Hi, Dear Peeps!
I recently received a message on facebook from a college friend who's in a church-planting group which is trying to integrate artists and the arts as they establish a new community of faith. She had somehow gathered from my limited facebook presence that the Village was a creative sort of church and asked for any advice I might have on the matter. Here's the main body of my response (minus the greeting). I had to leave out lots of details and summarize big chunks, but I was encouraged by the look back at what God has allowed us to live into together. Thanks for being part of it with me!
(Uh, it's a long read...)Here's a bit of my story: When Eric & I first got married, we were attending a baptist church that looked like a business building. Everything about it was very traditional. We moved into a community house in 1998 and started going out to coffee several times a week to get some time alone together away from the house. At this particular coffee shop, we met a bunch of 18-24 year olds who were bisexual, tattooed, pierced, watched porn videos with their friends for general entertainment, and had never really heard about Jesus or knew what churches were about. We had good conversations with them & developed friendships with them, but we knew they would never step foot inside our church building. They also were very skittish about coming to our home. If they had come to faith, where would we send them?
In the fall of '99, we went to a Young Leaders conference in Seattle which was hosted by Mars Hill Church (still a fairly small congregation at the time) and included leaders of alternative churches from around the world. The main meetings were held in a beautiful, woodsy chapel, and when we first arrived the musicians were playing songs they had written which were deeply theological and hauntingly sad, yet celebratory. The stage was set with artisan rugs and sculpted candelabras, and there was original artwork around the edges. We felt at home in a worship setting in ways we never had before. This first impression characterized the ideas of the weekend. We discovered that we needed the integration of art in the church not just for our friends, but for our own humanity and our relationships with God.
This experience really shaped our vision. We were compelled by the artists and hoped that the people around us would find our lives compelling if we pursued Jesus artistically. The baptist church eventually sent us out to plant a ministry, and God gradually led Eric to pastor what turned out to be a church. From the start, we've held that all people are inherently creative, because they are made in the image of the Creator. We believe that creating is an act of worship, although it can clearly be turned into idolatry (as anything else can be) if it becomes the point.
As a result of these beliefs, we've made some specific choices along the way. First, we've always decorated the space in which we met, even though much of it has been borrowed and required weekly setup and take-down. In one building this meant buying bolts of black fabric and hanging it from grommets & hooks to cover the white walls. In the next space, we were allowed to paint, so we worked to create atmosphere through paint and also hung up original artwork. The next building was quite ugly and large, so we built 10-foot tall frames to stand around the edges. We'd drape fabric from these, clip lamps to them and set artwork on easels in front of them. Second, we have taught that all people are creative and have encouraged everyone in the congregation to take part in the process. This sometimes means challenging people to try something new, and sometimes it means affirming what they are already about: we have discovered that drawer organization, computer programming and car maintenance can be very creative endeavors, and even art forms! Third, we have gone through various waves of facilitating the creating of art in groups. This has included a monthly art night in somebody's home (which was a space for people to get together and paint, draw, scrapbook, knit, or whatever) which was eventually hosted at the worship space when that was an option. This was phased out as people started having babies and raising children. Now we periodically have art days where people come to our current space on a Saturday morning or afternoon and gather to create: through cooking, choral groups, painting, etc. We try to offer an art project for kids during this time to incorporate the children and free parents up a bit.
Since artists need a venue, and their work can both tell the story of the community and point people toward God, artwork from these events has often found its way into our gathered worship space. We have also occasionally hosted art shows and have sometimes invited people to create around a certain theme for a liturgical celebration (for Easter one year, we asked people to sign up to represent how the kingdom of God relates to a meal: "The kingdom of God is like bread," "The kingdom of God is like meat," "The kingdom of God is like dessert," etc. -- these pieces were then set up as center pieces on tables with the different parts of the meal, and people invited their friends to the celebration/dinner/art show)... or just for decoration (when we bought our building, we asked people to do all the artwork in black & white for the first installation).
We have found that art and hospitality are intertwined. We have always served dinner after our worship service, although for many years in borrowed spaces this meant pizza every week. Once we bought our building, we renovated it so that the kitchen was at the center, easily accessible, and built to facilitate community meals where people could help themselves and each other. Those who hold cooking as their art form serve by preparing meals for all present. This food and a refrigerator full of beverages are part of the church budget. We have also sought to decorate and furnish the building in hospitable ways, and we consider the artwork and the music as expressions of our community and invitations to those outside: "Come, partake, commune." We hope that the whole experience will point to the table of communion, as Christ, with His sacrifice and the abundant life He gives, is central.
From the beginning, we have also worked hard to create music which would be accessible to people who have no church background. Not that they would know it upon arrival, but that the sounds would hold something familiar in some way to the music they listen to at home. This required people who had musical backgrounds in one instrument to devote themselves to learning new instruments and people with no musical training to jump into bands. It meant learning and writing new music on a regular basis. We have integrated songs from Mars Hill Church (in Seattle) over the years, because of our personal connection to some of the musicians, who often have club band backgrounds (their songs tend to be complex and technically challenging, resonating sonically with a larger cultural context) and who are committed to writing biblical, theologically grounded lyrics. They also generally publish their music in Open Audio or Creative Commons copyrights, without the CCLI requirements, which allows for a more organic use of their work.
We've grown in songwriting and have utilized songs that people in the community have written. As Doug Pagitt said at the conference in 1998 (this may be a loose paraphrase), "We would rather play our own bad music well than play someone else's good music poorly." We've enjoyed the freedom to experiment musically in order to express truth creatively and to work toward developing our bands. The congregation has been very tolerant of this long process (our band motto for many years was "unhindered by quality control"). We think it would be really exciting if every church wrote its own music and shared with other churches so that there could be many local expressions of church music impacting local culture (and local culture impacting church music), and a network of musical interaction, storytelling, and biblical reflection across the larger body of Christ.
Whew! Those are my initial thoughts on creativity in the church. Might be more to come. I hope this is helpful for you. It has been for me!! Thanks for asking. [:-)] Eric and I are currently on sabbatical after eleven years of ministry at the Village. It's a good time to take a look back at these things.