On Worship and the Arts, with Brehm Center Voices

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What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of worship, theology, and the arts in the church? What would you want people to know?

Rob Johnston: I would want Christians to know that the spiritual value of the arts is not limited to Scripture and the church. While God’s full revelation to humankind has come through Jesus, God also speaks more widely through the Spirit. This can come in our dreams (like Abimelech) or when out in nature (like Elijah). It can be wordless speech (Ps 19) or simply the sense that there is something more (Acts 17). This can also come through the arts (like the poetry of Proverbs 30 or 31). While we in the church often dismiss such experiences through art as, at best, “a faint spiritual echo,” many of our non-church friends find themselves filled with awe by “God’s wider presence.” By dismissing these awe-filled experiences, we close off the opportunity for us also to grow spiritually, as well as to share in meaningful dialogue with others.

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders: Every church is already engaging in a discussion about these practices, whether they know it or not. We live in a world of articulation—language, symbol, song, movement, material. Articulation is at the heart of all of these ideas. I’d simply want to ask folks: How do you define each of these ideas? How do you see these elements defining the experience of your community? Do these definitions and practices keep people out of the community or welcome them in? Do you want that to change?

Eugene Suen: A lot of people might think that the church only values works of art, or forms of worship, that are explicitly redemptive, hopeful, or “positive,” but I find that thoughtful Christians tend to have a much more nuanced view on what makes for spiritually rigorous worship and arts.

Shannon Sigler: Worship in Spirit and in truth should involve the full, active, and conscious participation of humans, and we must use all of our senses to glorify God in this way. As we worship, our entire selves are sanctified—mind, body, and spirit. Artists are natural models of embodied worship, and we—the church—should learn from them.

Ed Willmington: When it comes to corporate worship, studies show that most people do not understand their role in the gathering. I would desire that people understand that their role is to come as “actors” in worship, not passive receivers. And further, in their action, to offer and accept the many gifts of that community, which will include a diverse set of expressions, not only what they may personally like—the whole community offering the entirety of their corporate gifts upward to God.

Dea Jenkins: It can be challenging to conceptualize how the arts actually inform one’s understanding of worship and theology. I believe that many within the church find the arts intriguing, but I also recognize how difficult it is for people to imagine how the arts can inform communal rhythms and practices. What’s needed here are both a willingness for local churches to learn and a willingness for artists of faith to teach. This denotes a need for trust in the expansive forms of how God reveals God’s self.

Tell us about a significant experience in your life that took place at the intersection of theology and art.

Simeon Sham: This past Advent season, our church explored the theme of being reconciled, both to God and with one another. We looked at five steps of reconciliation, with an accompanying “Advent invitation” through each week of Advent: lament and thanksgiving, confession and peace, repentance and joy, yielding and love, and forgiveness and Christ. Through prerecorded services, we dove into these themes through artistic reflections of story, music, pottery, illustration, monologue. It was a powerful way to walk through Advent together.

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders (MAT ’16) is a nonprofit administrator and theater artist currently discerning her call to ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Dea Jenkins (MAICS ’19, MAT ’19) is an interdisciplinary creative, director of Inbreak, and CEO of Dea Studios.

Rob Johnston is senior professor of theology and culture.

Simeon Sham (MDiv ’15) is the worship and creative arts pastor at Epicentre Church in Pasadena, California.

Shannon Sigler is executive director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.

Eugene Suen (MAT ’16) is a filmmaker and codirector of Brehm Film.

Ed Willmington is director of Brehm Music: A Fred Bock Initiative.

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of worship, theology, and the arts in the church? What would you want people to know?

Rob Johnston: I would want Christians to know that the spiritual value of the arts is not limited to Scripture and the church. While God’s full revelation to humankind has come through Jesus, God also speaks more widely through the Spirit. This can come in our dreams (like Abimelech) or when out in nature (like Elijah). It can be wordless speech (Ps 19) or simply the sense that there is something more (Acts 17). This can also come through the arts (like the poetry of Proverbs 30 or 31). While we in the church often dismiss such experiences through art as, at best, “a faint spiritual echo,” many of our non-church friends find themselves filled with awe by “God’s wider presence.” By dismissing these awe-filled experiences, we close off the opportunity for us also to grow spiritually, as well as to share in meaningful dialogue with others.

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders: Every church is already engaging in a discussion about these practices, whether they know it or not. We live in a world of articulation—language, symbol, song, movement, material. Articulation is at the heart of all of these ideas. I’d simply want to ask folks: How do you define each of these ideas? How do you see these elements defining the experience of your community? Do these definitions and practices keep people out of the community or welcome them in? Do you want that to change?

Eugene Suen: A lot of people might think that the church only values works of art, or forms of worship, that are explicitly redemptive, hopeful, or “positive,” but I find that thoughtful Christians tend to have a much more nuanced view on what makes for spiritually rigorous worship and arts.

Shannon Sigler: Worship in Spirit and in truth should involve the full, active, and conscious participation of humans, and we must use all of our senses to glorify God in this way. As we worship, our entire selves are sanctified—mind, body, and spirit. Artists are natural models of embodied worship, and we—the church—should learn from them.

Ed Willmington: When it comes to corporate worship, studies show that most people do not understand their role in the gathering. I would desire that people understand that their role is to come as “actors” in worship, not passive receivers. And further, in their action, to offer and accept the many gifts of that community, which will include a diverse set of expressions, not only what they may personally like—the whole community offering the entirety of their corporate gifts upward to God.

Dea Jenkins: It can be challenging to conceptualize how the arts actually inform one’s understanding of worship and theology. I believe that many within the church find the arts intriguing, but I also recognize how difficult it is for people to imagine how the arts can inform communal rhythms and practices. What’s needed here are both a willingness for local churches to learn and a willingness for artists of faith to teach. This denotes a need for trust in the expansive forms of how God reveals God’s self.

Tell us about a significant experience in your life that took place at the intersection of theology and art.

Simeon Sham: This past Advent season, our church explored the theme of being reconciled, both to God and with one another. We looked at five steps of reconciliation, with an accompanying “Advent invitation” through each week of Advent: lament and thanksgiving, confession and peace, repentance and joy, yielding and love, and forgiveness and Christ. Through prerecorded services, we dove into these themes through artistic reflections of story, music, pottery, illustration, monologue. It was a powerful way to walk through Advent together.

Written By

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders (MAT ’16) is a nonprofit administrator and theater artist currently discerning her call to ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Dea Jenkins (MAICS ’19, MAT ’19) is an interdisciplinary creative, director of Inbreak, and CEO of Dea Studios.

Rob Johnston is senior professor of theology and culture.

Simeon Sham (MDiv ’15) is the worship and creative arts pastor at Epicentre Church in Pasadena, California.

Shannon Sigler is executive director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.

Eugene Suen (MAT ’16) is a filmmaker and codirector of Brehm Film.

Ed Willmington is director of Brehm Music: A Fred Bock Initiative.

Dea Jenkins: My time at Fuller was incredibly transformative. It was there I discovered the power of creative activism. Racial ideologies permeate every institution in the United States, including our theological institutions. At Fuller, I both gained a firsthand look at the destructive qualities of racialized systems and also developed the creative tools to construct new patterns of being. I learned how to live out of the theological calling to pursue social healing while simultaneously recognizing the need for reform within the church. We have to recognize that art is a way in which we can directly challenge, influence, and reshape social order.

Eugene Suen: I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life four times in the theaters when it was released in 2011. I had seen many great films before and since, but this one came closest to a religious experience. Despite the lack of a traditional narrative structure, there is something profoundly intuitive and primal about its depiction of life as a lived experience and as an object of cosmic contemplation. It’s the cinematic equivalent of walking through a grand cathedral, and as deeply moving and spiritually rigorous as any religious service I’ve been a part of.

Ed Willmington: Without understanding it at the time, theology and art connected with me when singing a Bach cantata. The text of the cantata, titled “The Spirit Helps” in English, was taken directly from the words of Romans 8. In those verses, there is a clear statement that God’s Spirit helps us in prayer, even interceding to the Father when we don’t have the words ourselves. How often have I accessed that theological principle—God’s Spirit assisting my prayers to the Father.

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Rob Johnston: My most significant experience had to do with watching the film Becket on my 19th birthday. As a college freshman, I had been struggling with how one discerns one’s calling. Some encouraged me to consider ministry as a vocation. But my models of effective ministry seemed to me to be more “saintly” than I was. However, as I watched the story of Thomas à Becket, King Henry’s drinking buddy who was scandalously appointed by the king to be Archbishop of Canterbury, only for Thomas to take his surprise appointment as a call from God, I heard God say to me, “I want you to become a minister. You don’t have to be holy, only obedient. And I can then begin to make you ‘holy.’” The next day I went into the School of Engineering office and dropped that major, as I began to prepare for seminary at Fuller.

What crucial element of formation do you think is needed for people in the church today as it relates to engaging with culture?

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders: I would encourage folks to stop thinking in terms like “the church” and “the culture.” When there are so many different cultures and Christianities at work in the world, these words most often serve as a whitewashing shorthand. This language also creates a binary, which often privileges church over culture even if caretaking language is present. I’d challenge all of us doing this work to think about how our contexts influence what we define as church, culture, or even art. Churches can be an expression of cultures and vice versa, and we need to become comfortable with muddying the water a bit.

Shannon Sigler: Our people need to learn how to sit in discomfort, lament, and uncertainty for the sake of the marginalized. Our artists can teach us how to sit in these spaces as an act of formation, prayer, and justice.

Rob Johnston: Humility. C. S. Lewis wrote, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Lewis realized that engaging art is not so much an act of communication as it is an experience of communion.

Eugene Suen: I think it’s important that Christians don’t think of “church” and “culture” as wholly distinct entities wherein “culture” becomes an arena to be conquered—by a church that views itself as a purifying force. That kind of dichotomous thinking is a little too simplistic. No church is wholly sanctified, just as no culture is totally secularized and devoid of the Spirit. Christians need the world to minister to them as much as they need to minister to the world. When we engage in a spirit of openness and grace, I believe God will guide us along the way.

Simeon Sham: We need to learn to listen well, with a posture of humility and curiosity. God is at work—speaking and moving in ways and with different communities that might surprise us.

What are you excited about for the future of worship and the arts in the church?

Shannon Sigler: I’m excited to see pastors and artists embrace adaptive change in a post-COVID world. I’m excited to see how we find solutions to problems that are more expansive and embodied than in the past. I’m excited to find ways of discipling all of our senses in worship, for the sake of the world.

Ed Willmington: In corporate worship, I’m excited for the widening band of leaders who are interested in not just picking some songs but for studying worship, studying theology, and studying the arts. In their study, they are finding effective structures to be pastorally caring, theologically complete, desiring to be spiritually formed, culturally aware, liturgically sensible, and artistically gifted. Those kinds of leaders of worship give me hope!

Caitlyn Ference-Saunders: I am encouraged when I see Christian folks reckoning with their inherited cultures through their own practices of worship and art making. One of the few gifts social media offered during the pandemic has been witnessing others work out their beliefs and theologies in public. Accounts like @blackliturgies and
@prayersfromterry are doing the important work of interpreting faith into our particular cultural moment, and that to me is an art-filled act of worship.

Simeon Sham: I believe that worship and the arts in the church is moving away from the “concert” back to the “cathedral.” In a noisy world, there is a communal desire for that sense of awe, wonder, and invitation that will make a deep impact in worship. In a time of pain and confusion, the artists will lead the church prophetically in the way forward.

Dea Jenkins: In the wake of the pandemic, I am excited that people are seeking to define new social rhythms and standards. We are in the midst of an incredible transition. I hope people realize that we have a great deal of power and influence over what the cumulative results of that transition will look like. The power of the arts rests in art’s capacity to stretch our collective imagination. If the church is able to embrace this, we can lean into this unfolding era by allowing new and creative leaders to help us imagine future possibilities.

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