Participating in a community for artists is crucial if we want the “pyramid” of our lives to become stable. Part of the instability we experience comes from identity issues. Honestly, I tried to identify and get rid of my identity issues on my own for years, but I found that I could not make much progress. I discovered that I needed loving, nonjudgmental people around me to form those strong knots instead of rot. I needed close friends who could see the blind spots in my life that I could not see for myself. I needed a safe place where love replaced the perfectionism and negative competition that surrounded me as an artist and as a person.
Now, I have been blessed to have led several small groups and have hosted gatherings in my home for young artists affiliated with Northwestern University as part of my work with InterVarsity Arts Ministry. In the rest of this article, I will share what I have learned about what makes people feel comfortable and safe. And while I speak as a Jesus follower, these principles can be applied to any spiritual context.
What it looks like
A healthy community is a welcoming place. For our discussions, I personally choose to leave the front door open, so folks don’t even have to ring the doorbell to get in. I want everyone to feel from the very first moment that they belong—that they are not a visitor, but are at home.
These get-togethers almost always begin with some food. The food doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should always seem like a celebration of our being together, not just another meal or snack.
Often community members bring something: homemade cookies or brownies are always welcome. And whether it’s a sit-down lunch or a stand-up snack, this time should not be planned for serious discussion. A community needs informal and relaxed space to get to know one another on a personal level.
After a half hour of informal food and conversation, we begin a time of discussion—usually for an hour and a half. If our discussion lasts only an hour, it can subconsciously feel like a class or even a church service. We do not want an environment where the participants expect to just sit and listen (as in a typical class or church service); we want to stimulate active and practical discussion. Our desire is to offer a safe place where artists can process what’s really going on in their lives, without the performance anxiety and judgment often present in the arts world. Our discussions thrive when there is an atmosphere of both calmness and honesty. Some say our groups are like a mini-retreat, a place away from the pressures of our daily lives.
how to get started: have a party
Lots of visitors come to our arts welcome dinners. These are offered at the first of each season or academic term and don’t have any formal discussion. We do tell the visitors about our upcoming discussions, however, and ask them if there are subjects that they would like to discuss, especially about areas that connect our art, our practical lives, and our faith. We encourage newcomers to attend the first discussion in the series to see if they like what we’re doing. If it doesn’t seem right for them, they are free to not come back. If they want to participate, we ask them to commit to attend all of the remaining four to six weekly discussions. If a person has to miss one, then another participant will meet with them midweek to make up the missed session. The commitment is important: it says to everyone in the community that what we’re discussing is important and valuable. A community that functions well is a place where each person can serve others, but also be served; can celebrate others, but also be celebrated; can love others, but also be loved.
the role of the leader
My role as the discussion leader is to ask stimulating questions and to listen carefully to the answers, not to teach or preach. The first question in any discussion should be one that everyone can easily answer; it’s important that everyone starts talking, not just the extroverts. A good example of a first question would be, “What do you believe is the purpose of art?” I quickly say, “There are no right or wrong answers to this question. I’m just interested in what comes to your mind.”
Then I have everyone turn to the person next to them (groups of two) and share whatever they’re thinking about. There is often a lot of animated talk and even some laughter for the two or three minutes while these small groups share.
During this time, I look carefully for a group that is having a very energetic conversation. Then, after calling the entire larger group back together, I say to someone from that animated group, “Joe, what were you just saying to Susan?” This gets the discussion for the whole group started quickly because I’m not asking for volunteers (which is often followed by an embarrassing silence), I’m simply asking someone to repeat what they were just saying. I may need to caution people that we’re looking for thirty-second responses, not five-minute sermonettes. Everyone in a healthy family has a voice, and we need to make room for all.
I continue to help the discussion by asking follow-up questions. “Did some of you mention the same idea as Joe?” or “Kate, how do you react to Joe’s comment?” Sometimes I’ll paraphrase the answer and inquire, “Is that what you mean?” If someone says something foundational or especially truthful, I’ll repeat that statement or even write it on a flip chart. This says to each person in the group that the leader is really listening to them—each voice is being heard.
Especially at the first meeting of a new group, I want to make sure that they understand that I am not functioning as a lecturer. I’ll say, “I’m a pretty informal person. Is it okay if we have a discussion?” The group always says yes, and then I’ll sit down in front of them which psychologically gives them a different picture than a leader standing behind a podium or a music stand.
the content of the discussions
We’ve spoken before about how the arts can be enormously useful in stimulating experiential learning. The best questions often lead to the individuals living in the story themselves, not just looking at the story as a distant observer collecting some information. Experiential learning is often the key to that happening. If we only learn at the head level (gathering information mentally), we will likely forget a lot. If we learn through our own experience, at the heart and gut level, we will probably remember for a long time.
So here is an example of a discussion that involves the arts, our imaginations, and lots of opportunities for experiential learning:
The following true story is about what happens when a person does something wrong. As you read it, even if you’ve heard the story before, imagine that you are hearing it for the first time. Or even better than that, imagine that you are one of the onlookers on the street as the story unfolds—perhaps on your way to the grocery store—and you happen to be crossing the street just as this happens in front of you.
They all went home [to sleep]. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
They all went home [to sleep]. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts [in Jerusalem], where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts [in Jerusalem], where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.John 7:53; 8:1-11
When I lead a group discussion about this amazing story, I read it aloud after everyone has read it quietly to themselves. I encourage each person to close their eyes as they listen and imagine that they were actually present as this was happening. What did the scene look like? What surprises you? Amazes you? Confuses you?
I also say that I will pause for ten or fifteen seconds in certain places, to give them time to envision what was going on. Then I say, “There are no right or wrong answers, I’m just interested in what jumps out at you.”
After listening, I tell them to turn to a neighbor, forming groups of two. I urge each person to share their personal reaction to the story with their partner. After three or four minutes, I call the whole group back together, and ask several people to share what they were just saying. Several things are always mentioned. Why was Jesus writing in the dirt? And what was he writing? Why were the oldest people the first to leave? Why did Jesus go to the Mount of Olives when the others went home to sleep? What is the trap that the religious leaders set to catch Jesus?
During this time, it is helpful to give the group some background information about the story, telling what had happened just before this scene begins. I’ll explain that Jesus has been telling people that forgiveness comes from him, not from sacrificing animals at the Temple. This infuriates the Temple leaders. The day before, they had sent Temple guards out to arrest Jesus, but the guards were unsuccessful.
I also ask, “Who is in the cast?” This helps the group imagine what the scene looks like. Obviously, the woman and Jesus and the religious leaders are part of the action, but those who were listening to Jesus teach, almost certainly the disciples, as well as Temple guards and passers-by were also present.
As imaginations dig deeper into this story, someone invariably will ask, “But where was the man? She couldn’t be caught in the act of adultery if she was alone. Shouldn’t the man be stoned too?” More passionate comments will flow back and forth about this poor woman, no matter her age, who has probably been “set up” by the authorities. Oftentimes, a participant in the discussion will ask, “Were the religious leaders willing to have this woman be killed just to trap Jesus into a lose-lose situation, by forcing him to speak against the Law of Moses?”
The next step in the discussion is to look at how Jesus avoided the trap for both himself and the woman, by asking a question instead of answering the one asked him. Many interesting ideas emerge about possible answers to the questions mentioned earlier, but the important personal application happens now. I ask, “Who do you identify with in this story?” I am not afraid to say that there have been times when I have been like the judgmental religious leaders and other times when I have made lots of mistakes, I feel exactly like the woman. I also ask, “What do you think Jesus might have been feeling during this very difficult scene?”
Since the discussion group artists are now deeply and personally involved in this wild story, I ask them to take some quiet time to allow God the opportunity to speak to them. I always print and hand out copies of the Scripture we discuss because I never want to embarrass a visitor who might not have a Bible. I ask them to look over the story again and see if there is a word or a phrase that seems especially important or significant to them. Sometimes I will read the story aloud again, allowing the emotions and the meaning of the subtext to sink into each person’s heart.
Then I say, “Take the paper with the printed story and turn it over to the blank side. Write down the significant word or brief phrase you’ve chosen. Use your imaginations as artists and add to that word in any way that’s appropriate for you.”
It’s important to allow ten or more minutes for this creative activity. Some artists write poetry that comes to them, others sketch figures. Musicians may hear some music—perhaps a classical symphony theme or a pop song or something that they compose on the spot. Dancers may feel movement and imagine choreography. Film and video people may imagine a script for a documentary or see images that could be recorded. This exercise is not about producing great finished art. It is about allowing God to speak to our sensitive hearts through the unique sensitive gift of communication he has given to each of us artists.
Often the members of the discussion are eager to share, starting in groups of two, what has emerged on their papers and in their imaginations. This opportunity to be creative is a big step in experiential learning too. Please do not skip this last step, because it is so important. After that, I ask the final crucial questions: “What have you just learned about God and Jesus, and what have you learned about yourself?” It may also be good to ask, “Are there some things you want to change in your life as a result of this story?” More quiet time is needed to allow each person to process these final questions. Because deep trust has been established in the community, I then ask people to regroup with their original partner and to pray out loud for one another. Each person can mention a place or two where prayer is needed, and the partner can then pray with whatever spontaneous words come to mind.
Sometimes, artists will ask to stay after the official time is over, to talk about what they have experienced and to ask for additional prayer.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said many profound things. Among them was:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Creating an artists’ community where deep mutual trust and safety are present is crucial in order for life transformation to happen. Many artists live in a dark and highly judgmental competitive world, and they desperately yearn for a place of light and genuine love. Unless that safe place is established first, the experiential-learning discussion just described will not have much impact. When an artist is encouraged to actually live in a rich story with God and with Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, the artist can change from the inside out. This is our goal: genuine freedom for artists to be who God created them to be, and to then go into the world communicating about light and love.