The Planning Process
If something goes really smoothly - whether it be a speech, a gymnastics routine, a worship service, a five course meal, or any of many other things – it can appear as though little work went into it. If we don’t see the challenges, the struggles, the ups and downs, we may not realize how much planning and hard work and more hard work went into the product that we are admiring.
As we are in the midst of the baseball season, if you watch the players when they are fielding hit balls and throwing them to whichever base is appropriate, it can often seem rather effortless. And then, when they make a particularly difficult play, it can seem spectacular. Yet, all of those plays happen because of training, years and years of playing, doing the training again each Spring, and then doing it at other times that few of us ever see. When we watch a game we are seeing all of that preparation put into their efforts in the game.
This is especially true when drawing the arts into worship. Whether it is a movie clip, a short dramatic presentation, a viewing of visual arts, or a special musical presentation, the preparation time will determine how effective the use of the arts are for people. Rehearsing the use of whatever equipment is necessary, or the use of a computer, or the practicing of lines and notes, all contribute toward an experience that will provide another way to encounter God.
Now, just as baseball players make errors despite their extensive training, there will certainly be times when glitches will happen in worship, perhaps especially when introducing an artistic medium that is not used regularly. But while people are usually forgiving when those glitches occur, to minimize them through careful preparation is what make things effective. After all, we want people to be moved by the arts themselves, not to be distracted by our lack of planning and preparation.
We truly want worship experiences, and the use of the arts in worship, to appear as though very little effort was involved in putting them together.
Supporting the Arts
There has been talk recently about the future of the National Endowment for the Arts. While it appeared that funding for the organization could be eliminated altogether from the federal budget, it is now thankfully remaining in place. Nonetheless, funding for the arts is seemingly always in jeopardy, as many people see the arts either as a luxury or as unnecessary, rather than recognizing that the arts are an integral part of society and can have a profound influence on our lives.
The support of the arts though is not just a matter of governmental funding. Recognizing the importance of the arts, and offering financial and in-person support, is something that we each choose to do, or not to do. There are so many inexpensive ways that we can support the arts. Most museum memberships are quite affordable. A ticket to most of our church’s performance series events costs only $11. Even joining an arts organization, or subscribing to an arts-related magazine, is usually not very expensive.
I was reflecting about these things as I sat in the audience at a concert recently. This was an annual event of the Symphonic Jazz Orchestra, and they were playing at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach. My friend, and artistic director of our performance series, Alan Chan, was having a commissioned piece premiered by the orchestra. I was looking forward to the evening, because I have enjoyed Alan’s musical creativity for many years. I was stunned however by the unique flavor of this work, by the subtleness of some portions and the dynamic nature of other parts. It is one of his best compositions yet.
My reflections on the evening, amidst my great enjoyment of Alan’s composition, as well as the wonder of the other works performed by the orchestra, came because this beautiful venue was no more than one quarter full. Now I know that sometimes concert tickets can be a little pricey, but our tickets only cost $35 each. On top of that, an afternoon concert for the community, for which the tickets were given to people for free, had an attendance of similar numbers.
This is but one example of a wonderful opportunity to be moved by the arts. Such events take place in almost every community. And while there is a certain satisfaction for the artists in just the act of creating something together, or even in a solo fashion, there is definitely great encouragement and extended joy when they are able to share their creativity with others.
While national funding for the arts is important, if we are not taking the time to support the arts in our own communities, what are we really saying about the value of the arts in our own lives?
It was while I was working on my doctoral program in Arts and Theology that I was first introduced to the idea of an artist-in-residence program at a church or other religious congregation. I had heard of an artist-in-residence at art institutions, and even at schools, including theological schools, but the idea that churches could host such a program was new to me. This is not to say that it was a new idea, but rather one that I just hadn’t heard before.
The idea stayed with me, even though my congregation wasn’t in any kind of financial position to fund such a residency. However, when we began our performance series about a year after that, I was anxious to include exhibitions of visual artists in our series in order to accomplish a part of the idea, exposing the congregation and community to wonderful expressions of art, while also promoting the idea of the church as a sort of patron of the arts.
I am excited now that my congregation, as we are joined by folks from another small congregation, will, in this merged church, establish an artist-in-residence program. The final vote was taken last Sunday, and now begins the real exciting work.
Our initial artist-in-residence will focus in the area of theatre, through screenwriting classes, an annual drama production, and explorations of other area productions that can serve as a catalyst for dialogue. We will also include writing workshops and art exhibitions as a part of the total program.
We have been seriously imagining this new element of church life for a couple of years. Now we have the opportunity to explore the connections between art and theology, between artists and the church, in very tangible ways. I hope that we will discover many beautiful, challenging and inspiring convergences along the path that we will walk in the years ahead.
I love museums. They allow me to see and spend time with works of art that I would otherwise never be able to see in person. I am grateful that individuals, communities and various forms of government have had the foresight to gather collections and make them available to people.
I also learned long ago, that one thing about art is that when it is created for a particular context, it also has the most meaning in that context. This was brought home as I listened to a professor describing the intricacies and meanings associated with various parts of an altarpiece that had been bought and then displayed in a museum. The professor asked us to imagine the original church where the altarpiece had served as a focus of devotions for many people across a number of centuries. The impact that the altarpiece had in that setting was different to be sure than the impact it had for museum visitors. Even those of us who looked at it with eyes of faith were still seeing it more as art taken out of its context than as a way to help us worship.
When we create art for the church, it can be transferable from one church to another most certainly, but it is apt to have its greatest significance in the church that commissioned it, because the people, at least some of the people, shared in the process of creation with the artist. It was developed in the mind of the artist for that space.
We have a cross that hangs on the wall of our sanctuary throughout most of the year. It is especially meaningful for our members because a couple of us created the cross and shared that process with others. It being a cross, it could certainly find a home in another church. But then it would be a gift to that church, or possibly a purchase for that church, and it would be missing the connection with the act of creation.
It is certainly possible for the people of a church to work with artists to create all of the art of a church. It is also likely that some portion of the art will be purchased separate from involvement with the artists. I would imagine though that the most meaningful creations, the ones which inspire the greatest devotion, or afford the most intimate connection with God, would be the ones where the creativity of the people and the artists had come together, such that the art was an expression of their joint vision and faith.
I will continue to enjoy museums and appreciate their gifts. I will also continue to be aware that the cross in our sanctuary has a deeper connection to God for me than does any religious object in a museum, no matter how beautiful and detailed it may be. That is the power of art experienced within its intended context.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.