Calling in Your Ear header

The Nehemiah Foundation is regularly asked how we decide which Christian artists we support. Our criteria are actually quite inclusive:

  1. You profess Christ as your Savior and your life does not obviously contradict that profession.
  2. You believe you are called by God to be an artist or artisan.
  3. We believe your art is not likely to be served by the current art market.
  4. We believe we are able to provide something to you that you can’t provide yourself (e.g., production assistance, studio space, materials, etc.).

If you meet those four criteria and you want our assistance, we will do everything we can to support you in the way we think will best serve your art, benefit the church at large, and steward our limited resources.

So that’s that. But it leaves some artists asking a very difficult question:

“How do I know if God is calling me to the arts?”

This question touches on very many other topics and questions, all of which require a good deal of unpacking. This article purposes to bring up some very important topics for this discussion, but if you are looking for a checklist, you’ve come to the wrong place. There is no checklist. Each circumstance and artist requires a particular and unique treatment. However, if you are an aspiring artist or artisan looking for help in this process, feel free to contact us.

Distinguishing Between a Hobby and a Calling

Many people in the church tend to view the arts generally as trivial pursuits—hobbies. These (often very influential) members of the church say things like, “It’s fine to pursue art in your free time, but not if it interferes with your real job and taking care of your family.” So, in these terms, if your art hobby ends up being financially successful, then you are free to view it as your calling. But until then, most churchgoers think artists need to get real jobs already and quit being such hippies. In so many words.

There is much that is wrong with this perspective. Consider that this same sentiment can be (and often is) applied to anyone doing the ministerial work of the church. Some might say (or at least think), “Why does the preacher get to be paid for doing little more than studying the Bible and counseling with people?”

But this is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 9:8f (cp. 1 Timothy 5:17–18). Note especially these verses:

Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.

So perhaps the reason why artists who are called by God to serve in the church don’t want “real jobs” is because ministry is a real job, or at least it could be if church members didn’t refuse to support them. Make no mistake, the arts in and from the church are an indispensable tool for the proclamation of the Gospel, especially for this and the coming generation.

Make no mistake, the arts in and from the church are an indispensable tool for the proclamation of the Gospel, especially for this and the coming generation.

Biblically speaking, there are numerous cases of people being called by God directly for artistic purposes in the church. The first one mentioned is Bezalel (Exodus 31:2), quickly followed by the calls of numerous attendants and artisans charged to help Bezalel complete God’s vision for the tabernacle. Note that in this case, God in fact calls Bezalel, and Oholiab his craftsman assistant, by name. There are many other instances of artists being called for the service of the church in the arts, by name or otherwise (e.g., Hiram of Tyre and the sons of Asaph). There is no question then, that the arts can be a legitimate calling.

The church is directed to support the called artist in the same way the church supports a prophet or preacher. Just because the church doesn’t do this, doesn’t mean the artist isn’t called. He may just have to make tents like Paul to support his unpaid ministry in the arts.

Does that mean every aspiring artist in the church is called by God to the arts and therefore deserves the church’s support? Not necessarily. For some people art is a hobby. The difference is in the necessity. If your art is merely for your own enjoyment or benefit, it is a hobby. Which means most of the people making a living off of art are actually hobbyists unknowingly. A calling is something God commands you to do for His kingdom purposes. It is ultimately in service to the church, even if it also brings you great enjoyment.

Evaluating the Two Kinds of Artistic Skill: Vision and Craft

In the Bible, there is one thing that unifies every one of the artists and artisans God calls to the arts: skill. A cursory glance at relevant biblical texts makes this clear (Ex. 35:35; Ps. 45:1; 1 Chron. 15:22; 1 Chron. 25:7; 2 Chron. 2:13; 2 Chron. 2:7; Jer. 9:17; Dan. 1:17). And this raises quite a number of other difficult questions: Does a lack of skill mean you are not called to the arts? Or does God give skill to those He calls? Furthermore, how do you rate or determine artistic skill?

Within the Bible, there are two distinct kinds of workers in the arts, and therefore two different kinds of artistic skill: there are prophets (or visionaries) and there are artisans (or craftsmen). The two skill types then are skills of vision/insight and skills of craft/production. Very often the prophets of the arts are also skilled craftsmen, as with Bezalel. But that is not necessarily the case in all instances, and it is increasingly rare in our day when prophets of the arts are usually not recognized, given support, or allowed to spend the necessary time honing their craft (since they have to get “real jobs”).

Every art can be understood in these terms: as the marriage of vision and craft.

A prophet does not need to achieve an excellent level of craft if he is able to join up with collaborators who adopt his vision and complete it with their own skill. An example of this would be a composer who writes excellent music but can’t play any instrument very well. If his musical genius is coupled with a skilled orchestra, this could result in a great piece of art, even if the players have no vision and the composer has no instrumental prowess.

It is very often the case that artistic craftsmen do not have any prophetic insight on their own. This is a very important point. The priests of art (the craftsmen) were always called to the aid of the prophets of art (the visionaries). For example, the tabernacle was the product of only a few men’s artistic vision. But hundreds of craftsmen and skilled workers were necessary to complete the actual work of building the tabernacle and executing Bezalel’s artistic designs. Bezalel was the head visionary for the tabernacle. Oholiab was the head craftsman. Both were necessary for the final work.

There is one thing that unifies every one of the artists and artisans God calls to the arts: skill.

Every art can be understood in these terms: as the marriage of vision and craft. Some art is more heavily dependent on vision (like writing, though it clearly benefits from craft). Other art is so heavily weighted toward craft (like architecture or furniture making), that an excess of personalized vision can sometimes be to the detriment of the final work in the eyes of those who end up using it (e.g., Frank Lloyd Wright). But some combination of vision and craft is necessary for the completion of any excellent piece of art.

All artists in the church are called to have skill, but that doesn’t disqualify an artist merely because he is not a skilled craftsman or a skilled visionary. An artist’s skill might lie in only one of these two distinct areas. God calls both visionaries and craftsmen to the arts. I believe it is of the utmost importance for a called artist to recognize in which area he has been gifted, and either fill in his lacking through practice or training, or find a complimentary collaborator.

Determining Your Own Artistic Skill Set

So how do you evaluate your own artistic skill set? Of the two kinds of artistic skill, craft is much easier to evaluate than vision and easier to appreciate as well. For instance, it is easy enough to determine that Salvador Dalí was a better craftsman than his “surrealist” peer René Magritte (at least in terms of photorealism). But one could argue that Magritte made a much greater contribution to surrealism in terms of visionary insight, and even his craft has waxed in appeal over time, whereas Dalí’s has waned.

magritte dali comparison

Another example: Most would argue that Neil Peart of Rush is a better technical drummer than John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, but Peart’s drumming is sometimes characterized as being less musical (more mechanical). Who is the “better” drummer? I would say this is an argument comparing apples and oranges, or more specifically, craft and vision. Rush itself, and most progressive rock for that matter, is actually a good example of art that emphasizes artistic craft or technique over vision and insight. It’s important to appreciate any art for what it contributes in either vision or craft, because it is rare to find an artist who exhibits both craft and vision to the same degree (though Bach might be an example in the musical realm).

I would say that most people are impressed by craft, and are largely “blind” to vision. Which explains why the current market system for art has generally produced very crafty art comprising little to no vision. Think about mainstream Christian music: it’s expertly played and expertly produced, yet I think we can all agree it is generally very bad. Why? Good craft with no vision. Or at least, the vision has been made subservient to the craft. That’s backwards. But it makes sense.

Consider the hypothetical case of a gifted songwriter, let’s call him Micah. His lyrics are brilliant and edifying, and his songs are extremely well-composed. But his voice is unpolished and he is merely competent on his main instrument of choice, the guitar. He records his songs on a computer through his pinhole mic, and the final product is rather lo-fi. When he shows his work to his friends in the church, they cringe. The guitar playing is unexceptional, the vocals are cracking and straining, and the recording quality is clearly sub-par. They tell the songwriter, “Don’t quit your day job.” This actually happens all the time. Full disclosure: this case is not all that hypothetical. But it is understandable. Because it is hard to “see” the vision in a piece of art when a lack of craft gets in the way.

Every artist wants to think of himself as a visionary. But not all are. In fact, most of the people called to the arts in the Bible were the numerous, unnamed craftsmen.

On the other hand, artistic vision is almost impossible to evaluate without great discernment. But, here’s the rub: a lack of craft is fairly easy to fix. All it needs is more money or a couple of skilled craftsmen collaborators. But when a piece of art is conceived without vision? That’s a hard thing to fix. Craft should follow the constraints of vision. Craft requires the exercise of human energy and discipline. It is the cooperation of our creative spirits with the creative Spirit of God. But the creative Spirit of God is not dependent on our human energies. It goes where it will. And the creative Spirit of God is at the root of vision. Vision can and should be honed through practice, but if you don’t have vision, the only thing you can do to get it is ask God. And He might say you are better suited to serve a vision that’s already in your midst.

Ultimately, the church needs to look for artists of vision and give them the resources and time they need. The church should also be a place where those visionaries can meet up with and inspire craftsmen to come along side them for the overall betterment of the arts. But how do you know if God has given you vision or if He has called you to serve another’s vision?

The Call to the Arts

So, are you called by God to the arts? Ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you have a desire to work in the arts, and the talent or skill necessary to excel in them?

2. Is there an artistic need around you that only you can fill?

If you answered yes to both questions, you may be called to the arts, and you will be called to one of two areas (or both): production (requires craft) or composition (requires vision).

Determining whether God has called you as a visionary or a craftsman takes some real soul-searching. Every artist wants to think of himself as a visionary. But not all are. In fact, most of the people called to the arts in the Bible were the numerous, unnamed craftsmen.[1. It’s also the case that you may be called as a craftsman for one project, and as a visionary for another. I work for an arts organization. Sometimes I am called on to be a session musician since I play multiple instruments. In these cases, my job is to serve the artistic vision of the songwriter(s), not my own vision. For my own band, however, the situation is different. I have creative authority there. So, in any given project, it is important to develop a functional hierarchy for vision. This creates a much more productive and peaceable working environment.]

Owning Your Role as a Craftsman

The craftsman is integral. His work is the first thing people see and perhaps the only thing most people can appreciate. Without good craft, works of good vision would never be acceptable to the general public. But the pure craftsman, like the deacon and the priest, should recognize that he needs someone else’s vision in order to fulfill his potential. A pure craftsman needs to find a visionary collaborator or his work will not mean anything.

If you consider the director of a movie as the main visionary exercising his insight into how a particular script would be best represented, all the other people who work on the film are craftsmen first and foremost. They are there to serve the vision of the director. They may be visionaries in their own right (though most of them are not), but for the purposes of that particular movie, they operate as technicians serving the director’s vision. Think about Tim Burton. He’s the visionary on his films. But without his team, where would Tim Burton be? He has the vision. They do most of the work. Both are critical.

Has God called you to be a craftsman in the arts? There are ways of determining this. For one, you have very little capacity for composition, but you are highly skilled in some area of execution. If you are a musician, ask yourself these questions: Are you more an instrumentalist or a composer? Are you more a producer or an engineer? If you are a film-maker, do you care more about the techniques of film-making or the ideas of visual exploration?

The craftsman is concerned mostly with technique. The visionary is concerned mostly with ideas. Obviously, a visionary might also be very invested in his particular craft, but a pure craftsmen is not usually as concerned with what should be done, but rather how it could be done. And that’s good, because one of the main problems with Christian art today is that too many craftsmen are trying to be visionaries, and refusing to submit their skills to another person’s vision.

In order to make excellent art at this time, the church needs clearer vision far more desperately than it needs better craft or better funding.

This doesn’t mean that craft needs to be thrown out in the Christian arts. Already, there isn’t enough of it in the church’s art. So I am not recommending inferior production values. But I think the church is actually investing the best of its craft and resources into ideas that aren’t worth working on. This results in good craft (sometimes), but nonetheless bad art. In order to make excellent art at this time, the church needs clearer vision far more desperately than it needs better craft or better funding.

I can’t tell you how many “songwriters” have approached me over the years, and though they are very talented instrumentalists and singers, they have almost nothing of value to say, and their songs sound like everything else that has ever been written. I would never tell these men and women that they aren’t called to the arts though. I would tell them they are called to serve as artisans or craftsmen rather than as visionaries.

As more and more money is pumped into the Christian arts, this becomes ever more obvious: the main problem with Christian art is that most of the people making it are (sometimes badly trained) craftsmen without vision.

But why would craftsmen want to take on the role of the visionary even if they had no insight? Because though there is no shame in being a craftsman, there is less glory (on this side of the grave anyway). If you are seeking a place in the arts in order to gain temporal glory and material wealth, you’re better off trying to play the visionary than the craftsman. The priest naturally gets less glory than the prophet or the king.

But have you seen the church lately? We suffer from a glut of celebrity ministers, star prophets, and not enough nameless priests. Priests get things done. If you are called by God to be a craftsman, recognize that you are storing up treasures in heaven, and the church of this earth desperately needs your humble service. You are the hand of God behind the scenes. You must learn to find satisfaction in this, and you must find a prophet who needs your help and serve the vision God gave him.

I can’t stress this enough. The church needs craftsmen in the arts. And more than that even, we need craftsmen in the arts to step down from positions of artistic leadership and take on roles of artistic service.

Determining if God has Called You as a Visionary

But perhaps God has called you to be a visionary. It’s harder to determine if this is the case. I think the best thing to do is to apprentice as a craftsman in your field first. Try to serve someone else’s vision while you hone your craft. Try to allow this to be enough for you. Submit yourself completely to the vision of the artist you are working for. Try to find satisfaction in it. If you never get an unendurable itch to helm your own project, then you probably aren’t called by God to be a visionary.

Serving the church is not always giving it what it wants. It’s giving it what God says it needs.

If you are getting ideas, test them. Find quality craftsmen in your field. If they are itching to be your craftsmen, you are probably a visionary. In other words, if quality craftsmen hear your idea and are begging you to let them work on it, God may have given you vision. But, in our day, you may have to go it alone. Hone your own craft as much as you can, but keep on pressing forward. One of the realities of vision is that, if you have it, you won’t be able to keep from exercising it. This is the reality for most prophetic ministries. Like Jeremiah, you may be so discouraged by naysayers that you want to quit, even to the point of wishing you had never been born. But you literally just can’t quit:

But if I say, “I will not remember Him
Or speak anymore in His name,”
Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
And I am weary of holding it in,
And I cannot endure it. (Jer. 20:9)

Beyond that, if you are called to be a visionary, it is a spiritual gift more than it is from your own human energies. So don’t be a typical star. Your gift has been given to you by God for the service of the church. It is not intended to bring you glory, but to bring God glory. It’s very important to remember that. On the other hand, if you are a visionary, don’t compromise your vision even if it isn’t popular. Serving the church is not always giving it what it wants. It’s giving it what God says it needs. People will call you proud and arrogant if you do this. So be it if they call you that. Make sure it isn’t true, and then keep pressing.

Conclusion

It’s high time the church started supporting both the artistic craftsmen and the artistic visionaries in her midst. It’s also high time we started making a distinction among artists between those called to craft and those called to vision.

The rejection of artistic vision in the church has resulted in the exodus of honest craftsmen from the church. What do I mean by honest craftsmen? They are craftsmen who are perfectly content serving someone else’s vision. Honest craftsmen can, and often do, find jobs working for the unbelieving visionaries in the world, and this has resulted in a dearth of good artistic craft in the church. But good craft couldn’t save most of the church’s art anyway. We need vision.

Christian visionaries are the ones most likely to be rejected both inside and outside the church, and they need support so that Christian craftsmen will again have meaningful and significant work to do within the church. So re-investing in honest artistic vision in the church will mean the support of all called artist Christians and the removal of dishonest craftsmen. Sounds like a win-win.

[In many ways, this is the main operational goal of the Nehemiah Foundation—to find Christian visionary artists and join them with Christian craftsmen in order to produce powerful art in and from the church. I am happy to say we are fabulously blessed in the visionaries department. But we need more resources to pay for better equipment and compensate better craftsmen. So—if our ministry has blessed and edified you, please consider investing in our work.]