Art and Soul

Generating Missional Conversations Using the Medium of Art
By Michelle Sanders
Posted by Darren Cronshaw

Towards the top of my list of pet peeves are the posters that Christian bookshops sell with beautiful paintings or photos with a Bible verse underneath to explain or somehow justify the art. I am a passionate advocate for celebrating art, and for reflecting on art theologically, and for using art and creativity in ministry and mission. But we need thoughtful Christian artists and artful ministry practitioners to help move us beyond “Bible-verse art”.

Michelle Sanders is a Melbourne-based painter and pastor, an art therapist and storyteller who beautifully integrates her passion for art and for mission. Her imagination has been captured by missio Dei and incarnational mission – cooperating with what God is doing in people’s lives and taking what is good news about Christianity into the subcultures of our society. When she was converted as a hippy, she packed her Kombi van and joined a commune to share Jesus with her subculture. Now as a church planter and pastor, she is taking what is in her hand – her paintbrush and easel – and connecting with people outside the walls of the church.

Art and Soul is Sanders’ theological reflection and missiological basis for her art ministry. She argues that the church in the Western world needs fresh focus on getting out beyond its walls to connect with the increasing number of people who don’t attend church. Her distinctive approach is not just to paint and showcase her art. Where she is at her best is helping other people to get in touch with their own creativity, and to have their imaginations captured by the creativity and the image of God that is in everyone.

Celebrating art as an integral expression of mission and community was foundational for the faith community Sanders planted in Pakenham, Victoria in 2010: “Kaleidoscope” <>. Named from the Greek words kalei “beautiful” and scope “form”, their vision is that church should be beautiful in its form. They have deconstructed what people expect of normal church, and redesigned church gatherings to help unchurched people explore spirituality with contemplation, conversation, creative writing, art and service components. Artists paint the Scripture passage during afternoon worship gatherings as well as whatever other teaching input and conversation happens. They invite God to speak to them with a prophetic edge through artistic expression and the stories they share.

Sanders also takes her art, teaching and activism into her community. For example, Kaleidoscope helps support “Patmos Artist’s Network”, founded by Jennifer Kock, to encourage emerging artists in their development <>. Sanders narrates her experience of the “American Painting Tour” where she asked people for permission to paint their portrait, hear their story and pray for them, and is initiating a similar project back in Melbourne. “Art for Justice” takes artists and musicians, or the occasional jugglers, masseurs and face-painters, to markets to busk and raise awareness for social justice concerns.

Her other main community art ministry is the “Art and Soul” 10 week course that teaches painting to people suffering from anxiety and depression. Sanders has taught this program to “at risk” teenagers and their parents, Chicago prison inmates, refugees, school children and children with autism. It is inspiring to read of people imagining and journaling what God is saying to them, getting perspective on life as they learn about perspective in art, and grappling with darkness in life as they experiment with shades of colour in their drawing. I love the sound of the creative ideas and collages, the portraits and drawings that participants experiment with. The courses have helped budding artists get started in being creative, stuck artists get going again, families to start talking to one another at deeper levels, and students discussing issues of identity, shame and bullying.

The course and Sanders’ other artistic initiatives are helpful exercises in their own right for what they mean for the people involved, but Sanders’ experience is that they are also invaluable for the missional conversations this kind of shared activity and exploration can lead to. Sanders models a sensitive approach to fostering relationships and an empowering approach to facilitating personal, creative and spiritual development in people and groups.

Art and Soul is highly recommended reading for churches using or exploring art and creativity in ministry, for artists curious about how God may use their art forms, and for budding artists getting in touch with their creativity.

Art and Soul: Generating Missional Conversations Using the Medium of Art, By Michelle Sanders (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2014). This review was originally published in Australian Journal of Mission Studies (December 2014).