American Churches and “Craft Time” Christianity

May 13, 2013

Daily-Foam-Crafts-2012-CEB-adRemember craft time in Sunday School?

Or church camp.  You know how it goes.  The teacher or counselor guides the kids, color this, glue that.  Add some glitter.  And at the end of the hour, a bunch of kids have completed the project.  They all have uniform little bookmarks or light-catchers, or some other trinket that tied neatly into the Bible lesson of the day.

Crafts from church or camp are tangible things that kids show off, which prove to the parents that they are getting their money’s worth.  What kid comes home from camp empty-handed?

One of the ironies of my occupation as an art teacher is how much I cannot stand “craft time” at church, camp, or Vacation Bible School.  I’ve always avoided leading these activities as much as possible (though I’ve still found myself roped in from time to time.)  But it’s not just that I’d rather not lead craft time.  I think all the craft times your kids will enjoy this summer are actually a very appropriate metaphor for the broken Christianity they will be expected to embrace when they are adults.

It’s time for American churches to let go of “craft time” Christianity.

The Difference Between “Art” and “Crafts”

Early in Life After Art, I make it clear that my room is an absolutely pure, glitter-free zone.  I make absolutely no exceptions to this rule. First, glitter comes straight from the bowels of hell itself.  If unicorns fart rainbows, then satan farts glitter.  I refuse to deal with it.  But more than that, I make a distinction between “craft time,” which is embodied by glitter, popsicle sticks, and macaroni, and fine art. 

What is the difference between “art” and “crafts?”

“Art” starts with objectives, but the result is open ended.  There is room for kids to get creative or make mistakes.  Every project looks different, even though they all started from the same place.  I am often delighted to see how twenty children interpret my guidelines on their art projects.

“Crafts” on the other hand, often come from a box and don’t have that margin for mistakes or creativity.  “Crafts” follow step by step instructions, like a recipe.  When the last step is finished, the project is complete.  A group of kids who do a “craft” will all have fairly uniform results.  Crafts are easy for kids, low maintenance  and pretty simple for any adult to teach, no matter how “uncreative” they are.

What Kind of Christianity Are We Teaching Our Kids?

Which kind of Christianity will be taught this summer at thousands of VBS sessions or church camps?

Will it be the kind of Christianity that begins with a common starting point, but requires individual thought?  Will it be rich, complex, leaving room in the margins for mistakes and doubts?  Will it take practice and determination to develop?  Is it the kind of Christianity that allows twenty unique children to achieve twenty unique results, the way?

Or, will it be the kind of Christianity that is easy to teach, because it’s nothing but a formula, a step-by-step guide for success?  Will it value uniformity in results and leave little room for error, individual thought or creativity?

That second kind of faith – that’s what I call “craft time” Christianity.  Just like most church camps and VBS programs specialize in “crafts,” many American churches specialize in spreading “craft time” Christianity.  It’s the kind of faith that’s just like a little popsicle stick and macaroni craft at church camp.  It’s cute.  It’s easy to teach.  It follows a formula straight out of the box.

And it’s not very useful.

The Beauty of “One Body, Many Parts”

You know what the funny thing is about kids’ art?  (That is, when it really is “art” that they are learning, and not “crafts.”)

Some kids will have really impressive results.  Other kids won’t.  Some kids will stick very close to the directions.  Others will veer off into unexpected territory.  Some work will be super neat, and other work will be messy.

And when it is all hung up together, it looks awesome.  There is truly strength in numbers when it comes to kids’ art.  All of the pieces sort of blend together, like they become one body of many parts.

The real crime of arts and crafts Christianity is that people who fall outside the norms are alienated and left out.  And the people who do meet the standard share the praise for being uniform, but they never experience community as it is meant to be, one body made of many diverse parts.

What do you think?  Is it time for us to give up trying to get our kids, and the rest our churches, to become completely uniform, to allow for spontaneity, for differences, for the happy accidents that are inevitable in art?

17 responses to American Churches and “Craft Time” Christianity

  1. Argh–and that foam stuff. Nothing good ever comes from that foam stuff.

    I’ve been thinking about this stuff lately as I’m getting ready to have my youngest boy baptized. I met with my rector last week in preparation for that and we went over the parents’ side of the baptismal vows, how we promise to raise the baby “in the knowledge and and love of the Lord”. I’ve been trying for so long to figure out what that means. I made the same vow seven years ago for the other kid and I still don’t know how to go about it.

  2. I don’t 100 percent agree with your definition of “crafts” since there are many fine and creative crafters, but I do completely agree with the point you are illustrating. Although I won’t ban glitter, I do not appreciate the pre-boxed crafts…in most cases. I can see the comparison to our faith. Reality is much more messy than any model kit.

    BTW, you can also use the glitter to add to this illustration. How many kids think that their sloppy cheap craft project looks so much better when embellished by glitter? How many of us have half thought out notions of God but if we add enough “glitter” and glamour it somehow seems so much better?

  3. Matt, I love your heart–especially in allowing kids to express creatively and freely. I was a VBS director for a long time and never enjoyed the “canned” craft projects but preferred the ones that allowed for a little more creativity on the kids’ part.

    Today, I lead women…women who are broken–struggling with depression or mental issues, addictions, divorce, abuse, etc. Since so many of them have children, we needed to find something for the kids to do while we meet together. Just having regular childcare was NOT working because these kids come from so much dysfunction. We needed to find something that would get their attention AND put their hands to work. So I asked my artist daughter about teaching art to the kids–nothing too structured. I just wanted something to help these kids get all that emotion and energy and even brokenness out and on canvas. And my one rule was give them some room to express themselves. We have been amazed at the results. Some of them struggle with “not good enough.” But little by little, they are finding freedom in their art and we are learning more and more about these kids–as are their mothers. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch. Thank you for putting that “difference” in words.

    The women–well, they have an even harder time finding freedom to be true to their “art.” I have tried some writing projects and they are getting so much better. We also dyed silk scarves–their own garments of splendor (Isaiah 61) and encouraged them to choose colors and blends that are significant to them or speak to them someway. They were hesitant at first but then they got into it. The results were astounding. No two were alike, and some of them wept as they looked at the blends and “saw” the beauty in their own lives.

    I am so eager to do more art experiences with these women. They watch their own children and began to realize why Jesus said to come to Him “like a child.”

  4. YES! I shudder at craft time too, but I have never thought about the parallel between the crafty Sunday School lessons and arts and crafts Christianity. Great Point!

  5. Thank you for your article. I love the reminder of Unity of the Body. God is a creative God and we are made in His image, so let us encourage creativity in the body. Let us embrace all the beauty of difference! There is freedom in this. But remember, some folks do love macaroni and glitter! LOL

  6. Matt:

    We have a lot of “craft time Christianity” in the churches in the North Houston suburb where I live. In our church, we use books with videos to teach adults. Unfortunately the depth we can achieve varies. For some of us who have been meeting weekly for a couple of years, the book-video approach seems shallow–foam craft shapes and glitter glue, so to speak.

    I have yet to make good art with foam shapes (perhaps that should be a challenge on my list!) but I have incorporated glitter into my pieces. I have taught both children and adults using art projects as a teaching point, and while some students will always remain at the “camp craft” level, others discover that they want to go deeper. You do have to meet the student where he is. There is no harm in starting with some foam and glitter–you just have to keep moving deeper. I have always made my own VBS projects for kids, but not all our teachers have the skill set. I think it’s the pastor’s role to encourage “beyond the box” crafting.

    Good craftsmanship isn’t a bad thing. For example, Eastlake furnishings. That’s craft–I’m an artist, but I couldn’t create those pieces. God made us all creative beings, and too often, children grow up into adults who are reluctant to exercise their creativity in any way–whether by following the directions of scrapbook kit or delving into fine art. Not embracing our creativity is a sin in my book.

    Good job again–you always get me to think deeper about my faith!

  7. What an amazing perspective! I love that it leaves room for so many who have been excepted from usual churches… very often those with ‘arty’characters.
    Hmmmmm… you have given me much to meditate upon.
    And an avoidance of glitter in Christ -followers will be such an amazing thing too… If we can get beyond the external top sprinkling and work on real content and substance, how good will that be for the sake of the kingdom?

  8. Okay
    Thinking about this. I hate “cookie cutter” art projects. But I like crafts. I like showing how we might do something – give them the supplies and let them go to it. Even if we are making little egg carton turtles each one is different – coloured differently – cut differently and then put together. Each one is different.
    But having something look exactly like the instructors – No – and that can go for painting a picture too. They will try to copy you –
    So I think you mean making things from dittos with cutting instructions and everyone’s looks the same. NO to that. When I taught I hated dittos – I turned them upside down if another teacher gave me one and the kids coloured on the blank side.
    Creativity – I like the best when you just give them the materials and let them go at it.j

    Blessings,
    Janis
    Janis Cox recently posted..WEDNESDAY’S WORD – Worship

  9. I believe art projects for VBS is great as long as it leads to a great lesson for the kids about God’s desire, will and faithfulness, or teaches them about the adversity we face in the world today. AIG has a great VBS kit out this year. KIngdom Chronicles : http://www.sistersofsalvation.com/item/kingdom-chronicles/nbsp-kingdom-chronicles-contemporary-super-starter/4895108.html
    It of course has a crafts court yard, but it focuses on the battle between Good/God and Evil/Satan, in this world today.
    Children should be learning about these fundamentals in a fun and memorable way.

  10. First time reader for your blog, as it popped up on my twitter feed via RT and I gave it a look. I have to say, I was laughing out loud at your remarks about glitter- I couldn’t agree more. I found your post intriguing and inspiring. IMO, For years we have pigeonholed “creativity” within the church or marginalized the role of art by putting on lack-luster dramas, and celebrating C rate films, and implementing “craft time”. Needless to say, I agree with your premise. Your post left me wondering what sort of things should we do then? Surely we won’t grow in the ways you hope for merely by critiquing the current process, so I’m curious what you have seen work or suggest we do? I’m not looking to challenge you, I’m looking to learn from you. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

    Enjoy the day!

  11. This metaphor is perfect, and as someone who grew up with arts and crafts Christianity, I find myself detesting crafts both in the spiritual sense and in the classroom. I love how you define art as starting from the same place and then leaving room to make mistakes, doubt, and question, resulting in one body with many parts – a powerful image.

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