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Painting with Phil Pringle

The pastor of one of Australia’s fastest growing churches paints his relationship with God

When we first meet Phil Pringle, he’s walking through the C3 car park in Oxford Falls, in Sydney’s north. He says hello to everyone who walks past, as if he knows them. Perhaps he does know them.

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Familiarity is not something you’d expect from the pastor of one of Australia’s fastest growing churches. Thousands of people turn up to worship at hundreds of C3 churches both in Australia and overseas. The church has an aggressive church planting strategy. Phil says he wants to see 1000 C3 churches by 2020. There are just under 500 churches now.

Born in New Zealand, Phil and his wife Chris moved to Sydney in 1980 and started a church in a surf club. He loves the beach, and says he spends as much of his devotion time in the early mornings as he can walking along the sand, talking to God.

“Sometimes it’s just ‘thereness’ that you’re looking for with God, rather than getting direction or a job to do.”

But it’s Phil’s art that I’m here to talk to him about. His studio is in a demountable building on the other side of the carpark from the C3 Church auditorium. The room is classroom-size. Paint is everywhere, most likely the result of Phil’s “splat” paintings, when he, quite literally, throws paint at the canvas. The collection is meant to represent the “explosion of life.”

This man is busy. We meet him at 11am and he has delivered two talks already. So, as with most of Phil’s activities I suspect, he paints quickly.

“The thing is more in stopping than in starting,” he tells me as he describes how he works. “My style is very quick.”

I asked Phil to paint his relationship with God. (You can see the full picture and our chat with Phil at eternitynews.com.au/pringle). As in his painting process, Pringle says his relationship with God is often about learning to be still. As he deliberates on how to form the two figures in his painting – one of Jesus and one of himself – Pringle says,

“I could put Jesus’ arm pointing … but I think, sometimes it’s just ‘thereness’ that you’re looking for with God, rather than getting direction or a job to do.”

Pringle’s paintings are full of movement, a result in part of how quickly they are created. But they are also full of colour.

When Jesus was around, everyone was having a party. The dead were coming back to life, for goodness sakes!”

“I like colour,” Phil says, laughing as he forms pools of bright blue, red and yellow paint on a wooden palette.

“When I went to art school, all the commentators said that Michelangelo had attempted to portray God as subdued, dark, out of the picture, withdrawn, because he used all beiges and dark browns and ochres.

“But when the restorers came in and they started to suck out all the impurities from the fresco, they found that he had used the most bright colours you could find.

“They discovered the wax and the soot from the candles burning up had gotten infused into the plaster and darkened the colours [in the paintings].

“I feel like that’s what religion has done to God. Made him dull. He’s the killjoy, he’s the divine wet blanket on everything. He just comes down here to say, ‘hey, calm down everybody, the party’s over.’

“But when Jesus was around, everyone was having a party. The dead were coming back to life, for goodness sakes!”

Pringle laments what he sees as the church’s retreat from areas like art and music. “There was a period of time when the best art and music appeared to be Christ-centred,” he says.

But Pringle also acknowledges that the church has had an at-times fraught relationship with the arts, pointing to the “bonfires of the vanities” led by Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola in the 15th century, which saw the destruction of artworks, sculptures, tapestries and musical instruments viewed as “objects of sin.” Savonarola campaigned against what he believed to be the excesses of Renaissance Italy.

“There’s always been this tension between the artist and the religious world,” Pringle says.

“I’m asking God, ‘Really? Is this really what we’re going to be doing? I’m excited, you know? But, wow. Why me?’

“But we did retreat. From everything: media, arts, entertainment, sport, politics, commerce. And we [Christians] have become a very irrelevant voice – a subculture – which we’re not meant to be. We’re meant to be salt in the earth. We make life tasty for people. We make life beautiful, the light on the hill that shows people the way.

“I’d like to do my bit to create a renaissance in those areas.”

He is doing that, in part, in the creation of C3 College, which includes a strong creative arts focus for artists and performers.

“I think there is a piece of art in everybody’s soul that should be developed,” Pringle says. “Whether it’s cooking, signing, playing a musical instrument. I think that bleeds into other areas of our lives and assists there, too.”

Phil believes his painting life helps his pastor life, helps his writing life. Pringle has written 17 books, is a sought-after public speaker and is working on that plan for C3 to plant 1000 churches. He tells me it requires at least 10 different personas to do what he does everyday.

“There is a capacity to switch gears, if you find that ability. You can totally give yourself in one season to a thing, and then totally give yourself in another.”

Painting himself on the canvas to depict his relationship with God, Pringle says that Jesus has his arm around him and they’re “looking out to an unlimited horizon.”

“My arm is going to be … half-pointing,” he says, suggesting that he is often flummoxed by the plans God has for him.

“I’m asking God, ‘Really? Is this really what we’re going to be doing? I’m excited, you know? But, wow. Why me?’

* Video editing by Alexander Bennett.

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