Can an Artist be Called to Ministry? An Interview with Stephen Proctor

Sometimes known as the WorshipVJ, Stephen Proctor has had tremendous success in the niche of curating visual content for projection in worship.  Stephen and I had lunch recently and our conversation created a real idea buzz. One of the things that we talked about was the idea of a calling or career for what we do.

My calling began in 1991, and since that time many good things have happened. Innovative churches now have staff positions devoted to the calling of church creative / communication. Resources exist to aid the creative role in worship and ministry. An active online community exchanges ideas and support. Yet, we still have a long way to go. Outposts such as the Center for Church Communication and the Echo Conference are gaining traction but there is still little in the way of formalized social networks for church creatives and communicators. Theological education has yet to scratch the surface of what is possible. The average church equates a staff creative position with an administrative support position. Yet to those called, the role of artist and communicator is quite strategic and critical. The work of the church can hinge on its ability to communicate with passion and creativity. How can the church better learn to equip and employ artists and communicators in ministry?

I am going to post a series of conversations in this space. The first chat is with Stephen, and other artists and communicators will follow. The purpose of these chats, each with someone who is making a livelihood out of full time creative ministry, is to look for common stories and out of them perhaps discover some ways that we can better equip the church for the critical ministry of creative communication.

Please send in your ideas for these conversations: What can help us foster a better ministry environment for artists and communicators in church life?

 

Stephen Proctor

 

What motivates your interest in technology and ministry?

I’ve always had a fascination and love for technology. I like to know how things work and why. In college, I started off in electrical engineering, but later changed to marketing. As my passion for worship & technology evolved, I became less interested in the gear itself and more interested in how to use technology to enhance people’s lives, particularly in communal worship experiences. I’ll always love technology and struggle with needing the latest and greatest, but my passion for people, ministry & worship far outweighs the gear.

The thing that motivates me in the area of ministry is the need for a massive paradigm shift. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen the birth of the modern worship movement, and visual technology/production/media has followed right behind the trends of music; it’s been on a parallel track, in a way. Though many good things have been introduced, I struggle with the current status of church culture in the West. Our approach with modern worship, though exciting and full of energy, has become shiny and somewhat shallow. Sunday morning has become an attraction…a show…and a slick, polished presentation of the Gospel…all in the name of excellence and relevance and strategy. Yet there’s very little authenticity and integrity. Art & beauty is treated like hallmark, kitschy & sentimental aesthetics…and worse yet, propaganda.  Sometimes the whole church thing feels like a business trying to sell a product in order to grow loyal customers. And I don’t buy it… and I want no part of it.  And though God still speaks despite our failings, I think we can turn this ship around (only through the Hope of Glory working through and is us).

Our technology is only amplifying the problem. But that doesn’t mean that technology in and of itself is bad. It’s just how you approach it and how you use it. This may mean not relying on technology as much, or deciding to not use it at all (which can be beautiful thing)…but don’t hit the eject button just because you think it’s the problem, because it’s not. To eject would be the lazy, easy way out.

I want to proclaim the Word of God through visual media, art and technology. To me, this is a way of prophesying and speaking in tongues to edify the Church and point people’s eyes to Christ. I want to figure this out. I want to ask the right questions. And I want to learn to see. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

 

It sounds like your experiences are forming a more nuanced view of what you do. Do you see what you do as a calling? If so, how do you describe it?

Oh, absolutely! I mean, I could look at it from a few different perspectives. One is Psalm 37:4. I try to focus on delighting myself in the Lord, and He continues to give me the desires of my heart. I believe He placed those desires in me long ago, even as I was being formed in my mother’s womb. I also think of Jeremiah 1 where God had already chosen Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, even as Jeremiah was being formed in the womb.

There are times when He reminds me that He’s designed me specifically and uniquely to do this crazy, intricate work in the world of visual worship. And that He has my back.

I was legally blind up until a year ago. Glasses and contact lenses corrected my severe near-sightedness, but it was very inconvenient. So last year, I had PRK laser surgery to correct my vision. The following days of recovery and healing were quite painful because of irritation and the possibility of infection. I had to make several emergency trips in the dead of the night to get checked out. It was very painful and wondered, “What if I go blind? Or if I can’t see very well after all this? What will I do for work?”

As it turned out, the doctor on call turned out to be the nephew of Earl Waldrup, who wrote “Using Visual Aids in a Church” (1949), which has been a foundational book for what I do. The connection was so much more than coincidence. I felt as if Jesus was with me in that room, reminding me that He is in control and that none of my life is by accident.

 

Wow. What are some big picture goals you have for your career?

I really struggle with this question. I think it’s because I’ve never had a “mission statement” or a 5 year plan. I live life day-to-day and go with the flow. I definitely have certain visions, dreams, and desires, and I have definitely seen some dreams come to fruition over the years. Dreams of epic proportions.

What I tend to focus on is planting seeds of prayer and then being faithful in tending to that soil. Dreams don’t come to fruition over night. They take time and patience. Even giving them back to God and walking away. Years later, answered prayers come into full bloom and the harvest is amazing.

 

Man, I hear that.

Yea. So I focus on dreaming & praying big, and chasing God.  I also focus on making myself completely available, holding what God has given me with an open hand, and not clinging onto it and protecting it.

I relate to the life of a nomad like Abraham, who dwells in a land for an amount of time, and then when God prompts, picks up his tent and moves on to the next country. I’m not about building a huge castle that needs defending and protecting. Castles are permanent; tents are temporary. I want to stay in a position of flexibility where I can pick up and go at a moment’s notice.

I dream of raising up a generation of visual worship leaders, curators of creativity, missionaries of beauty & illuminators of the Kingdom. That might involve coaching & consulting, developing software, writing and curating multimedia books, speaking at events, blogging, tweeting, lots of conversations that don’t make me any money, as well as occasionally walking away from it all and turning all the technology off. I hope I lead in a way that’s not about me and hyping up the kingdom of my own brand, but I know I have to walk confidently in what God has called me to do and to allow God to work through me and the medium of my business.

I also hope I’m following the right people (so far I think I’m doing a pretty good job!). Following the right people is key in growing. If I can do all this and pay the bills, then I’ll be happy. And if I make millions of dollars, then that would be cool, too. Also, I hope there’s some good coffee within my reach! Ha. And if at any point God calls me to walk away and do something completely different, I hope I’m always in a place where I will obey and follow Him. As long as there’s good coffee.

 

I like how you described us as a group of people. It’s interesting how my little struggle to find a job title for what I do in my new job is a microcosm of the problem of creatives in church. How do you best name the issues that hold artists and communicators back from better acceptance in ministry life? We can’t even find the right language. Everything has too much baggage. 

You are speaking of the unnamed frustration that is growing in the hearts of the re-emerging church. We all feel it.

An Australian friend of mine told me something very interesting the other day. She spoke of something she really struggled with when moving to America. In Australia, no one is really concerned with labels and titles. You just do what you do, and you let others around you describe who you are and what you do. In america, we have to give ourselves titles and labels so that people can easily put us in a pre-manufactured box. And then we struggle to live up to that identity. Job titles do this. They don’t think of the person but the box that needs to be filled. So the person has to conform to the box, instead of the other way around. Structures end up being the end and people are the means to that end. it should be the other way around.

The other issue concerning this is, I believe, is the fact that image & word has been divorced in the church for centuries. We are in the beginning stages of re-integrating art, aesthetics, and theological imagery into our liturgies. We are fascinated by this, and souls are being fed in a way that only art and beauty can do. But we have yet to move from excitement to deep understanding and wisdom. The Church is still in the honeymoon phase with art and creativity.

Maybe the creative leaders are still in the honeymoon phase, and the rest of the linear thinking, evangelical church looks at art like an odd fiancée a son has brought home. Or maybe the marriage has happened but we didn’t court art well, so we are still learning how not to be selfish. We have a lot of growing up to do.

Art is messy. It’s unpredictable. You can’t control it. It poses questions but doesn’t tell you all of the answers (which is the Holy Spirit’s job, not our pastors’ job). But some of our church leaders like control. They like standardization and mass production. They want to quantify it. And so they will call it “art” and “creativity” but really it’s shallow, poor aesthetics that support the message, instead of being a vehicle for the Message. And worse yet, it becomes propaganda, marketing and branding. For what? All to get people to walk down the aisle and pray a prayer, to get them “in.” And then to join a small group and give their money to pay off the castle that was built in debt.

I just don’t believe in this story anymore. And I refuse to simply and only be visual aesthetic support for the message. Artists have the opportunity to preach, prophesy, speak in tongues, interpret, encourage, pray, challenge, rebuke, and lead worship, all through their art.  Pulpits, mics and guitars are tools and mediums for the Message. But they aren’t the only ones. You can call me a media guy or a communications director. You can even call me a VJ. But that’s not who I am. That only tells people what my medium is.

But all of those things that I listed above, what the artist has the potential to be and do through their art… that’s who God designed me to be, so I try to walk in those spiritual gifts whether I’m sitting down at my computer or over a cup of coffee. This might freak some pulpit-pastors out.

 

I of course agree completely that art has just as much ability to preach, perhaps more, than the spoken word in our present culture. Pastors often agree in theory but disagree in practice. Keep preaching this truth, friend.

4 Comments on “Can an Artist be Called to Ministry? An Interview with Stephen Proctor”

  1. Great interview! I enjoyed how shared the ways in which he has an overall idea but no set plan, allowing the Holy Spirit to move him as necessary.  I’d love to see at some point in the series an examination of historical artists called to ministry and the various ways in which they were accepted or not.  Peace …

  2. Fascinating interview! As a theological educator who is committed to stressing the importance of visual ministries, I am curious where we might “see” Stephen’s ministry? Any recommended online sources? – Dr. Jay Akkerman, Northwest Nazarene University

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