Christ in the Arts

Relational evangelism for a “now” generation. . . . Read what can happen when a church in the city embraces its millennials, artists, and intellectually curious.

Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of leadership, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

We met Krissy1 at a coffee shop across from the Boston University campus in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a petite, almost fragile-looking brunette, attractive, around 20 years of age. Deep into our conversation, she removed three pencil drawings from an inside pocket of her notebook. Though they were created with an ordinary ink pen during a recent cross-country flight, and were for her simply a way to pass the time, we instantly recognized that we were with a young artist of extraordinary talent. Krissy was in the second year of her art degree at the university and preparing for a career in art education. We asked why she was envisioning an academic career rather than devoting herself full time to drawing and painting. With a laugh she explained: “So I won’t starve!” Drawing and painting were her true first loves.

Largely because she connected with Boston’s Park Street Church2 congregation, Krissy is unique among her secular-minded contemporaries. Her belief in Christ and desire to contribute to Christian mission, largely through her art, form the central purpose of her life. Those ideas kept surfacing in our conversation. We were delighted to encounter a millennial so passionately committed to Christian discipleship—and a progressive-thinking artist at that, even in the midst of a secular city!

Park street and the arts

The fostering of creative expression through various forms of art has been an avenue for forming Christian relationships in the life of Park Street Church for over a decade. Park Street Arts is a community that began about the year 2000 as a hosted group of people from the church who collaborated in artistic endeavors. A small group of members prayed for nearly a year over the vision to initiate some sort of ministry presence for people engaged in the arts before Park Street Arts was launched. They believed that students and other young adults trying to make it in some area of art vocation represented people who were often uncomfortable or even rejected in the usual life of a congregation. The small group launched with about 15 accomplished or aspiring artists meeting in a residential apartment in the heart of the city near the church.

Growth led to a need for decentralizing the original group leadership, and the pastoral staff became involved in a process of mentoring new people to lead multiple and diverse artist groups. The church listened, and continues to frequently gather artists together, asking what they envision as ways to serve the community and advance their vocation and artistic interests while sharing the gospel.

Park Street Arts has matured and aspires to provide a center for quality expression of the arts that enriches the community and the church. They affirm the beauty and purpose of art forms that include design, visual arts, music, drama, media, photography, and writing. Some art forms have several groups. Some participants in these groups are professionals, others students, others amateurs, and others people who simply want to develop knowledge of and appreciation for a particular artistic discipline. Many engage with the city in plays, concerts, or other events, while finding support in groups from the church.

Persons having interest or experience in the technical side of audio/ video operation, stage management, production, marketing and publicity, hospitality, or general project management have gotten involved. That has opened a door for the church to plan and offer concerts, exhibitions, performances, lectures, and symposiums for the city. The notoriety the church has gotten for its engagement in the Boston area cultural activities and artistic workshops has further advanced its witness.

Thus it was perfect for Krissy, who had chosen to leave her home in California to enroll at Boston University because of its reputation in art education. She had been nurtured as a child and adolescent in a Christian home, but she entered into this new phase of her life wanting to form her own beliefs. Her parents accompanied her as she made the move to Boston. While getting her settled, they walked the Freedom Trail in the heart of the city together on a Sunday morning. After an hour or so they stood outside of the Park Street Church. It was about the time the morning worship was to begin, so they decided to stay for the service, largely just to find a respite from the walking.

Krissy immediately noticed the church was predominately twentysomethings, mixed with other generations. The sermon focused on the artistic crafts that had contributed to the building of the ark of the covenant. That spoke to Krissy, and she made a mental note that in coming weeks she would check out the church further. This would be a way to examine her faith, she reasoned. She felt the church would welcome her and she would be in the company of other young artists, while being mentored in the church by more experienced Christians as well. She noticed there were many small groups where people in the arts could share their work.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Krissy decided, after attending for some time, that she needed to form her own personal faith. So she made the decision to enroll in the new-believers’ class, requiring one evening each week for seven weeks. When I met her, Krissy had been at Boston College for two years and had become a regular attendee at Park Street. She described many connections at the church and loved her volunteer work at the art gallery provided in the church space. She knew the church as a caring place, a place that affirmed her gifts and helped her with her questions about faith, vocation, and life.

And she is not alone either. Scott and his wife recently moved from Boston to one of the largest state universities in the Midwest, where Scott holds a leadership position on the university’s administrative team.

Raised a Catholic, Scott had abandoned his faith in God at the age of 18. He completed college on an athletic scholarship and began a career in academics at a secular college in Boston. A proclaimed agnostic, Scott described himself as opposed to organized religion in the decade that followed. He considered churches terrible institutions that misled people and did not contribute to society in any meaningful way.

At the age of 28 his life changed. Living and working in the Boston area, he missed the camaraderie of the team that athletics had provided. So he responded to an invitation from a casual acquaintance to try out his acting skills with a newly formed small group of artists from Park Street. It seemed like the right match for him, a way to connect and pursue a developing interest in the theater. The small group had envisioned live production but soon began to work on producing short films. Scott found the collegiality he had looked for, and he liked the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity fostered in the group. They freely discussed the idea of God, as Scott describes the conversations, and exchanged differing worldviews. When the group challenged him to read Timothy Keller’s A Reason for God, he did. He continued to ask questions and deepen his relationships with other young adults from the church. He began to attend worship, was further inspired to pursue questions of faith, and eventually joined the new-member class. In the process he met a young Christian woman who is now his wife! They are both active disciples of Christ and deeply involved in a local church. Park Street Arts, an arts ministry to be exact, contributed significantly to the life they have now formed.

Scott describes the culture of intellectual curiosity of members from Park Street as the primary factor that God used to lead him to genuine faith. He acknowledges that it started with his interest in the arts. The small group included people who knew how to produce and direct. Acting in the films, and connecting with like-minded artists, became the path for finding faith in God.

A great model

There are many lessons to be learned from the experience of Krissy. She is a talented millennial and a Christian. In a secular city, with the pressures postChristian culture presents to faith in Christ, she chose to follow Jesus. She continues as an intelligent young adult, a university student in an urban secular environment, a millennial, and a Christian.

We can learn from the story of Scott too. How many like him are out there, seeking answers to questions that we believe we have? But, unless we have something to draw people like him to us, we do people, like Scott, no good. We can reflect on the contribution of this specific church, the Park Street Church, to ministry and connection in small groups, on creating a culture of openness, of acceptance, and on the appreciation of the arts.

We can learn from the contribution the arts made to developing the creative energy God has placed within us.

1 The narratives in this article are accounts of actual personal experiences, but details have been altered to protect individual identities.

2 See “A unique church” on page 14 for some rich history of this church.

Sidebar: A unique church

Situated next to Boston Common and the Granary Burying Ground on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Park Street Church has shaped evangelicalism in America for over 200 years. The congregation can trace its beginnings to a small group of devout Christians, most members of the Old South Meeting House, who in 1804 were concerned that biblical foundations in their faith might be diminished with the rising of Unitarianism. They wanted to strengthen, or augment, the emerging worldview they observed in their own Boston congregation, and indeed across New England, with biblical teachings. Seeking a foundational biblical expression of faith merged with a compassionate worldview, they launched a weekly Bible study small group. The small group formed into a distinct church of its own, officially formed in 1809. The members were clearly aligned with the Congregational denomination, giving expression to the pairing of conservative biblical positions alongside a vigorous social conscience. They erected the current church sanctuary and began its use in 1810.

Several key moments in America’s story are linked to Park Street. The church was the place where William Lloyd Garrison delivered his antislavery speech in 1829. Issues such as women’s suffrage and the temperance movement of the early twentieth century found voice through the congregation. The church initiated the oldest continuous running Christian radio station in the country. In 1944, a ministry launched at Park Street to help churches rebuild in Europe following World War II evolved into World Relief, a dynamic organization that today has approximately 2,500 staff and 60,000 volunteers worldwide fostering economic, social, and spiritual relief efforts for the world’s most vulnerable populations. And the NAACP* for the Northeastern United States was launched from the church.

Observing its position in American history, a casual observer might think the church has focused on social issues to the neglect of interest in conservative biblical scholarship. That would not be accurate, for this congregation became a thriving congregation in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, the most conservative expression of the Congregational denomination in America. About 1,500 members attend Sunday worship services. Presently there are 9 full-time and 5 part-time pastors, with a total of 35 on the church staff. The vibrancy of biblical study and inquiry into Christian beliefs is evident in their congregational life.

The church does focus on people, dedicating about 40 percent of its budget to mission. It provides English as a second language classes, sponsors and provides ministries for the homeless, serves women in crisis, and aids immigrants, among other ministries. Park Street has more small groups active in service within the city than the pastoral staff can keep up with, with over 80 in their estimation functioning at any given time.

For members at Park Street, small groups are an incarnational presence of Christ in the city. Opportunities to encourage worship participation are frequent but not seen as the primary way to interpret the purpose of group life. A culture of investigating worship and faith by dropping in to the worship service can be seen as a reasonable outcome of the relationships built within groups. At its worship services, the church intentionally promotes ways for people to transition from casual to regular attendance and to grow in discipleship. An extended curriculum exploring biblical inspiration and Christian discipleship comes open to any who wish to investigate Christian faith. Krissy had gone through one such curriculum for a period of seven weeks and this helped link her to the church.

* NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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Skip Bell, DMin, is professor of leadership, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

August 2017

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