Sunday, December 10, 2006

art at church

You know, I think my church is actually getting to the point that it's becoming some place neat to go on Sunday.

Don't get me wrong. It's been a good church for a while now. If it weren't, I don't think we'd have been going there for the past year-and-a-half or so that we've been attending. The worship always has been decent, if a trifle on the loud side; the preaching has almost always been pretty good to excellent; and the people have always been real, in our experience. It's a decent place to attend and be involved, and it reminds me in a lot of ways of the late, lamented Community Gospel Church, which was the last place we attended that we really enjoyed.

But The Point is becoming more than a good place to attend church. It's starting to become some place that's really interesting to go.

The big thing is the art. Actual art. Most churches I've attended the last 18 years or so paid lip service to art but didn't really embrace artistic expression unless it was "appropriate," which means that it's sanitized, prepackaged, not upsetting, not offensive, and is either by Thomas Kincade or is just otherwise uninteresting to look at or create. If it doesn't make people feel good about themselves and about Christ, it doesn't belong in church is the philosophy I think most churches operate on when it comes to art.

I've been pushing for more use of the arts at The Point, to the point that last year I convinced the leadership team it would be a good idea to create a worship station for a few weeks where people could come up and paint as much or as little as they wanted during the service. It was a neat idea, everyone agreed, but it didn't work well. About the only people to paint were the kids, and the pictures painted were (no joke) cute fluffy sheep, a cross or two, and something that might have been grass.

Back around Easter, they revisited the idea slightly by asking four different artists to paint whatever they wanted, on their own canvases, during the service. (Evangeline was one of the artists asked, which of course I enjoyed tremdously, as her father.)

The last few weeks, that sort of thing has been a fixture at both our downtown and suburban congregations. In addition to the band leading everyone in worship and the preacher doing his thing, there's been a painter working on a painting during the service, of paintings that were thematically related to the service but not explicity religious. This morning, when the sermon was about Hanukkah, a woman painted a cluster of candles. In the downtown service, for the theme of Hope, the artist painted a hand holding a winged sphere. ("Hope is that thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson, although his finished painting looked something like a golden snitch from Harry Potter.) When the theme was Faith, the painting was of a blindfolded woman being led by the hand. And the paintings have been display on subsequent weeks.

Last week our downtown service included interpretive dance as part of the worship service.

The worship team, which has been a little too heavy on guitars -- three of them, to be specific, with two of them electrics -- for my taste, is branching out. The team at each congregation includes someone who provides vocals and vocals alone, and downtown the worship band now includes a flutist. As a result, the worship is being transformed.

I guess you can tell why I'm getting excited about this church. It's taking a step beyond what's traditional, what's expected -- or perhaps it's taken a step beyond what's expected, back to what's traditional, since the Church traditionally was the significant patron of the arts for the longest time.

And I'm seeing a church leadership that's willing to take risks. At the downtown service tonight, two other people and I delivered a sucker-punch drama that had everyone's full attention and provided a deeply attentive audience when the pastor got up to preach.

We're working through Advent right now, with the sermon this week on joy. Our drama began when Jonathan got up to read Luke's account of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. He had just read the point that the angels began singing their hosannas and Gloria-in-Excelsis-Deos when someone in the congregation snorted loudly and derisively, the sort of snort I've used once or twice when I heard a preacher claim that the book of Job mentions dinosaurs.

No one who wasn't in on the drama knew this was coming. For the next minute or so, everyone in the congregation had the look of the proverbial deer caught in the headlights as Glorianne talked about how uninvolved she was in worship, and that while it's a great story that angels came to shepherds at night, it doesn't really match her experience at all. Everyone was stunned, first at the impropriety of interrupting like that and then (from some of the expressions I saw) at her willingness to articulate something they all could relate to but would never think of sharing.

Following the script, but a little uncertainly because Glorianne hadn't given him the cues he had been expecting, Jonathan tried to explain something about the joy not being in angels' presence but in following God, and then I lit into him for throwing around the idea of joy when he has no idea what he's talking about, nor does just about anyone with our casual, drive-by Christmastime religion. And for a closer, we tied it all in to the poverty that's very real and very present in our city, and probably got the attention of the homeless people who come to our services each week.

(The associate pastor, knowing it was a drama, leaned over to the fellow next to him and said, "Boy, this is awkward." The other fellow nodded mutely, and said, strained, "You're telling me.")

It was a set-up, admittedly, a piece of experimental theater where the audience doesn't know where they end and the actors begin, but it had the effect we intended. The lead pastor started talking, and I think he did an excellent job addressing the issues we raised. Afterward, everyone was talking about the drama and what was said afterward.

Through our sucker-punch drama, we succeeded at doing something important. We spoke to people about real pain, real disappointment, real frustration, and then about real joy.

I love this church.

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