Art and faith converge at a hybrid church/community arts center
Worship at Convergence takes many forms, including this Bible study and collage-making event.
Photos by Suzanne Rossi
Art shapes faith and faith shapes art at Convergence, a combination church and arts center that makes space for the creative exploration that artists crave -- and the church needs.
Shortly after 5 p.m. on a Sunday in early March, about 20 adults gather around a long table in a gallery space in Alexandria, Virginia. Before them are scissors, glue sticks, pastels and colored pencils, and nearby, stacks of old magazines.
For the next hour and a half, they cut and paste and color, making collages and talking about what brings them joy, everything from quiet walks in the woods to tables full of oysters and beer.
It’s not an art class. It’s Sunday worship at Convergence, an alternative faith community that is both church and arts center. This week, the gathering (“service” seems too formal a word) is a creative Bible study. The Rev. Lisa Cole Smith, the pastor and artistic director, sets the tone with a verse from Matthew -- “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:16 NIV).
Under the guidance of Anita Breitenberg, an artist and Convergence member, the participants flip through old sheet music and outdated issues of National Geographic, Savory, Motor Trend and other magazines, clipping images and phrases that illustrate joy:
A school of dolphins. Towering redwoods. A peaceful shoreline. Jude Law’s come-hither gaze.
The gathering is the first in what will be a yearlong series, “Practicing the Presence of God.” Every other Sunday, members will explore artistic and spiritual practices that can help them see beauty in the ordinary. Bringing together faith and art, it’s a typical event at Convergence. In the decade since the church was founded as a restart for a struggling Baptist congregation, visual arts, dance, music, poetry and theater have informed virtually every act of worship -- and much else of the community’s life together.
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Today, Convergence still takes seriously its roles as both church and community arts center. In addition to the worship and discipleship groups that make it “church,” Convergence provides affordable practice, performance and studio space for musicians, dancers, drama troupes and visual artists of all kinds.
The point isn’t to lure artists into church; opening their doors to artists is simply what Convergence feels called to do.
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“Because of our relationship with God and because the work they’re doing is important, we feel compelled to support them,” said Smith, who worked as an actress and director before attending seminary and founding Convergence.
Art and faith
Smith has always felt connected to God, she said, and in theater, she experienced many of the same feelings she’d had in church. Both evoked a sense of community and working toward something greater than oneself, she said. But artists are by nature inquisitive, and Smith worried that conventional churches often don’t make space for the kind of creative exploration that artists crave. At Convergence, art provides a springboard for spiritual exploration -- and vice versa.
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Artists often feel as though their own beliefs and views don’t fit well with church, but in their art they inevitably think about and wrestle with important issues, Smith said.
“I believe artists have something to say into this spiritual realm,” she said. “The perspective of artists is as valuable as any product they might produce. We need a sense of imagination to show that God is at work in the world.”
Convergence is one of a dozen innovative congregations highlighted in “Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities,” by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. The authors applaud Convergence and the other churches for finding new ways to help Christians explore their faith, connect with God and impact their communities.
“Convergence is a community of people who not only value creativity, they see it as inseparable from spirituality,” the authors wrote. “They believe that imagination, creativity, and the arts are spiritual matters and their cultivation is of benefit to the church, the local community and the world.”
The congregation is eclectic. Like Smith, some members have an extensive background in the arts; others may never have considered themselves artistic but appreciate the freedom of expression that comes with the church’s creative and inclusive worship style. Whether in Sunday gatherings or in small discipleship groups, people are encouraged to share as little or as much as they want. No question is considered too off-the-wall or inappropriate.
“We get to know each other quite deeply,” said Stephanie Mass, a former middle school social worker. “It creates a feeling of safety and community. The church I was at before -- they’d want instant change, instant conversion. That doesn’t really work. The way we do church allows for deeper relationships. We’re allowing ourselves to be known.”
That atmosphere of safety and community was evident at the collage-making event in March. The participants were relaxed and jovial as they pieced together their creations. Smith encouraged everyone to trust their instincts: “Go with your gut.”
Art of paying attention
“Attentiveness, the art of paying attention, is really what the arts are most equipped to teach us,” Smith told the group. “Attentiveness is about learning to pay attention to our deepest impulses, noting a color, a shape, a feeling, an image. So collage is a really great way to get started on this journey to attentiveness.”
As the evening drew to a close, the artists talked about their designs, and soon the discussion roamed far beyond images of serene landscapes, birds in flight and gourmet food. The collages prompted a host of questions: How do you live fearlessly? Where do you hear God’s voice the clearest? What are you being called to do? How do you intend to answer that call?
Creating art -- or anything else -- almost always takes you to unexpected places, said Kathy Prudden, a licensed clinical social worker and expressive arts therapist who attends Convergence.
“When you create, you bring something into being which is more than what you intended it to be,” she said. “It takes us somewhere. It changes how we interact with the world. The act of creating changes us. I think the arts are a way for God to really enter in.”
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A core group of about 40 people attend worship at Convergence. Because musicians and other performers routinely work on Saturday nights, the “service” is held on Sundays at 5 p.m.
The first and third Sundays are reserved for creative Bible study, when members wrestle with biblical themes such as conflict and forgiveness, doubt and belief, redemption and social justice, by engaging in role playing, composing haiku, studying famous works of art or, as in the March event, creating artwork of their own.
Second Sundays feature a contemplative Taizé service, sometimes with an instrumental meditation performed by musicians in the congregation. And the fourth Sunday is marked by a celebratory potluck dinner where members socialize and tackle hard questions: What are you hungry for spiritually? What do you reach for when that hunger strikes? When and how is that hunger satisfied?
All of it feels very egalitarian. Though Smith often opens the gatherings with a welcome and scripture, all are invited to participate, get their hands dirty and explore what God is calling them to do and how they will respond.
Blank canvas of improv
Improvisation is an essential part of that process, said Karen Swenholt, a professional sculptor who has a studio at Convergence and several pieces in its sculpture garden.
“What Lisa [Smith] does is very brave, because she kind of steps out almost as if on a blank canvas,” Swenholt said. “Then, she lets God participate in what happens. She doesn’t hyper control what happens.”
Because Smith encourages that kind of freedom and movement, unexpected moments take place, where people are clearly affected by what’s happening in the room, Swenholt said.
Several members said they had felt stifled in more traditional churches but feel encouraged and affirmed at Convergence. Rita Hadley recalled coming home in tears after small group members at her former church immediately rejected a topic she had raised for discussion.
“I need the freedom to follow God the way I hear God calling me,” she said. “At Convergence, you have the freedom to hear what God is saying to you rather than what you’re told God is saying to you. People aren’t afraid to feel vulnerable and real.”
Traditional worship services can be powerful and engaging for those who know and understand the script, Smith said. But they typically lack the immersive, experiential piece that is an integral part of the gatherings at Convergence. Traditional worship is often not very good at explaining the why behind the rituals or very willing to explore that why with worshipers, she said.
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“If it’s become rote, that’s different from when everybody’s present and really calling on God to be in the midst of that,” she said. “I’m somebody [for whom] being a passive participant is not very engaging. A lot of artists are definitely that way. They want to know the whole puzzle and get their hands into everything.”
From ‘theater kid’ to pastor
A self-described “theater kid” in high school, Smith studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University and then moved to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue her acting career. Seeking “roles that mattered,” she spent four years touring with the Covenant Players, a professional theater company that performs Christian-themed works at venues around the globe.
While on tour, Smith noticed that the shows often evoked a strong response in audience members, even those who weren’t Christians. She wondered whether drama might be a ministry of its own, a way to deliver messages that a traditional sermon could not.
After returning to Virginia where her parents lived, Smith spent four years studying the intersection of art and faith at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, founded a theater group, and consulted with local pastors on how to embrace creative worship. When she graduated in 2006 with an M.T.S. degree, she thought she might continue working with her theater group or pursue a doctorate.
“It never even crossed my mind to be a pastor,” she said.
That’s when a committee from the 60-year-old Fair-Park Baptist Church approached her. After years of decline, the congregation had voted to explore a complete restart. The committee wanted to know, was she interested in establishing a new vision for the church?
“To their credit, it was a real faith thing,” Smith said. “I created this crazy vision, and they said yes, and then we had to figure out how to make that happen.”
The first item on Smith’s list was partnering with local artists to provide affordable space for everything from photo exhibits and theater productions to dance recitals and all-ages do-it-yourself punk shows. While a church service might attract 20 to 30 people, roughly 200 visit Convergence each week to take a class, view an exhibit, enjoy a play or hear a live band.
Under the church’s new “Hope Through Beauty” project, launched earlier this year, Convergence plans to link local nonprofits with artists willing to volunteer their services. For instance, several Convergence members lead children in art projects at a monthly food distribution organized by an Alexandria shelter and child development center.
When it began, Convergence was given five years to become self-sustaining, and in 2011, trustees for the former Fair-Park Baptist made good on their promise, deeding the building and property to the new congregation. About half of the church’s revenue comes from member support; the rest is generated by renting space to artists and an Anglican congregation that meets in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.
Demand for space in the building is high, and sometimes the church books itself out of its own home. On a recent Sunday, a citywide high school art exhibit filled the gallery while theater productions were underway in the sanctuary and another large space. As a result, the congregation held its monthly potluck celebration in the nearby home of Smith and her husband, Jay, a musician and composer. The couple married in 2012 and have a 2-year-old daughter.
A member of the Convergence staff since 2009, Jay Smith serves as Convergence’s “cultural architect,” helping ensure that the church’s many initiatives fit within its mission, integrating faith, life and work for members and unleashing imagination and creativity.
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Church, he said, has a vital role to play in creating culture and must be involved in that process “at its inspiration, at its creation, not catching up at the end.”
“We need to support these kids, these bands playing in their basements,” he said. “We need to start loving them, nurturing them, understanding them and helping them understand themselves, so when they get into Rolling Stone or MOMA, even if they’re not Christians, they’re not saying, ‘Church was destructive to me’ but rather, ‘It loved me.’”
Dan Abh came to Convergence in 2009, seeking a venue for a punk music and arts festival he was organizing. “Atheist and anti-institutional” at the time, Abh had spent years helping local DIY musicians find places to rehearse and perform. He said he felt immediately at ease with Jay Smith, who asked him something no one else had: “Why do you care?”
“I told him when I was growing up, I never had anything like that, and I got into some trouble,” Abh said. “I firmly, firmly believe young people need a creative outlet, and Jay was wanting the same thing.”
For three years, Abh ran Convergence’s program for young artists as a volunteer, hosting shows, open-mic nights and festivals featuring emerging bands, but he never set foot inside the church’s sanctuary. After losing his two closest friends and his grandfather in a six-month period, a distraught Abh decided to attend a small discipleship group meeting, just to check it out. Worried what his friends in the DIY community would think, he didn’t tell them -- or even his then-girlfriend.
But the congregation was supportive, and Abh said he increasingly felt called to be there. In 2012, he traded his longtime job as a store training manager at Trans World Entertainment for a part-time gig as the janitor at Convergence, and in 2015, he became its community coordinator.
“We’re a moving church. We’re not sterile,” said Abh, who was baptized last Easter. “Most of the things I’ve learned about spirituality are not from reading anything but from those interactive Bible studies. Those have the most impact on me. I take huge, monumental steps in the space of 45 minutes, and you can feel it. You can really, really feel it.”
Convergence has a focus on healing, development and action, Jay Smith said. The arts provide a means for moving people “past brokenness,” encouraging them to develop spiritually and challenging them to share their gifts with the world. After a decade, that culture has taken hold at Convergence, and is manifested in the way the congregation engages authentically with each other and the surrounding community, he said.
Prudden, the art therapist, said much the same.
“At Convergence, there’s a lot of room for being different,” she said. “Here’s a place where you can be your funky artist self and it’s OK. We’re unabashedly Christian. We just go about it in another way.”