Review: Outreach and the Artist

Outreach and the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts

Con Campbell, Zondervan, 2013, 128pp.

 Outreach and the Artist

Con Campbell is a man of diverse talents: he is a respected jazz musician, a world class New Testament scholar, and a gifted communicator. He was an artist before he was a Christian. All these things make him one of the best people I can think of to write a book on evangelism and the artist.

Outreach and the Artist: Sharing the Gospel with the Arts is a tellingly autobiographical work. It was during Campbell’s time in a prestigious jazz course that he met Christ, igniting what he describes as “the battle between Jazz and Jesus” (p. 15). Jesus won, and Campbell reports resigning himself to life without his former god, music. But having abandoned his idolatry of the arts, Campbell discovered to his surprise that God could use his musical abilities for evangelism.

Books on evangelism can easily slide into two unhelpful opposites: unreflective pragmatism or impractical theological navel gazing. Campbell avoids both extremes. While deliberately not a theological treatise, a strength of this short book is that it puts forward its practical insights in the context of a robust evangelical theology.

It is particularly refreshing in a book like this to see airtime given to the doctrine of creation. As “a part of God’s good creation”, Campbell says, the arts “are to be respected, appreciated, cherished, and used for the good of humanity to the glory of God” (p. 11). At the same time, Campbell is unapologetically evangelical in his outlook: like all of us, artists need to hear and respond to the proclamation of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

The first half of the book addresses the use of the arts in outreach. Having done hundreds of evangelistic jazz nights, Campbell has many practical tips as well as some general reflections that will help any artist think through how to use their skills in event based evangelism. He promotes both what he calls outreach with the arts (a jazz night with a gospel talk in the middle), and outreach through the arts (the use of the arts themselves to proclaim the gospel message). It is worth noting that as an instrumental musician Campbell has more to say about evangelism with than through the arts.

My only complaint with this part of the book is that Campbell keeps some of his best ideas to himself. Anyone who has seen him in action at an evangelistic Jazz night (or has heard his album The Gospel According to Groove with James Morrison and the Idea of North) will know of his skill in finding connections between the arts and the gospel. He challenges pastors and artists to work together to find these intersections: I would have liked some more worked examples to get me going.

The second half of the book starts a conversation about reaching out to artists themselves. Campbell paints a compelling picture of jazz musicians as a distinct sub culture desperately in need of the gospel, but disconnected from Christians and the church. He then sketches some plans for engaging with them (whether as churches, as musicians within that sub culture or as non-artist outsiders). The critical question for this book is this: can Campbell’s experience in the jazz world teach us something about musicians—or artists—in general?

Almost certainly. On a personal level, I found his approach resonating with my own experience of all sorts of musicians, and my wife (an opera singer) can vouch the same for the classical world. Against the caricature of the lazy stoner musician in love with their own ego, Campbell prepares us to meet and reach out to devoted but idolatrous worshippers of art for its own sake (however accurate the stoner bit may be).

What about other types of artists? Aware of the limits of his own experience, Campbell’s book also contains interviews with a number of artists—some outstanding jazz musicians but also some visual artists, a comedian, and an actor. These short interviews provide a fantastic insight into the lives of Christian artists (both Australian and international).

These interviews with Christian artists alone would make the book worth giving to Christian artists, particularly those who are still thinking through how being an artist and being a Christian can go together.

Outreach and the Artist will offer precious insights for generalist pastors (as well as specialist evangelists) as to why artists are underrepresented in most churches. Better still, it will help churches realize what they can do to
re-engage them.

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