and will use anyone he wants to in order to build us into the mature artists He’s designed us to be!
Most of the mentors in my own creative journey have been people whose work inspired me. I paid – and continue to pay – attention, asked the Spirit for opportunities to connect with them and then before you know it, our paths intersect. Follow the breadcrumbs and the favor. Expect divine connections.
“Christianese” messaging overwhelms and weakens the creative expression.
Create and Let God speak
Artists should quit trying so hard to ‘say something’ with their art and simply create. Create with skill? Yes. Create from deep inspiration? Yes. Create with the Creator? Yes. Just create and believe me, the work will speak for itself. So many times overt “Christainese” messaging overwhelms and weakens the creative expression. The creative process is about trust; trusting yourself, the materials, the mystery all the while believing that the work will live and give life to you and the viewer.
In my own journey. most of what God has used to speak life and light to others has usually been in spite of my creative intention going into a piece. Because of that, I always encourage artists to let the work you create speak. Let the process speak. Don’t always come into a piece of art thinking “this is what this is about” or “this is what I’m going to say”. For me, that just robs the beauty of the process and the experience of the viewer from enjoying. The beauty of art – the supernatural essence of what and how we create – is that our creativity is much more than simply what we bring to the studio. We bring all of us and mix it with all of what Holy Spirit wants to do in and through us and boom, all of a sudden what we create goes WAY beyond whatever we had in mind or could ever have done on our own. If we come into the process so convinced that “this is what this is about” or “This is what I’m going to say” we can easily miss the mystery of the Spirit’s journey through us; the exponential result of our creative expression.
Be a river of giving, not a stagnant, fearful puddle who is satisfied to live off of yesterday’s revelation.
Filled, Skilled and Spilled
No matter how gifted or talented an artist is, it’s all for naught unless they nurture their connection with the Father. Being filled with the Spirit of God should always draw an artist into skill development so they can enlarge their capacity to be a conduit for God’s Glory. Likewise, being filled and skilled should also lead artists who are growing in maturity to see their lives spilled out in the service of others. Teach what you know. Give outrageously. Teach your secrets. Be a river of giving, not a stagnant, fearful puddle who is satisfied to live off of yesterday’s revelation.
Grow as You Go!
The promise of the Father is that He will order our steps, light our path, give us the secrets of the Kingdom and allow us to participate in the divine nature through His precious promises. My prayer for each of us who calls ourself artist is that as you go, you would grow in stature before God and man, that people would see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven, that light and life would flow from your art, that Kingdom transformation would be your legacy.
Matt Tommey is an artist, author and mentor who is passionate about empowering artists to thrive spiritually, artistically and in business.