A Church Arts Ministry in an Urban Setting

The decades-old trend of fleeing the city for suburban life has perhaps roused many young adults to return to the excitement of the city. Perhaps idealized by Friends and Sex in the City, this reverse migration has also been generated by the lure of the creative class. In his 2002 book, Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida posits how economic growth flows from places that are “tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity.”[1] Indeed, cities offer the highest concentration of creative resources, know-how, and diverse cultural experiences.

As the trend towards urban life continues, the church must be willing to encourage and theologically equip such a movement. In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society Lesslie Newbigin argues how we must welcome aspects of a pluralistic society without taking on its ideology. Why? Newbigin believes “it provides…a wider range of experience and a wider diversity of human responses to experience, and therefore richer opportunities for testing”[2] (and expanding) our faith. Additionally, John Dewey reminds us that the “taking in” of any vital experience involves a breaking down of prior perceptions in order to accommodate the new.[3] This means the city and its culture contributes to Gospel transformation as we continually die to self and become renewed, not just in our thinking, but also the way we go about living.

With this in mind what can a church offer artists surrounded by both the wonderful and difficult encounters of the city? The Redeemer arts ministry housed in the Center For Faith & Work (CFW) has tried to answer this question since its inception more than eight years ago under the direction of Luann Jennings.

Here is what has been implemented: We facilitate monthly vocation groups where practitioners from various disciplines come together and examine how their faith shapes their craft. We install art exhibitions, produce literary magazines, sponsor a 48 hour film project. Kenyon Adams does an extraordinary job of coordinating our quarterly InterArts Fellowship where guests like the songstress Brooke Waggoner, New York City Ballet principal dancer Jenifer Ringer, conductor Ken-David Masur, and tap dancing Ted Fellow Andrew Nemr help artists discover how faith transforms art and art transforms faith. Yet even these worthy programs can feel like just another big event in the saturated market of NYC, bigger is not necessarily better.

Just like Jesus and his followers, our richest experiences happen in a small group. In 2010 we developed In the Living Room, our faith and art study that brings 20-25 artists together for seven-weeks in a host’s living room (finding a NYC apartment large enough is our biggest challenge). Echoing James Fenhagen’s four ministry functions,[4] In the Living Room seeks to:

    1. Become the place to tell God’s story and for participants to share their stories by showcasing their work.
    2. Bear witness to the value of the Gospel and the arts through theological presentations and shared discussions.
    3. Help artists understand their creative role as participants and builders of community.
    4. Emphasize the Christian Spiritual journey as corporate.

We weren’t meant to test our faith in this pluralistic society alone. The CFW arts ministry desires to provide space through our programming for the exchange of ideas and the sharing of glimpses of God at work in the city.  Through these ongoing conversations it’s been exciting to witness artists correlate their creative experiences with the Gospel.


Maria Fee has worked as an arts ministry coordinator in the Center For Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church for the last five years. She holds a Masters in both Painting and Theological Studies and will commence her PhD studies at Fuller Theological Seminary this fall.   


[1] Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. xxviii.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 243-244.

[3] John Dewey, Art As Experience (NY: Penguin, 1934), p42.

[4] John Patton, Pastoral Care in Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 91.

5 Comments

  • Elizabeth Roberts says:

    The Church of Scotland’s arts centre in Edinburgh is now simply called ‘The Scottish Storytelling Centre’ and The Netherbow theatre, in a complex of old buildings on the Royl Mile including John Knox House

  • Elizabeth Winder Noyes says:

    I’m attracted to the idea of forming a community of artists you mentioned, a community that nurtures the connection between Christian and aesthetic practice in a parish. What kind of response do you have from parishioners and a secular audience used to the enticing entertainments of New York?

    • Maria Fee says:

      The overwhelming response we have towards the enticements of NY is the absence of a response. At times we are disappointed by our small attendance numbers. We frequently get great feedback from our events and people articulate they want more, but New Yorkers are extremely overworked and busy. This is especially true of artists who hold two jobs: artist and whatever else pays the rent. Freelancers must take whatever job is offered, thus, making consistent Christian fellowship very difficult. Our best attempt at cohesion is the seven-week, short term faith and art study.

  • elizabeth winder noyes says:

    Thank you. The idea of a short term faith and art study that engages both artists and parishioners is attractive. I’m looking forward to having conversations with others, artists or non-artists on the possibility of a similar study session. ewn

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