The Arts in the Healing Ministry of the Church

By Bob Naylor

“The country is so wounded, bleeding, and hurt right now. The country needs to be healed—it’s not going to be healed from the top, politically. How are we going to heal? Art is the healing force.”

~ Robert Redford, National Arts Policy Roundtable

After the gracious invitation to write an article on the arts as a resource in the healing ministry, I have received my second healing dose of the miracle vaccine. Yet, like many, the pandemic and the world of politics has vexed and “dis-eased” my soul. Like others, through this tumultuous period of history, many times the case and death counts and the divisiveness in the world of political leadership have stressed my emotional health. In the darkest hours, I have found a “healing balm” in being enfolded by the arts. The reflective words of actor-producer Robert Redford seem to resonate so clearly now. Art has been a healing force amid the chaos that life has flung upon us in the last year. In my most emotionally debilitating times, I have found a moment of wholeness and rest in paging through one of my numerous art books. Monet, Homer, O’Keefe, Dali and other artists have opened my eyes to the beauty that has been hidden in the sickening visuals on TV of make shift morgues and political polarization. The musical compositions of Bach, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Springsteen, and Blues artist Joe Bonamassa have momentarily drowned out the cacophony of political rhetoric and the cries of Black lives dying. The arts allowed me to step back so I can be renewed to address the personal and societal challenges that are part of being human.

The church has always had a collaboration with the arts. For the arts, and particularly music, gently and lovingly open the doorway to the Spirit. The arts are catalysts for bringing us to those thin places where the divine breaks through the veil of our human concerns and reminds us that we are embraced by God’s calming and healing Spirit. Through the arts our senses, particularly of sight and sound, release us from our minds that are too often cluttered with unhealthy worries and unanswerable concerns. We are brought to the healing moment where “ah!” and “awe” renew our uptight bodies and our fatigued souls. Music and the other arts are healing elixirs that need to be creatively and pastorally used more intentionally in the caregiving ministry of the church. In a world with increasing high tech and low emotional and physical touch that is socially distanced not just by Covid concerns but by online shopping, stay at home movie watching, and only snippets of on-the-run-human encounters, an elevation of the arts in the pastoral care ministry is paramount. In a “to whom it may be concerned” world, where we are often recognized by social security numbers and order numbers, a world where literally fewer and fewer people know our names and our life stories, an artful ministry of healing needs to be a normative overlay on all that we do.

Let us reflect on some of the foundational perspectives for a more meaningful use of the arts as a healing resource in our ministry.

Pastoral Proclamation:

Seeing Worship as Pastoral Care and Soul Healing

While preparing for the theater of the Spirit (my image of worship) I not only think creatively about the textual theme and the creative flow of the liturgy in light of that theme, but I also consider the soulful yearnings of individual parishioners who will be sitting in the pews. Whether it is a comforting word that heals a broken soul or a challenging word that pushes the worshipper to find personal healing in becoming a catalyst for healing in a broken world, I see preaching as “pastoral proclamation” that is infused with a healthy dose of the arts. That too is what the ministry of music (and the arts) should have as its guiding principle.

Practical Applications:

  • Include a prelude of hymn favorites gathered from the church members with bulletin devotional inserts using the visual and/or literary arts tied to the instrumental prelude. Hymns played in an improvisational style can add to the power of the healing moment. Also, easels with member created artwork can be placed around the sanctuary on the theme of the service…. a healing marriage of sound and sight.

(See Impressionism, Improvisation, and Improvement)

  • Use the arts in the proclamation of the sermon to address universal major life issues, e.g. selections from plays or poetry on family life issues, e.g. poetry read with a musical background on illness, bereavement, and emotional renewal.
  • The ministry team needs to place a strong priority on learning of “individual” needs
  • While the professional ministry team tries to be pastorally aware to counter balance the de-humanizing trend of the world, we need to double-down on knowing the life stories of our individual parishioners. As a cherished musical colleague once said, “We need to observe and absorb” in order to grasp the individual stories of our parishioners’ lives. The conversation at choir rehearsal or a brief pastor-parishioner chat in the office hallway may be as important as a well-orchestrated worship service.

Practical Applications:

  • The pastor and the music/arts director need to be more intentional in keeping journals on individual pastoral needs and arts related interests. These needs can be a helpful guide in designing the liturgy.
  • Efforts can be made to include within the liturgy music or other arts resources on the anniversaries of important life passage moments in individual member’s lives.

Remember that tastes, personality types, ages, and cultural realities differ – One size does not fit all.

Some like Bach, some like rock…some like musical theater, some like drama…some are introverted, some are extroverted…some are in the seasoned citizen years, some are in the adolescent hormonal change years. The cultural realities of 1950 differ from those of 2021. An 18th century musical selection may be nothing more than unappreciated background music to a young couple who had no required music appreciation class in school. In those ministry settings where I had only one worship service the planning of the liturgy was difficult. To meet those variety of needs I have tried to design, with my music ministry colleague, meaningful blended worship or a particular stylistic focus in different worship services. Through strong pastoral care we can earn the trust of our community, thus giving breathing room to change directions in the worship liturgy.

Practical Applications:

  • Within the church family and among professional staff there needs to be honest communication – about the need for variety in worship because of the diverse personality types, ages, and tastes of the WHOLE congregation. This establishes the foundation for liturgical diversity.
  • Throughout the year an increased number of specifically focused worship services should be planned – worship services focused on a particular genre of music from Baroque to the Blues, from a focus on the visual arts to drama. In my ministry several six-week periods during each year were designated as “The Gospel Through the Arts Worship.”

(See Different Is Beautiful)

An older couple approached me to express their excitement in hearing a jazz quintet play an instrumental rendition of Take the A Train as a celebrative response to the assurance of pardon – “We felt redeemed – and the singing of Unforgettable by the jazz soloist at the end of your sermon reminded us we have an unforgettable God and it made our spirits dance!” The secular became a healing source and a catalyst for unburdening their souls. In the midst of a sermon on relationships, a comedic reading of a scene from Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, led a couple who were struggling in their marriage to tell me at the door that it helped them to look at their problems in a more positive light. With creative, often outside-the-box thinking and theological integrity, the secular can proclaim a Gospel that can heal and renew.

Practical Applications:

  • Since the arts speak to life issues – hope, despair, love, grace – the worship team needs to be knowledgeable of the underlying themes in the secular arts
  • Special services can be designed focusing on the spiritual message of the secular – The Gospel According to the Movies; The Gospel According to Broadway; The Gospel According to Disney
  • Particularly with the younger generation of worshipers, an introduction to the historic music of the church might be needed…e.g. An introduction of a hymn or instrumental anthem by the minister of music with even some “listen for this” sharing can bring the worshipper into a more meditative and appreciative place.

(See Family – What’s It All About?)

Looking beyond the sanctuary time

During the pandemic I have been healed by the emails received from my church’s director of music. Through YouTube, each one links me to a broad selection of music. A ministry in using the arts as a healing tool needs to be seen beyond just Sunday morning. In my ministry of reflective meditation and pastoral counseling, resources using the visual, literary, musical, and culinary arts were developed – yes, cooking and tasting can bring healing – that reconciled relationships and assuaged broken hearts and bodies. As my former music director says, “The arts are portable and travel. One on one contact…can raise the velocity of positivity instantly.” This has led him to both in person and through technology to bring music “recitals” on an individual basis to the homebound and those feeling lonely and lost. The expanding communications technology and now the reality of ongoing hybrid worship have expanded the audience in need of a healing word through the arts.

Practical Applications:

  • Develop arts-based resources for sharing in pastoral need situations and design resources of meditative practices that focus on the arts as a caregiving resource: “Healing Through Laughter in Movies,” “Healing at a Time of Loss Through Poetry and Music,” “Draw Your Soul Meditation,” “Soul Food – Prayers and Recipes for Health and Healing.”
  • Provide in person and online concerts for the homebound and lonely.
  • Create special arts-based programs which can be downloaded on You Tube, Facebook Live, etc., or through a blog or podcast.

(See Artful Reflections for Personal Renewal)

Teaming and dreaming – collegial respect and filling the funnel while seeing ourselves as producers as well as “performers”

An infusion of the arts into the ministries of healing begins with a mutual respect between the pastor and colleagues (usually the music staff) in the production of the Theater of the Spirit (Worship) and the other pastoral healing ministries. A “divine” friendship needs to be established that is driven by a shared understanding that the proclamation of the Gospel is the foundation of their ministry; that the planning is grounded in prayerful reflection; that a spirit of creativity and “outside the box” thinking is welcomed; that a trust is present that allows for free discussion. From my time in shared ministry, I offer this process for developing an artful healing ministry.

Begin with the message of the text or the theme for the worship service.

Prayerfully reflect upon the pastoral healing needs of the congregation.

There should always be a curiosity in worship planning. In light of the chosen theme think of all the possible uses of all the arts in the enhancement of proclaiming the message of the text or theme

Envision pouring those artful ideas into a funnel – then discuss and see what finally emerges.

Plan for the artistic and tech support needs for the artful ministry presentation. Technology can expand our artistic resources and capabilities. We don’t have to say it all or play it all. We have to see ourselves as both producers as well as “performers.” We need to remember that those who we seek to evangelize are comfortable with technology.

Prayerfully go about executing the “production” tasks.

Practical Applications:

  • With iMovie (and other video apps) create a pastoral “movie” to use at the time of the prelude or sermon
  • After purchasing a Copyright license, use recorded music for special contemporary hymns that require different instrumentation than what is available in a local church setting

See Healing Through Technology)

I hope it has become clear that the arts, by their very nature, are an anecdote for the brokenness in our individual souls and in the world. They intrinsically bring a refreshing and healing breeze of the Spirit into the ministry of the local church. There has never been more need for expanding the arts in our ministries. We began this reflective journey with a secular word from Robert Redford. To end the journey, it seems appropriate to close with a thoughtful word from Martin Luther about music (and the arts in general).

My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.

Let the people say a singing, painting, dancing, poetic artful – Amen!  ■

The Rev. Bob Naylor is Lead Consultant with In Church Imagining, A Coaching and Church Vitality resource. He has served as Lead Pastor in three multi-staff churches. He was an Area Conference Minister supporting the ministry of 95 mostly under-200 member churches. He also served on the National Staff of the UCC. He has authored two books, What Church Leaders REALLY Need to Know – Pilgrim Press, and Artful Ministry, Using the Arts in All Facets of Ministry – Amazon. In his partnership with the directors of music in the churches he served he has written musicals, new hymns, and developed creative uses of music that enhanced each church’s ministry. One of those creative colleagues in artful ministry, Alexander Constantine, has shared some of his thoughts in the writing of this article. Bob currently lives on Cape Cod and loves his senior basketball.


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Worship, Music & Ministry is a publication of the United Church of Christ Musicians Association, Inc. and is issued three times a year. The journal is distributed to members of UCCMA as a benefit of membership.

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