Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Ministry of Culture

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Ministry of Culture

Article excerpt

A national study documents what many congregations already knew--that the arts are GOOD FOR FAITH, and faith can be GOOD FOR THE ARTS.

Now 75, Margaret Billmeyer is a life-long member of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, New York. She has always lived in the neighborhood, and she's seen many changes as different ethnic groups move in, most recently from the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Billmeyer finds all this change invigorating.

But she had her doubts when St. Luke's pastor, Rev. John Graepel, and a young member of the congregation, Jon Lorenzen, suggested doing a jazz vespers service on Sunday afternoons.

According to Pastor Graepel, St. Luke's predominantly African-American membership does not respond enthusiastically to more traditional Lutheran liturgy and artistic expression (such as Bach chorales). Nor, says Graepel, "are parishioners particularly inclined toward the kind of `new music' that characterizes many churches today." They are, however, knowledgeable about and appreciative of jazz.

St. Luke's neighborhood is one of multiethnic artistic ferment, fed by the presence of the Pratt Institute of Art and Design. Graepel and Lorenzen, a Pratt graduate and musician, wanted to reach out to the community (students as well as more permanent residents) with the vespers service. Margaret Billmeyer wasn't even sure exactly what jazz was, and she was afraid it might not be very worshipful. But she was ready to join with more enthusiastic parishioners and give it a try.

Now she is one of the program's most ardent supporters. She and a friend go to Sunday morning services, share a leisurely lunch they bring from home, and afterwards attend the vespers. According to Billmeyer, "The music is very, very wonderful." Her favorite selections are jazz improvisations on recognizable hymns, but she likes it all.

ST. LUKE IS part of a growing trend among U.S. congregations: incorporating a variety of arts, especially nonverbal forms, to encourage the expression of faith. Congregations use every conceivable form of art in their worship or community activities. While music is the most popular, drama and dance are also surprisingly common (see "And the Survey Says," p. 28). This is true across the religious spectrum--mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and others.

This information comes from the National Congregations Study (NCS), the most comprehensive look at the behavior and attitudes of American congregations to date. Carried out by Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, the study was part of the 1998 General Social Survey conducted regularly by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Never before had the survey included questions about congregations.

Consistent with their understanding of themselves as people of the Word, Christians have historically communicated the gospel message through words, first spoken and then written. But from the very beginning, Christians used other means of artistic expression as well, such as sketches on the walls of Roman catacombs. Now, images in various media such as drawings, paintings, sculpture, woodcarvings, and stained glass are a common means many believers use to impart or respond to a religious message.

The dynamic relationship between religion and the arts works the other way around too. School, a local theater group, or a community concert series might seem the most likely venues for people to receive their initial exposure to the arts. But the National Congregations Study indicates that the congregation is where many religious people receive such an introduction.

Congregations develop interest in the arts for various reasons. As signifiers of members' traditions or ethnic heritage in an increasingly diverse church, the arts are a dynamic catalyst through which people learn about each other. Another common route to engagement in the arts is the presence of professional or amateur artists in a congregation. …

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