Design Should Matter More to Christians

Why form, not just function, is an important part of Christian creativity.

I grew up in the 1980s, when the Christian music industry was still in its infancy, and when—in most cases—the measure of an album or a song was not the quality of the product as a whole, but rather its Jesus-per-minute rate. The main goal was to share the Gospel of Jesus, and the quality or originality of the musical form was an afterthought at best.

To its credit, the quality of Christian music has massively improved over the last 30 years, but there are still many corners of Christianity in which careful design of the form of a work doesn’t really matter all that much. For instance, in each of the last three years, I have helped select The Worst Christian Book Covers of the Year.

In compiling this list and in conversations about why it was necessary, I have become convinced that design should matter more to Christians. (And if you think Christians have cornered the market on bad design, you should check out the Lousy Book Covers blog, which features bad design from all genres of the publishing industry.)

Beyond the Basics

Why, you ask, should design matter more to Christians?

The design and form of our work bears witness to what we believe, just as much as the content of the work.

First of all, I firmly agree that the Gospel of Jesus should be central, but in contrast to much of the Christian Music (and most of the evangelical culture) of the 1980s, that doesn't mean that the Gospel can, or should, be reduced to a few basic convictions about Jesus. If we are to believe the New Testament, that through Christ, God is reconciling all creation, things on earth as well as things in heaven (see, for instance, Colossians 1:19-20), there is nothing that can be taken for granted. The design and form of our work bears witness to what we believe, just as much as the content of the work.

It is striking that Jesus referred to himself as “the way” (John 14:6). As followers of “the way,” it is not enough to believe certain things about Jesus, or to do the things He taught us to do, but we must also be seeking to do them in the way that He did. We cannot separate our means from our ends.

The Value of Sacrifice

If these convictions about the Gospel of Jesus are true, then good, hard work should be a top priority for us as followers of Jesus. The way of Jesus is marked, above all, by sacrifice. Not only did Jesus give His life on the Cross for humanity, His whole life was a sacrifice. He gave up the comforts of heaven—He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” writes the Apostle Paul (Philippians)—and became human, entering fully into all the suffering and joy of the human experience.

If the way of Christ is marked by sacrifice, should not we also be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to do good work, especially when we are creating something we explicitly intend to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ?

Good work indeed will require sacrifices of us: hundreds, if not thousands, of hours learning a craft, studying the masters, practicing, training our eyes and ears to discern what good work is and why it is good.

Designed Collaboration

And maybe if there are areas in which we have not been trained, we need to make sacrifices to collaborate with someone who has, paying them at least a fair price for their labor. A songwriter might need accompanying musicians; an author might need a designer to do good work in designing a book cover; a playwright will need actors and a theater to bring her play to life. Good and careful work bears faithful witness to the costly discipleship to which we have been called. And the converse is also true. “Bad Christian art that reflects a lack of investment of time, commitment, craft, or skill, presents the illusion that the Christian life is not worthy or requiring of the same,” writes author and literature professor Karen Swallow Prior.

Always Learning

Of course, that does not mean that art is not worth doing if you have not mastered your medium. Few of us will ever be recognized as masters of our particular craft. The way of Jesus is not only marked by sacrifice, but also by humility. To be a disciple is to be one who is always learning.

Does our work bear witness to the goodness of Jesus, and particularly to the sacrifice and humility He embodied for us?

At whatever stage of learning we are at, we should be willing to exhibit our art with the expectation that it will generate conversation, and likely criticism. Critique is part of the learning process, and good critique fosters mutual conversation that not only helps the artist learn and grow, but also helps the critic understand the artist and the context within which the work was done.

Critics may sometimes be mistaken, but such error will not be known without conversation. An even worse problem than bad art is bad art that is above scrutiny, or artists who refuse to enter into conversation about their work. If we are not willing to follow in the humility of Jesus, then what kind of witness does that bear about us and about our art?

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The Gospel of Jesus is much more than a few Scripture verses or a few ideas about God; it is a way of being in the world and living our everyday lives.

As creative Christians, we need to be especially attentive to all facets of our work: design, form, content, function. Does our work bear witness to the goodness of Jesus, and particularly to the sacrifice and humility He embodied for us?

Yes, this is a high bar, and yes, we will repeatedly fail, but more important than succeeding or failing is our willingness to be disciples, always to be learning, growing and maturing.

Top Comments

Z Takacs


Z Takacs commented…

As an architect, and someone interested and involved in various forms of art, I could never understand why Christian book covers, websites and other publications had to have the most disgusting graphic design ever. Great content and a true ministry deserves the best wrapping. I am not saying to judge everything by the first impression of it, but why not make that first encounter visually appealing and radiating a sense of excellence in the way it is presented? Fortunately there has been a great improvement in this field recently. Let us remember that everything God created was GOOD. He himself said so in Genesis. Also, everything God commanded Israel to build was very detailed and required top quality material and craftmanship. I believe our Jesus is a God of excellence and He is pleased in us being aware of every detail of what we do. We are also remembered in the New Testament to do everything "as if unto God himself". Heart is what matters most, and I believe it is not a disadvantage if our intent of doing good is shown outwardly.

Jake Odening


Jake Odening commented…

As a christian who is a designer and photographer, this article speaks to me on so many levels! I love the comparison of art as a spiritual discipline where good art takes sacrifice, humility and a willingness to learn. I hope others can find encouragement as well as feel challenged to make better art. Thanks!


Frank Taylor


Frank Taylor commented…

Put another way: Jesus wouldn't use Comic Sans or Papyrus.

The Church should take the presentation of the Gospel as serious as the message itself. A church doesn't need to have a rockstar website or a Sunday bulletin printed in a $200 custom font. But the church needs to care about presenting the Gospel of Jesus in a way that's simple, comprehensible, and attractive.

If a church doesn't have the resources to acquire creative work, that's ok. The right response is to not attempt creative work, focus on the message, and pray that the resources can be provided. The wrong response is to attempt creative work on their own.

If you aren't a designer/artist/musician, don't try to be. You'll bring more glory to God by doing what he made you to do. It's not shameful to hire a secular person to design a logo or create a website. In fact, you create an opportunity to bring that person to Jesus in choosing secular vendors to help you present the Gospel.

Christians have the most important message in the world to share. Christians should care more about design than any ad agency working for Apple should care about electronics.

Peter Rubel


Peter Rubel commented…

A thought-provoking article (hence my attempt at commenting), though I'm a little confused as to its message. Strive for quality, collaborate, bear witness to the gospel, everything for the glory of God and some vague link with sacrifice.

Partly I'm having a hard time getting my head around aesthetic (or is it aesthetic and theological?) canons for music plus visual art plus theater and maybe by implication, web design (which is often more interactive than a painting or banner in a church sanctuary). That's a lot to cover in a little article.

Perhaps alternately, I do not well understand the alluded-to canons of bad aesthetics despite links to book cover illustrations purporting to be good examples of the bad--examples that is which do not describe why they are bad, or do so with questionable, shall we say, quality, though in some cases I can make a guess even if the message is ambiguous. Nor am I confident the canons of bad aesthetics, whatever they are, necessarily correspond with bad results in other spheres.

To illustrate, sometimes finds (among many other things) that tested pages with worse aesthetics in web design among, say, two or three pages tested, yields more clicks, sign-ups, purchases or other business goals than the page (covering the same material and ostensible intended function) with the supposedly better design. Marketers understand customers and clients better when they test customer reactions rather than when they follow textbook "best practices" or designer hunches.

(Granted for the Christian, design and art should pass through theological and moral filters.)

Or in music, what if loudness or a certain style is read by one generation or culture as desirable and by another as distracting or otherwise undesirable? Or in the visual arts, where does one place satire and irony?

Moving on, I'm a little nervous about theological rooting. For one thing, in my opinion (I'm not alone), the verbal content of a lot (not all) of worship choruses and not a few Christian books includes too much theological sloppiness or wrong-headedness. It's not just the book cover that may be a problem.

Or nearer to home, I'm with Ryan, above in having a hard time linking Christian suffering for righteousness sake with the duty of hard work in opposition to laziness (including laziness in thinking), however much I may applaud exhortations to the character of industry in producing creatively. Not that there is no connection.

As to Jesus being "the Way" in John 14:6, He is the Way to the Father in the same thematic strain as 1:51 where Jesus claims to be the Antitype of Jacob's Ladder (hence the Way up to God)--meaning chiefly salvation, since "no one comes to the Father but by Me."

But granted, if Jesus is Lord of all and we are told to do all to the glory of God, our creativity ought to take on a certain devotion and urgency in the doing. And our artistic message ought be be informed and motivated by a desire to promote the imitatation of Christ (such as in His humility, though not in every respect given that "He is God and I am not") and keeping of His commandments and communication of His gospel.

Perhaps it would then be best to ask how the mood of music enhances the message of worship or lamentation (etc.), or how the visual can avoid distracting from or conflicting with the intended message or avoid conveying unwanted or theologically suspect associations for people with a certain cultural or current-news baggage (and how the font should contrast sharply enough with its background to be easily read). Or again if the music is intended to be sung by the congregation, is it easy and lyrical enough for the novice, within the voice range of both sexes, and does it match the words? For the visual, is a precise or ambiguous message best? And does the visual convey Christian symbolism, allegory, a particular vivid scene in the Bible with a particular message, a particular Christian virtue (or rebuke of vice) in "street language" or is the visual (or musical), for example, merely seeking to convey the beauty of God's creation (even if abstract) or joy in the beautiful in a common grace context?

And these seem to be but a few general examples where specific cases each require specific ideas. Am I thus near the mark on some of your intent?

Rachel Naffziger


Rachel Naffziger replied to Peter Rubel's comment

When you say that there is more to what is wrong about a song than purely the artistic concerns, that theological sloppiness is a concern as well, I think you are missing a connection between the two. Art, in its various mediums, is meant to reflect truth in a way that a doctrinal statement cannot. And vice versa. Brliefs influence art, because art reflects what is inside. Theology isn't just an extra ingredient... It is part of how the art develops. I think that when an artist's beliefs are undeveloped, their art will ring false and also possibly be poor in aesthetic quality.

Ryan Toyota


Ryan Toyota replied to Rachel Naffziger's comment

I think Peter was trying to say that first of all, trying to draw a line on “good” or “bad” design is difficult and will vary based on the personal tastes of the viewer.

In addition to that, perhaps our purpose in our art shouldn’t be aesthetic appeal, but rather creating art that draws us in to the message of Jesus. It’s easy to create art that draws attention to itself (or to the artist) rather than to God.

Peter Rubel


Peter Rubel replied to Ryan Toyota's comment

Hi Rachel: Later in my previous comment than your response addresses, I try to illustrate how the affective and cognitive, or in this case more particularly between the aesthetic (or artistic) and the theological, may either reinforce or conflict with each other, suggesting that I had seen a "connection" between the two, at least in some cases.

You then claim, "Art, in its various mediums, is meant to reflect truth in a way that a doctrinal statement cannot. And vice versa."

Whether your claim is included in the intent of the artist or not, it is intriguing. I am at a loss, however, to imagine (or know) how the claim might be substantiated. Granted, religious experience is meant to be affective and cognitive (not to mention volitional), but I would probably be more at ease if your claim read that art (in its various mediums) may convey truth in a way that may be difficult or awkward to express in a doctrinal statement. I'm hung up on the word "cannot"--which of course is not argue that either art or theology should be abandoned in favor of the other. Both have their place. Nor am I confident a doctrinal statement can convey a truth in a way that art in some medium or other cannot, partly because art may include symbolism. But perhaps I lack imagination or memory recall.

I would agree with Ryan that I was arguing in part that "personal tastes of the viewer" play into the mix of what may be considered "good" or "bad" design. Our greater concern here may be the idea that there are aesthetic canons which apply more broadly or are universal, however tangled the possibilities and fraught with myopic pitfalls the process of deriving such canons may be. I had proposed for example the avoidance of conflict between aesthetics and theology even if that seems inevitably entangled in individual, generational, and cultural delimitations.

Similarly I also like Ryan's proposal that aesthetics that "draw us to the message of Jesus" be preferred to aesthetics that "draws attention to itself ... rather than to God" though I am not convinced all expressions of art must be deliberately or overtly tied to Jesus or the gospel narrowly conceived to be pleasing to God.

Peter Rubel


Peter Rubel replied to Ryan Toyota's comment

The following may be off the cuff and thus tangential, but I am having a hard time in my present enthusiasm avoiding adding a link--if allowed--to . There is art in some form in poetry (whether set to music or not). There is art in some form to rhetoric and here, apparently in Jesus' "curve balls" in His recorded parables.

Joe Bryant


Joe Bryant commented…

Thanks for the article. Loved the idea and general sentiment. But if you're going to rag on bad book cover design, a 15 picture slideshow on a brutally designed website probably isn't the best opener.

Nastya Kharchenko


Nastya Kharchenko commented…

I'm interested in these thoughts because they're unusual!) I think that we must develop different spheres of 'the creative work'! It's in our hands!) I like creation and I use many resources for it! For example, one of my most favorite is this site where I always find interesting picture collages!) Also everyone has perfect opportunity to pic own unique collage maker!) I wish to everybody good luck and creative successes!)

Amanda Fitzpatrick


Amanda Fitzpatrick commented…

Somehow this article is showing up on the front page of the site for me, though I take it it's pretty old. Must say that the worst-book list you proudly linked to seems to me in pretty poor taste. Poor design and aesthetic can be distracting, but they pale in importance to character; I think the gospel is much more easily masked by that. I don't disagree with all of your thoughts about design. But I think it's not THE issue, and I disagree that it's as important as the message.

Back to the earlier part of your article, I think in general there's a growing arm of the church, young believers, who think we'll somehow gain credibility by distancing ourselves from the uncool or un-P.C. parts of the church or its history through mocking and disdain. But I think it doesn't work quite like that.

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