Celebrating the Arts

First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan

For a mid-sized city with a thriving downtown arts scene, the annual Celebration of the Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, may seem like just one more art show on a busy cultural calendar. But art lovers are often taken aback when they learn who’s behind this event. The Celebration is entirely hosted, promoted, and run by a church—First United Methodist Church, a Gothic church building on Fulton Street in the heart of the city.

“It’s unique to have a running art show like this at a church,” says Mark Loring, Director of Music and Arts at First. “This is a church volunteer-run art show. The artists are professional, but it’s not your typical art gallery.”

Founded in 1972, the thirty-sixth annual Celebration of the Arts will take place this February. Last year’s Celebration drew over 400 pieces from 250 artists, from which 150 were selected by a juror (each year, a different professional artist) to appear in the show. It featured pieces in a variety of mediums, including oils, acrylic, watercolor, sculpture, fiber, photography, and others—nearly all for sale. (Photo galleries from past Celebration festivals can be viewed at www.thecelebrationofthearts.com.) The festival has recently grown to include concerts, drama, and other activities. It attracts more than a thousand visitors, many of whom might not otherwise be interested in First.

Connecting with the Church

“It’s a great way for people to connect with the church,” Loring says. “Through Celebration we have a lot of artists”—over thirty, he says—“who have joined our congregation because of Celebration.”

There’s a strategy you won’t find in most church growth manuals: hold an art show.

But far from a ministry afterthought, Celebration is a part of what has become a deeply integrated program for the arts in worship at First. This is notable for a church in the Protestant tradition, which for centuries has elevated the word over the image in worship. But as a press release for Celebration says, “The early Christian church was one of the greatest patrons of the arts. So it is only natural that today both artists and observers find the church a home for the arts and a place to hear God’s voice through artistic expression.”

“It’s making artists feel like there’s a way they can connect with the church,” says Loring. “Too often the visual arts get passed up. But they’re something you can really tap into.”

Loring took a job at First more than ten years ago as an organist and choir director (First has eight choirs!). Now he helps run the art show and sits on the worship planning committee, which First calls the “worship design committee.” The committee’s mandate includes integrating the visual arts into worship services.

“When I started I couldn’t tell you the difference between a watercolor and an oil painting,” Loring says. “Now I’ve developed an eye for art. But there are people on our committee who are more knowledgeable than I am, and that’s important. You just need to find the right people and get them involved.”

He says he’s realized how broad a music and arts program should be. “If you don’t include the visual arts—and dance, and drama—you’re missing something,” Loring says. “Some people may not have the talents to sing in a choir, but a lot of people have other gifts.”

Taking Ownership of the Visual Arts

Rather than thinking of Celebration as a festival that just happens to occur at their church, Loring says, the members of First Church have come to consider the event their own. Each year the festival includes a “People’s Choice” award, in which First members vote for a piece to purchase for their permanent collection.

“We have a good cross-section in our congregation; we’re not all artists,” Loring says. “This is just a way that, through the arts, you can expand your mind, get a different perspective.”

First has over a hundred pieces on display throughout its building, rotating from its permanent collection. Their presence is unavoidable. A sculpture of a grimacing face entitled “Psalm 22” hangs over a stairway. Paintings and photographs from previous Celebration festivals line the walls. (Many were purchased at the show by members and donated to the church.) The main viewing room for Celebration is the church’s fellowship hall—“we have to find a different
place to have coffee after church in February,” Loring says.

Connecting to Worship

Often, the connection to worship at First is even more direct. Over the past few years, the worship design committee has displayed relevant pieces from First’s collection in the sanctuary during worship.

“We try to take an upcoming theme and look for a way to highlight that visually,” Loring says. “Sometimes it’s hard to do, and a sermon series or set of Scripture texts won’t work out, but we try our hardest. We just try to look ahead and make connections.”

Most vividly, the committee has even asked artists to paint or sculpt a piece during worship. A few times, a potter has crafted a work of pottery during a worship service.

Loring is quick to point out that while First takes the arts seriously, its program is a grassroots effort that any other church can learn from.

“It can be simple; nothing has to be very elaborate,” Loring says. “It could be as simple as having a liturgical display during Advent or Lent, or maybe having a rotating art gallery in your church. You have to find somebody who has a passion for the visual arts and get them involved, get them on a worship design [or planning] committee. Especially as a music director or pastor, you don’t have the time or expertise. You need the right person.”

In recent years First has expanded its worship to include a monthly Wednesday night Taizé service and a monthly Saturday night jazz service. For the Taizé service, First installed transparent white banners in the sanctuary, flowing from the ceiling to the floor. Candles placed at the front of the sanctuary reflect off glass blocks. “It’s very meditative, with lots of silence,” says Loring. The banners remain in the sanctuary throughout Lent.

By now, Loring sees the visual arts as an indispensable element of worship and ministry at First.

“We’re such a visual society, especially with technology today,” Loring says. “It’s important to use visuals in a way that connects.”

Excerpts

Celebration of the Arts

A Festival of Spiritual Arts
February 13-25, 2009
Juror: Edee Joppich, Northport, Michigan
Website: www.thecelebrationofthearts.com

First United Methodist Church by the Numbers

Founded: 1835
Membership: about 900
Staff positions: 35, including full- and part-time, paid and volunteers
Current building: Tudor Gothic style, completed in 1916
Mission statement: “First United Methodist Church strives to be a vibrant, inclusive, and diverse Christian community. Our purpose is to invite everyone to experience Christ’s love and respond with faithful action.”
Website: www.grandrapidsfumc.org

Nathan Bierma (nbierm65@calvin.edu) is Communications and Research Coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and adjunct professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribute and a contributing editor to Books & Culture  magazine.