Q&A with Luann Jennings, Director of Arts Ministries, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC)
It is particularly important for the church to engage (or re-engage) with the arts today. There are many reasons why—for now I'll focus just on one: God calls his people to create to his glory.
Comment: February is Arts Month at Redeemer. What are you trying to achieve with this month-long focus on the arts?
Luann Jennings: We're trying to achieve the same thing as any other "awareness" campaign: changes in perception and behaviour. Although we consider ourselves to be a church with a high level of sensitivity to and interest in the arts in culture—primarily due to the teaching of our pastor, Dr. Tim Keller—when we looked and asked around, we found that our congregation wasn't any more engaged in the arts than anyone else in the city, Christian or otherwise. So, to help change that, in February we've scheduled 20+ special events—classes and lectures, "field trips" to performances and museums, and hands-on creative opportunities—to help our congregation have a personal experience with the arts, learn more about them, and better understand how their faith affects and supports their involvement with the arts. We estimate that over 500 people will participate this year.
This year we have put the emphasis firmly on "patronage." We have a short quiz on our website called "Are You a Patron?" which we'll keep there, even after Arts Month ends. It asks questions like: "Do you have a favorite art form that you particularly enjoy experiencing and learning about?" "Do you ever spread the word about a particular arts event or artist?" "Have you financially supported an arts organization or artist (outside of purchasing tickets) in the last year?" and "Do you know an artist, are you involved in his/her life, and are you actively supporting his/her career?" These are the kinds of actions we feel are important for Christians to take to support the artists within our community, and to help impact our culture for Christ through the arts.
We've also found that our Arts Month events have been incredibly community-building. The arts do that!
Comment: Your work has to do with church-based support of the arts. Why do you think churches, in particular, should be involved with the world of the arts?
LJ: It's important for everyone to be engaged in and supporting the arts—they reveal who we are and the deepest, best and worst parts of us. We look to any culture's art to understand who they are, or were. My "calling," as I see it unfold over twenty years or so, is to encourage engagement with the arts through increasing understanding and appreciation, both among artists and among patrons. I've been blessed to do this work in a number of contexts—through starting a theatre for families and youth, running an awareness program for high school students for a community arts service organization, teaching in traditional educational contexts and, now, developing programs in the church. It will probably always be my life's work, on some level.
I do believe it is particularly important, though, for the church to engage (or re-engage) with the arts today. There are many reasons why—for now I'll focus just on one. God calls his people to create to his glory; following his call is a matter of obedience. In Exodus 31, soon after God rescued the Israelites from slavery, he "employs" the artisans Bezalel and Oholiab to build a beautiful tabernacle in which He would dwell. Unfortunately, before they are able to, the Israelites become afraid and use their creative gifts—given to them by a creative God in His image—to make idols and dance and make music to them. Later, once God has set things right, Bezalel and Oholiab are re-employed to do the creative work to which God originally called them (Exodus 35-36). Bezalel is the first person in scripture to be described as "filled . . . with the Spirit of God," after God has redeemed creativity from the ungodly way in which it was used. God also instructs him to teach others—an important part of the creative calling.
I'm not suggesting through these verses that artists who follow God may only use their gifts to create work specifically for and in a "religious" context. Far from it. But God does want us to use these gifts. We are not to be ashamed of them, or hide them, or consider other gifts and callings more worthy than artistic creativity. And we are not to use them in ways that dishonour him, to build or worship (physical or metaphorical) idols. Artists will use their gifts—the church must help them discover what outworking glorifies God and what promotes idolatry in any form. So one reason the church should be involved in the arts is to follow God's command to glorify him by expressing and valuing our creativity as a community, and to guide those who have received particular creative gifts (like Bezalel and Oholiab) toward honouring God through them.
Comment: From your work in arts ministry over the past few years, what have you learned about what works well in arts ministries, and what does not?
LJ: I've worked in arts ministry in two churches, which are very different from one another—Redeemer and Intown Community Church in Atlanta, GA—and what we've done at the two churches has been very different. When people contact me for advice on starting arts ministries in their churches, I suggest that they first make sure that the ministry is tied closely to the vision and culture of their church. Duplicating what Redeemer or any other church is doing won't work if your church has a radically different mission and values from ours. They also must insure that their senior pastor is 100% on board. The arts tend to be expensive, and their results can be intangible. Without leadership that understands that, it's difficult to take on the task.
Because Redeemer is filled with people who are actively pursuing the arts as full-time careers (perhaps as much as 20% of the congregation), we have a different set of needs than a church in which most of their artists are creating "on the side" of other paying careers. Our artists need a lot of encouragement to make the hard journey of pursuing their craft in New York City, and they benefit most from one-on-one meetings with arts ministry staff and volunteer leaders, as well as by becoming part of our community of artists. And they feel encouraged by Redeemer's commitment to the arts and artists in our programs and through Tim Keller's teaching.
We also place a high priority on teaching. Because much of our congregation is transient, coming from all over North America and elsewhere and staying for an average of two to five years, we regularly present what Redeemer believes about the arts and faith. Many of our artists come from home and church backgrounds in which they were actively discouraged from pursuing arts careers, while others have simply never thought about what their faith has to do with their creative work.
We've also recently started a series of professional development workshops for artists, to help connect our artists with the wisdom and experience of other artists within our church. Many professional development programs are available to artists in NYC, but they're generally costly and are not led from a Christian perspective. Several people from outside of the city even made special trips to attend workshops. They've gone very well.
Comment: Other than the ministry with which you are directly involved, do you know of any churches elsewhere in North America who have arts ministries from which people who want to do this kind of thing can learn?
LJ: I've run across many churches around the country that have great programs, and I hear of more all the time. I wish I could list them all. But the general interest areas seem to be: (1) the arts in worship and evangelism, (2) the arts in cultural renewal, (3) the arts in personal devotion and discipleship, or (4) community-building and encouragement among the artists within the congregation. Many large programs (like Redeemer) have a primary and secondary focus.
In the primarily "worship and evangelism" group, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL, is certainly the largest and most influential program. They have a great training program through books, DVDs, and a wonderful arts conference every year. North Point Community Church in Atlanta is another strong program in worship and evangelism.
Redeemer would fall primarily in the "cultural renewal" group, with "community" also being a strong value. A number of other churches are also thinking through cultural renewal through the arts in their communities. Within our denomination—Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta has a great program. Many churches in the contemplative tradition (Episcopal, Orthodox, Catholic, etc.) have excellent programs that emphasize personal devotion/discipleship and community-building.
Comment: Can you suggest a short list of four or five items that people should read, watch or listen to—articles, books, movies, podcasts, and so on—if want to understand the responsibilities of the church to artists?
LJ: I'm not aware of any excellent resources that specifically delve into the responsibility of the church to artists, but my short list of must-reads for anyone interested in the arts and Christianity is:
Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts by Hillary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin;
Imagine by Steve Turner;
Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer;
Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle; and, recently, I'd definitely add
- Culture Making by Andy Crouch.
There are many great discipline-specific books and resources, but for film-lovers I'd recommend Hollywood Worldviews by David Godawa, and for those specifically interested in visual art or writing I'd recommend Image journal. David Taylor's blog, "Diary of an Arts Pastor" is also great.
Sorry, that's more than five! We have more listed on the "resources" page of our website, www.faithandwork.org/arts.