Why the arts are critical to city transformation.

Why the arts are critical to city transformation.

Over the past few decades the pace of cultural change in cities across the globe

has accelerated considerably. It is therefore essential that the gathered Church

both understands and takes its place at the centre of culture as agents of beauty

and collaborative, creative transformation, as well as messengers of truth and


From London to New York, Sydney to Mumbai, cities are becoming the cultural drivers that effect the way our nations think, develop and flourish. New ideas are formed, philosophies developed and values challenged as we try to make sense of how we should live together in a world that is changing so quickly. Within this context it can be argued that the Arts are probably the most significant universal language of the 21st century. From film and television, digital advertising images and billboards to contemporary music, visual arts, theatre and cinema, each give a voice to the ideas and beliefs of our time, provoking conversations around issues of gender, race, equality, sexuality, consumerism and speaking into and shaping our everyday lives.

But how can we as Church and Christians contribute meaningfully to these cultural conversations in our society? Church leaders, artists and theologians are learning together how the Arts can be used to have a positive, spiritual impact on our towns and cities. Artists and the city spaces they work in, be they musicians, poets, writers, film makers or visual artists, act as agents of social and cultural change and as the Church we have so much to learn from them and much to gain from working alongside them. If we are going to grow gospel movements in our cities then it is vital that we include the Arts sphere in our vision.

We are used to listening to stories of how the church can be better equipped in our civic engagement, working with councils and secular institutions to serve the vulnerable; engaging in business opportunities that hold to strong christian values etc.

But how often does the church build friendships or partner with the cultural institutions in our places? What examples do we have of christians making a difference in the cultural spaces and industries?

I think as church we can sometimes be a little naive as to the enormous contribution art and culture brings to our towns and cities. I want to suggest that as people of faith we have more in common with their vision for our communities than possibly any other sector you might be working with. And yet there is a massive chasm, a fear that has grown up between us, each seeing the other as irrelevant or perhaps even dangerous. The art world see’s religion and particularly the christian church as a dominating force that controlled the Arts in the western world for centuries; once they broke free from the limitations it placed upon them it is understandably, determined not to allow christianity to control the arts again.

The church, especially the protestant evangelical expression of faith has been suspicious of and negative towards the Arts since the Reformation 500 years ago and has a history of valuing words over visual or material language. But it is time to move on.

Art galleries and museums, libraries, theatres, cinemas and concert halls are reaching ever increasing audiences. These public spaces help our communities to relate to their history and their story, but also to imagine their future. They are shared spaces that belong to the community where people of all ages and backgrounds can learn about the way they and others live, our shared experiences and our differences, and encounter new ways of thinking about the world in a non-judgmental, non confrontational, curiosity driven environment.

But collaboration relies on humility. We must not be too proud or afraid to partner with the Arts world – we don’t have to just do our own christian art projects. The secular arts world is full of amazing talent, imagination and innovation. Can we begin to learn how to work alongside them, harnessing the good that is already happening, blessing those who work in these areas, and doing whatever we can in order to bless the wider community and to share the love of God? As I said before, we share much in common in regards to values and a desire to shape society for the good of all. For example, the Arts Council England wrote in the introduction to it’s journal ‘Create’ (2014)

“What will our future look like? Our society contains contradictory energies; it is built around youthful values but has an ageing population; it is conscious of environmental obligations but requires economic growth; it is part of a universal, digital world but has a hunger for communal values and a local identity.

We urgently need new ideas and new talent; it is through the arts that we can bring everyone into the conversation. We must mobilise the diversity of our society to meet the diverse challenges we face. If this is to be the digital century, it’s also got to be the century

of the creative thinker; if we want to change public attitudes we will need to use the resources of culture. Through art and culture we come to articulate ourselves.

Through art and culture we have a dialogue with our past and

imagine the future. Without art and culture, we can’t evolve.”

In theologian James Hunter’s book “To Change the World”  he describes the working alongside others in society as ‘the practice of faithful presence’ and suggests that we are called to generate truth, goodness and beauty, faith, hope and love in every place we find ourselves, not just within the confines of the church but within our communities, our museums and galleries, our theatres and music halls. We are to work alongside those outside of the Christian community within whom God is already at work, making his Shalom known to our communities through their good works, acts of kindness and their commitment to re-imagining our places for the good of humanity. 

So how do we practically shape culture? How does the church extend beyond its walls in our secularist, multicultural, fast moving society and take its place in shaping the way our communities think and feel and live out their everyday lives? And what role do the arts play in this?


All Art is storytelling – it critiques the way we live and engages us in conversation about life, values, society, politics etc. Art observes life in detail, it highlights certain things over others depending on the message the artist/author wants to share. Art draws attention to various ways of thinking, offering different values or ways of seeing the world. 


Most importantly Art is a conversation. It asks the hard questions in non confrontational ways, for art can be listened to or walked away from; the viewer can spend as long or as little time as he/she likes contemplating the issues and ideas raised within a work, be it a novel, a play, a painting, lyrics to a song or whatever it might be. In our age of individualism and choice the arts offer a way for people to choose themselves how much they learn, respond and engage without the pressure of another challenging them face to face. It is a subtle but exceptionally powerful form of communication that in our contemporary visual age is shaping everyones lives by the many things they see, watch, listen to or read every single day. 


It has long been said that the arts and philosophy are prophetic; that if you want to know where culture or a city is moving towards then read the philosophers and look at what the artists are creating. Art makes us think, question, feel, reflect, pause, hope and ultimately re-imagine our futures. 


We must be careful that the church doesn’t separate itself from the culture we live in, creating its own unique christian culture whilst pretending that the culture we live in has no effect on us, or those we seek to serve and love. We must instead understand the nature of our faith and our interpretation of the gospel as embodied within the culture of our time and place, within the everyday activities of our cities and towns. We can never be separate from culture for we live in it – we are a part of it – and it is our responsibility to work towards its growth and change – to help to shape what its ‘becoming’. We are called to Be Christ in culture  – to be world changers.


We need to ask what is culture becoming in your town, city and nation? What do you know about the vision those who lead your city have for their place? How are you engaging with this vision, and how are you, as the gathered church, helping to shape and implement this vision? Are you nurturing and discipling the creative artists within your congregations to help them to use their God given talents to become city changers?


Pastors, as artists we need you, and you need us. We need you to disciple us, to pray with us, to encourage us and to free us to serve in our communities through the creative calling God has placed in our hearts. We need you to understand us and not fear us; not to see us as weird or not conforming, but as people who can help to re-imagine a future that God has prepared for us.

We need you to support us as we go out and take our places in the museums, galleries, theatres, music halls and cultural spaces in our towns and cities. Please help us to be Shalom in these spaces. Help us to let Christ play his tune through us, by our faithful presence, through music, poetry, drama, sculpture, architecture, film. Help us to bring colour, beauty, poetry and ’magic moments’ to our communities. Help us to partner with the cultural institutions, to excel at what we do best so that we can take our place in creative excellence in the cultural conversations in our cities.

Will you have a conversation with us about how we can serve one another more? Will you invite us to play a role in your leadership teams to help you re-imagine what the kingdom on earth might look like in your place. Will you see us as more than just a tool for making evangelism a little more attractive but instead invite us to be ourselves in the way we can do mission. Will you allow us to do more than just repeat the acceptable norms in christian worship and begin to express ourselves through dance, colour, drama, poetry, installation, film as well as choruses? Will you help us to become the best we can at all we do before God? It is estimated that it takes 10,000 hours to become skilled at a craft, we need you to value our talents, and encourage us in our training and development.

As christian artists we often feel lonely, misunderstood and a little apprehensive about letting you know what we really do in our creative lives for fear of you rejecting us.  But we work in a world that values difference, that is innovative, a creative world that addresses many of the issues the church tries to avoid or dig their heals in about. We work in a world that wants to have conversations about the difficulties of life, that puts on exhibitions about the honesty of war, the changing face of our communities, issues of racism, of feminism, of identity. 

We are trying to be a faithful presence amidst these spaces; spaces that initiate collective conversations in our cities and communities, that effect the sprit and beliefs of our age and influence our culture and our societal beliefs. Please support us, work with us, come along side us and together lets join these conversations and help our communities to re-imagine their futures with the values of Christ and a vision for a new earth.

If you want to encourage the development of an Arts Sphere in your city gospel movement, then here are a few questions you may find helpful to discuss together.

What is your relationship as Christians and the Church to culture and the cultural spaces in your town or city?

How have you personally been shaped by the culture of your time and place? Be specific.

How are you contributing to the shaping of the culture that is ‘becoming’ in your place.

How are you as a gospel movement supporting, nurturing, parenting, encouraging and equipping the creative artists in your city to play their part in critiquing, lamenting and re-imagining the future of their city? 

Artists want to root themselves in community, they want to be welcomed, loved and accepted for the unique gifts they can bring. They want to learn from one another, collaborate on ideas and support and pray for one another. Can you begin an arts collective in your city for these relationships to blossom and grow?

How many creative artists do you have amongst your leadership teams that are stretching your vision and understanding of how things are and what they can become?

How to begin an Arts Sphere 

Relationships are key – take time to build strong friendships, pray together, eat together, share with one another about your work and support one another. Bring others into your group by making friends and inviting people along who have a connection between their creative work and their faith. Developing a sense of belonging. Find someone who is happy to give significant time to making this group happen, someone who will parent, nurture and walk alongside the creatives in your city, creating a safe space for them to share and express themselves.

Grow in knowledge and understanding – study, teaching, book lists, podcasts conferences etc. What is the connection between the Arts and transformation in your city? Developing a calling.

Developing a sense of purpose – Important to make sure that you grow a connection between the arts and the transformation of the place/city – How do you contribute towards being a creative influence for the kingdom of God within the cultural spaces of your town/city? To help artists gain a sense of their creative calling to the city God has placed them in.  

Being relevant – Explore issues that are relevant to participants and to the city context and develop conversations and theological reflection, prayer and worship both within your group 

Build relationships with those in your city who are in senior cultural roles, with galleries, theatres, media spaces, music halls, libraries, museums, jazz bars etc – Get involved in the arts scene and make friendships. 

Grow conversations with the wider community– work with academics from both secular and theology – with people from other faith backgrounds – other ideas about how to live – share creative conversations and exhibitions/performances etc Creating spaces of liminality – i.e. exhibitions, festivals, presentations, performances etc 

Lesley Sutton is an artist, curator and pastors wife from Manchester UK. She is founder of PassionArt, a charity that explores the way art and faith impact our communities, building bridges between secular and sacred spaces to promote wellbeing, cohesiveness, cultural and social transformation.