Below is an excerpt of the introduction of an essay that will be published in its entirety in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts ed. David Taylor by Baker Books Spring 2010.
"Nurturing Artists in the Local Church"
I’ve spent much of my life working beside my father and grandfather in corn and soybean fields of Central Illinois. We had two John Deer tractors, model 4020, that were used to do the bulk of the field work. I sat on the wheel cover next to the square lunchbox of a radio mounted to the right of the driver, one hand gripping the radio to keep my balance. I was ten when my grandfather first told me to slide over and take the enormous wheel. We swerved, bounced and jostled over the clods of dirt. Grandpa said I was over-steering. Slowly, with his hand placed on mine, I began to understand the subtle, patient nudges the steering wheel needed to keep the tractor headed in a straight line. In keeping with the antiquated idea of husbandry, it was through lessons like this that my gradndfather showed me that a good farmer is essentially a nurturer, a lover.
Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer, once said: “The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.” The nurturer is concerned with giving to the land so that it can sustain production. The exploiter is interested in short-term gain and taking from the land. Berry acknowledges that both of these impulses are within us. Each of us is both nurturer and exploiter.
There have not been many examples for me to follow as a pastor to artists, so the carefulness and patience of a farmer have become a point of reference for me. Many of us, I recognize, are forced to learn by experimentation. In my first ten years of ministry, I often found myself straining myself, bucking against restraints. The example of a farmer has challenged me to slow down. I need to learn how to take the long view and to keep in mind that the way in which I perceive the ultimate purpose of the arts will affect the way I approach artists, whether I nurture their gifts or exploit them.
Behind the sanctuary at Bridgeway, a church in Oklahoma City where I began as an intern in 1998, there is a long, ridiculous cave of a room where kids chased each other in games of tag after the service or groups gathered for planning sessions. Over time we slowly transformed this room into “The Backroom”: with track lighting, hand-made paper lanterns, eclectic cast-off sofas and chairs, and a sprawling painting of a tree adding its metaphorical gravitas to the stage. The room became host to art exhibits, music concerts, poetry readings. It became a kind of garden where, willing but unwitting, I became not just an intern but a Pastor of Worship and Art. In this Backroom I did a lot of pastoring of creative people.
Had you wandered into The Backroom at that time, you would have found artists like Justin, or Shelly, or Michael.
I met Justin in a church basement, leading Cordelia’s Rebellion, his scream-rock band while he was still in high school. Justin, always spiritually hungry, was part of our church for several years. When he returned from rehab, his music took a different turn. Today, almost ten years later, his current band is well known in Oklahoma City. Never quite securing a record deal but still making music that is painfully beautiful, his vocals are urgent, raw and simple. He is enamored with Alvin Plantinga and continental philosophy. He hopes a teaching job one day might help him support his wife and daughter.
Shelly grew up in a conservative Church of Christ home. She is soft-spoken and quite modest. During my first summer in Oklahoma, Shelly and I traveled with several others on a month-long missions trip to Honduras. The whole trip I had no idea she was an art student. That fall I began the small gallery in the Backroom and I discovered Shelly’s paintings. It didn’t take much prodding for her to continue to submit her work throughout college. Some of her classmates came and went from the Backroom, but Shelly remained steady. She finished a degree in Advertising Design. Now she uses ceramic tile to assemble mosaic installations and mixed media wall pieces, each with vibrant, modeled embellishments of nature.
Michael was the first college student to ask me to mentor him. Our friendship developed quickly, with many late night ramblings about novels and poetry. Michael became one of our best writers. He stood out among the many other student leaders of our campus fellowship groups. During his senior year, old memories of childhood trauma resurfaced and he dropped out of leadership. He stopped going to church and gave up writing poetry for a long season. We continued to share an affection for Thomas Merton. Today, while completing a master’s degree in poetry, he navigates between agnosticism and Buddhist mediation techniques. He remains fascinated with Jesus.
The pastor as nurturing, loving farmer
These relationships have been messy and, at times, unpleasant. I’ve struggled with patience, expected too much, pushed too far, and overstretched my own small spool of energies. But the use of a gentle, consistent hand is, despite my stumbling, effective. Why? Because the arts are made by people for people; each as intricate and organic as the corn my grandfather raised. In this very human endeavor, I have to continually remind myself that the arts are not buttons we push to enhance a sermon. They’re not levers we switch to intensify an evangelistic tactic. Art has to do with people we love, and this love bears witness to Christ.
What has unfolded for me in my arts ministry will be different than what you discover in yours. But I believe there is something universal about the connections between what I define here as pastoring, promoting and producing the arts. As farmer-pastors, we are lovers. We tenderly work the soil of our culture by identifying artistic gifts with discernment (to pastor). Then our joyful response to discovering the artists is to push their gifts outward in order to share their creativity with others (to promote). Finally, we prune the gifts and coach the artists to mature so that their fruit will be sustainable and long lasting (to produce). We are all learning as we press onward. I pray that what I share here of my journey opens up possibilities for the flourishing of artistic creativity in your community.