Church After Mars Hill with Dr. Chelle Stearns | Podcast Season 04, Episode 07
In this episode of “Church After Mars Hill,” host Joel Kiekintveld is joined by Dr. Chelle Stearns to focus on the intersection of art, expression, and theology within the modern Western church.
Many churches invest heavily in elements like worship teams, video production, and visual presentations. However, this often lends itself to one-way communication, prioritizing the leaders and visuals at the front of the room, rather than fostering genuine community-building and open conversations among the congregation.
The conversation centers on the modern church’s tendency to view art and worship in a consumer-oriented manner, rather than tapping into their potential to create communal connections.
What if we shifted away from using artistic expression as a transactional or manipulative tool, solely flowing from the stage to the congregation? What if, instead, we invited a communal expression of art, beauty, and wonder – even when it challenges our established beliefs?
By embracing art as a means of encountering the divine, deepening spirituality, and embracing the diverse expressions of beauty within our congregations, churches can create more meaningful and transformative experiences for their congregants and the community they serve.
About our guest:
Dr. Chelle Stearns is a theologian whose teaching and research engage theology, the arts, and culture. She
has a background as a worship pastor and musician. She often teaches at the intersection of gender,
sexuality, race, faith, and trauma, and has a passion for exploring theologies that not only enlighten but also heal.
About this season’s host:
Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. a Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. For 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.
Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.
Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.
- Read works referenced in this conversation: The Return Of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen; The Pastor in the Secular Age by Andrew Root; The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas
- View Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son
- If you are a Christian leader or pastor seeking a space for support, growth, and transformation for yourself or for your team, we invite you to participate in one of our cohort programs, called a Circle. To learn more and to get on the waitlist to be notified when our next Circle is offered, click here.
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Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast, where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and a higher good. This season we are discussing Church After Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld.
In the introduction to Henri Nouwen’s book The Return Of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen offers a glimpse inside his experience of Visio Divina, or divine seeing, of Rembrandt’s painting Prodigal Son. Visio Divina is the visual version of the more well-known cousin lectio Divina. In lectio Divina, or divine reading, the reader or readers of a scriptural text read the passage multiple times seeking to uncover deeper meaning by repeated consideration of the text. In Visio Divina, a painting, or some other form of visual art, is observed thoughtfully and with intention as a way to contemplate a deeper meaning.
Nouwnen tells the story of being captivated by Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son first from a co-worker’s poster. Nouwen says his heart jumped when he first saw it and that in the months following this first seeing, “Rembrandt’s embrace remained imprinted on my soul far more profoundly than any temporary expression of emotional support.”
Two years later, Nouwen was on a trip to the Soviet Union when a friend arranged for him to view Rembrandt’s original painting, housed in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Nouwen took the opportunity seriously and wrote of the experience: “Altogether, I spent more than four hours with the Prodigal Son, taking notes about what I heard the guides and the tourists say, about what I experienced in my innermost being as I become more and more a part of the story that Jesus once told and Rembrandt once painted.” Nouwen wondered what the fruit of this prolonged viewing might be.
In the time that followed the painting stayed with Nouwen in a deep way. He wrote,
“The more I spoke of the Prodigal Son, the more I came to see it somehow as my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story of God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story I want to tell to God and God’s people.
All of the gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends are there. The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God. It is like a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into the odd assortment of people and events that make up my daily life.” In short, Rembrandt’s painting became a transcendent experience for Nouwen guiding him closer to the reality of God.
My experience over the years is that churches in our contemporary moment use art and visuals in a different way than from what Nouwen experienced. Often a graphic is put together for a sermon series or season that is not intended to be transcendent, but more of a marketing piece. The images put behind the projected lyrics to praise songs often add little to the experience.
I’ve been in churches that have hung projection screens in places that block stained glass windows or other aspects of the art and architecture of the building. It feels to me that too often that art is disposable, transactional and anything but transcendent. Mars Hill Church leaned hard into art and media in its approach to church. They often used the arts to manipulate emotions and market the church. The budget for things like media was high, but in the end, did those works of art serve as a gateway to the divine – wooing us back into the deeper mystery of God – or as an advertisement for the church and its misguided culture? If a piece of art can transform a life, like it did Nouwens’s, perhaps there is a way to use the arts that draw us deeper into God rather than just being ephemeral, or even manipulative tool. My guest on this episode is Dr. Chelle Sterns. We will be talking about the intersection between art and theology. Here is our conversation.
Chelle, welcome to the podcast. The first question that I always ask is just to have the guests introduce themselves however they would like.
Chelle Stearns: Well, it’s good to be here, Joel. My name Chelle Stearns and I teach at The Seattle School in Seattle, Washington. And I don’t know– what are things that people need to know? I’m always bad at these things to let people know who I am. I’m a theologian, I’m a musician. I play violin. I am a classical musician, so that tends to put me in a particular kind of category, but I also have this kind of habit of hanging out with artists and really loving not only visual art, but performing arts in all sorts of ways. So in fact, I was just hanging out with a visual artist and a hip hop artist this last weekend at a conference, and so I’m not a typical theologian, I guess.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, that leads me to kind of the first question I have for you. You’ve taught for years at this intersection between theology and art, and that may not be a natural connection for some listeners. So I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what does that intersection look like? Where do art and theology meet at least in your world?
Chelle Stearns: Again, I don’t think I’m a typical person because I tend to be, like, but I did really grow up in a world that was quite suspicious of artists and not quite sure what to do. I remember having a conversation at one point when I was a young adult by this point, and I’d come back to my church to do an internship in music ministry, and I was having this conversation with an older woman in my church, and I wanted us to do Vivaldi’s Gloria or something like that. And I was like, oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful? And here’s a woman that had sung in the choir and done a lot of things, and she just looked at me and went, “No, I don’t think I would like that.” And so I think I grew up in a place that was a little suspicious of anything that was a little bit too high of art or chall–wasn’t normal to listen to or see or understand.
They wanted something that was straightforward because in some ways scripture was straightforward. There was a plain meaning to the text there. So there should be a plain meaning to the art that we engage. So I think I have found in kind of being at this intersection between music and theology and art and theology, is that often what people are trying to do is have a wonder about what beauty does to us. How are we changed by beauty? How does beauty cause us to stop and in some ways see otherwise, not just challenge us about culture, but challenge us about our own spirituality and who God is? How deep is the love of God for us? And that’s often the heart of artists wondering: how do we see God anew or how do we see each other anew and not just be stuck in our old ways of thinking?
Joel Kiekintveld: Do you think some of that skepticism around art and artists that shows up in some areas of the church, do you think some of that is because those streams of Christianity have had such a strong focus on certainty and not necessarily this idea of drawing someone into wonder, it’s been more about having the right answer, having very certain concrete things written down and not the idea of wonder? Or do you think there’s something else that drives that?
Chelle Stearns: I think it’s a great question cause I think maybe this is why I became a theologian, to wrestle with some of those things because I mean, I’m from a small town in Oregon, and some people kind of refer to it as a small Bible belt in southern Oregon. And in some ways, yes, certainty, having a good sense of the plain meaning of the text, being in a Bible-preaching church. And then there were these other times where spirituality was filled with awe and wonder. And so there’s a complexity to that, and a complexity to how people wanted to know God, and how they did know God, but at the same time, a suspicious approach or suspicious posture toward anyone that came and gave a different interpretation than what they knew.
And my fear is that, well, the best of it, is that it was a great place to grow up and to learn to love scripture. And I still do. It’s still where my imagination is really filled and fed. At its worst, it means that you’re suspicious of anyone that has something different than you. So that idea of any kind of ambiguity or any kind of shift in interpretation, whether it be culturally, whether it be biblical biblically, it means that they didn’t quite fit into that understanding of how things were maintained. Not just a homeostasis, but a sense of: this is where the safe reading of the text exists. So artists tend to come in and they open all the doors and they open all the windows and they change all the furniture. And people are like, wait a second, this is not how we do this. And at the same time for others they’re like, oh, you see me? Oh, there’s something. There’s more room to breathe. And I think that’s where in some ways there’s life in between those two extremes of, I’m going to change everything. I’m not going to change anything, sort of certainty–because there’s a certainty on both sides
Feeling like the way you’re doing this must be the right way. And maybe in my own theological and musical training, it’s like, well, mystery seemed to be the thing that always guided me. And so it’s not just wonder and awe, it’s more of like a, well, God will eventually reveal God’s self and maybe I shouldn’t make a judgment about who God is too quickly.
Joel Kiekintveld: Interesting.
Chelle Stearns: I would also never preach at my old church, but, you know, hey.
Joel Kiekintveld: Technicalities, right?
Chelle Stearns: Yeah.
Joel Kiekintveld: I’m going to ask kind of an unfair question, I think, and that is in my sense of, and I’m not either a church historian or is well versed in that intersection that we’re talking about here of art and theology, but in my sense, the church has used sort of visual art and music and art of all types throughout in different ways. But in the current environment, my experience has been that art is used in much more kind of transactional or ephemeral ways, kind of throwing a graphic up on a slideshow or those type of things, or used as a hook to get people through the door, those type of things. So the unfair question here is: Could you kind of give an overview or a little bit of a thumbnail sketch for folks of how art has been used in the church over the years, because that feels like a pretty big shift? And even thinking about my background growing up in the Reform church, very not much art in the sanctuary, very plain, but then going into Anglican churches or Catholic churches or whatever when I was in England last summer, it’s almost like sensory overload. So two different ways of handling how you use at least visual art. So I’d love to hear a little bit about what’s the history of how the church has thought about this?
Chelle Stearns: Yeah, that’s an unfair question and a huge question. Well,
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, you could write a thesis on it, right?
Chelle Stearns: Yeah, there’s many, many books. Well, I think in some ways you’re talking about a current church in some ways that’s a very, very dominant culture, has a sense of its place in the culture, has really prescribed ways of being, and then being able to cherry-pick in some sense the kinds of things that can be, draw people in and attract them. Whereas I’ll just start with the early church–visual art was really used as a marker for this is a safe space.
This is a place where you can come and worship and not be persecuted. This is where Christians have gathered and here are some of the ways that we can mark how it’s safe. Robin Jensen is a theologian, a church historian who does a lot of work with early Christian imagery, and a lot of this imagery that survived. But a lot of this imagery that was done was in places of the dead. It’s like in funerary. So in the catacombs, on funeral art and things like that, it was a way to mark in some sense, what were the core things of faith, which were things like resurrection, the possibility of life. So early art really was much more about this declaration of: this is a different kind of God. It was very theological and very, very purposeful. And this idea that we are baptized in Christ, so therefore this baptismal identity that we have is to stand up against evil, to stand up against the forces that come and try to destroy us. And so you have a lot of images of Christ baptized, you have a lot of images of Daniel in the lion’s den, of Noah being rescued from the flood. And so really they were encouraging images of: You will survive until tomorrow. And even if you are persecuted to the point of death, Christ will be there to meet you.
And so that’s the persecuted church, and the church that really had to rely on is this true or not? Is this a possible means to life? Whereas later on you have a church that is more powerful and has more money. And so in a lot of ways you get into especially the Middle Ages and church and churches used images for people who basically didn’t read. And so images were much more used to talk about the core Bible verses or the core Bible stories that really defined faith. And so, and whatever you put up was going to stay up for a long time. There wasn’t anything ephemeral. It was like, this is centuries that these stories will stay up. But even with that, you have often the face of a patron at the bottom of a paint painting or so power often snuck its way in, even at the point of having a theology of, visual theology of devotion. And yeah, this is the true way. And then there’d be, if you ever see a medieval painting and there’s two people on the bottom corner kneeling, they’re usually the ones that paid for the painting. And I’m always like, oh, okay, thank you. Now get off the set.
So you always see in some ways these little vestiges of our vanity or our weakness as human beings kind of sneaking in. But at the same time, these really important key theological frames of how did people really love Christ? How did people really worship God? And that’s what you see in a lot of the faith or in a lot of those kind of visual theologies too, is we haven’t even gotten to musical stuff. But the other thing that really shifted was a Christ that is resurrected even on the cross to a Christ who suffers on the cross for us, which was also a major shift that ends up happening. But again, you see each and each of these kind of moves, especially in church art, this question of, will God meet me here? What kind of prayer should I be offering up? And so the visual was typically that kind of pointer or marker of how God has shown up for other people. And so therefore that sense of, well, maybe God will show up here unexpectedly, even statues around Mary, I know Protestants are very suspicious of this, but I’ve heard a lot of people talk about, but Mary was me.
In some ways, Mary represents a woman in crisis, a woman who’s lost a child, a woman who doesn’t have a lot of power in society. She understands and she knows and she will pray for me. And I’m not advocating like praying to Mary or anything like that. I’m not a Catholic girl. But on the other hand, often when you see these saints, it’s that question of, again, will God show up for me when I’m in crisis, when I’m in joy, who will be there and bear witness? And so this is a very biblical concept, this kind of the great cloud of witnesses, you know, you see this, especially in the Orthodox Church, all the icons are there to represent the ones who have gone before and are around, they’re surrounding the throne of God. And so it’s not a weird thing to have images if you think of it especially that way, that they are the ones who are waiting for us.
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, it’s something that we’ve talked about in our faith community around the idea of borrowing faith. The idea that to look to those who’ve gone before, when my faith is weak, I can look at this person and say, oh, but God was with Daniel in the lion’s den to use that example, or God was with Mary. And you sort of borrow faith in that moment. Yeah, the Orthodox Church is amazing of having all of that have gone before sort of surrounding you. I can think of the Greek Orthodox Church here in town. Literally it surrounds you inside the auditorium. So you, you’re in a sense worshipping with all those who have gone before as well, which is just a powerful, powerful image. It’s interesting to me. So I want to stay with this history theme for just a moment, but it’s fascinating for me. So coming out of the reform tradition with the Reformation, so much of that is removed, and I wonder if the link there is, you had mentioned briefly that often in medieval times and so on, they were telling the story on the walls, on the outside, in the statutory, all of that stuff ,to an illiterate population.
And with the Reformation also comes wide access to printed material. So did that form part of the shift or was it more of this theological sense of –was just reading this with Andrew Root last night in The Pastor in the Secular Age talking about in medieval times and earlier, the sense was when you walked into the building, you were going into sacred space and this was different than the world outside. And for the reformers, the idea was that all of the world was sacred space, so therefore there was nothing special in a sense about the sanctuary or the church. I don’t know–those things with the shift there, what are your thoughts there? The shift that happens from in the reformation around kind of visual art in particular, but also music. I mean, you have people like Ulrich Zwingli chopping up organs and removing instruments from the church as well. So there’s definitely a shift musically as well.
Chelle Stearns: Yeah, like the different kinds of reformers that are there. Yeah, I’m always like, don’t go to the extreme ones, but I mean they did have an impact on the church. I think now we’re getting into issues of power, of how power was used to in some ways pay for these large spaces. And so, this is very a contemporary issue of how does power, money, commodity, transactionalness really impact how it is that we understand art, who has access to art. But early on, it’s like you’re paying for indulgences in order to be saved. Actually, it’s like you have all these kind of ways that the church is trying to gain money that is tied to basically keeping people away from faith, rather than in some sense, aren’t giving access to those who don’t have access to education, reading. But I do think that the printing press, speaking of even, like I think of it as an art artifact, when you have the Guggenheim press that is invented, all of a sudden you have much more access to the written word, to education.
It really shifts and transforms how it is that we’re thinking about the world, and the kind of power. I do think it’s interesting that with reformation or with that kind of shift, there’s also a sense of, we’re going to equalize power a bit. I mean, we could talk about the problems of that not happening, but a lot of people being educated, being taught how to read. Because we can now, instead of having art on the wall or a priest up in front of us, we now have access directly to the word of God. And that is radical, radical, radical, radical. And so in some sense where art turns is more toward literature. I think about, we were just talking about the saints that go before us. For me growing up, it was reading biographies of mostly missionaries. I might not have had the saints up on walls looking down on me, but I definitely was reading about all the people that maybe had sacrificed their life or had taken huge risks to spread the gospel.
And so again, coming back to the Middle Ages, who has access to that sort of equalizing freedom? And this becomes a bigger issue in the church of, when church leadership actually blocks the emancipation that is given through Christ in the spirit, we are always in trouble that no matter how that happens, whether we’re thinking through art or through word, through text. Whenever church leadership blocks access to the freedom promised in Christ, through the freedom promised through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we really are in a different conversation. And yet that is woven throughout our entire history as Christians of who has access to that liberative or really freeing. Paul talks a lot about though he’s in chains, he is free in Christ, though he’s oppressed, Christ actually sets him free. And so even in that kind of that access to what is possible in our faith, so is that only in the priests or is that in the reading of the word? And so, that’s, I think in some ways I think the reformers were mistaken though the arts and the cathedrals and all of that was conflated with money and power and the possibilities of what does our faith now give to us.
Joel Kiekintveld: As you were talking, one of the things that occurred to me is I heard Randy Woodley a number of years ago talk about the original sin of America, and he says, it’s not racism and it’s not in indigenous genocide. It was a theology of control that’s really, and that the theology needed to control everything. So it’s interesting to hear in a sense, it also causes me to think about Richard Rohr who talks about the Reformation: As the reformer said, they reformed us as Catholics, but I wish they would have. In some ways it’s just things they changed, but there was still that sense of control, that sense of meting out salvation or transcendence only through certain channels or only in certain ways. So it’s interesting that it doesn’t change as much as we think or as we would maybe want to imagine that it does.
Which kind of leads me to my next question, which is bringing us into the contemporary moment. So I hear what you’re saying about art was often tied to money and power, wealth, influence, those type of things. And we’re using Mars Hill this season as kind of a case study, but I think that they, in a way that a lot of churches do, I got the sense listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, that they put a lot of energy and money and those type of things into video production and visual arts and, like, a theatrical sort of production of the way church was done. But it was largely, I use the word transactional, but maybe I mean even more, it’s almost borrowing more from the advertisement world of trying to get an emotional response or get, trying to get people to do something or even manipulate in a certain way.
And even to the point where one of the former staffers was talking about at one point we had more of these particular types of cameras than NBC did. It was like this weird thing where they were putting all these resources in there. So I want to move to, like, how do you see the difference of using art in maybe the ways we’ve been talking about, which is sort of transactional and tied to power, maybe manipulative, those type of things, and then using art in a way that’s transcendent for people. What does that look like as we begin to think about like, that we have this history of, it’s intermingled with all the other history that we have, but how do we begin to use art in a different way that’s not just transactional, but is transformational or transcendent?
Chelle Stearns: Well, maybe we should start with church architecture first. In some sense, when I walk into a cathedral, there is a some sense of I get lost in the space. There is a sense of awe. It’s bigger than me. And even when I think about the pastor or the priest being upfront preaching, they’re very small, even if they’re on a big lectern, there’s often stairs up to a big lectern. But part of that was kind of the acoustics, but the whole point really was to walk in and feel a sense of humility and awe. You walk into an old Mars Hill Church, which I, I’m here in Seattle and I’m just down from the original Mars Hill Church here in Ballard and I, I’ve gone to Quest for a couple of years and you know, you walk in and there’s a stage, there’s like a focus on the front. Everyone else is lower.
I have a–One of the things that drives me crazy about the space is it’s really hard to understand who’s next to me and to know who’s actually at church. There’s really no space for fellowship, so there’s not really a meeting space. I really dislike the space really, really a lot. But the focus is really on, the person up front has the answers. So there’s no, like, kind of commonality of space. There’s really, and I know that Quest Church has really fought hard to kind of change that or shift the dynamics of that space, but I’m like, you’re fighting against an artistic principle here, that this church was built for the ego of the pastor. And so the worship team is doing music. There’s like visuals going on, and it’s really so that whether you’re in the congregation there or watching this online, you’re equally kind of disempowered. You’re there to listen to the voice upfront. And so there’s not, here I am, you can tell that I’m a priesthood of all believers. We come equally to this. Just because a pastor has a message doesn’t mean that that person has more sense of what truth is. They might be guiding and leading, but when you walk into that Mars Hill space, you’re like, wow, I am not the person who has the answer.
And so even with that kind of sense of who’s important, what kind of transaction is happening here, I need to come and bring my Bible and learn from the person who has the truth. Even all of that, that’s before we even get to, so what is beauty? What is supposed to be happening here? Is the preaching of the word the only sacrament, for example. And what happens if I need to challenge what a pastor is saying? It’s hard for me to even get to the stage and have any sort of sense of, well, I have a different interpretation, and is that okay? Is it okay for us to actually think a little bit differently, especially with the Mars Hill Church in mind?
Part of that is because, there’s a, I can never say his name and I’m like, I’m not Eastern Orthodox, but I keep, I’m going to keep talking about Eastern Orthodox ways of thinking. Timothy Patitsas, he wrote a book called The Ethics of Beauty, and he talks about the importance of soul, soul healing. So part of the faith, all of us have had something in our lives that we’re searching for, we’re really searching for whether we talk about it as liberation, freedom, the healing of our hearts. What does it mean to be redeemed? What does it mean to be reconciled to the body of Christ? And these are central things. And for him, he talks about beauty restores reality, that beauty is not just something that we do or participate in or create in order to have an ornament in the world or to draw more people into your church.
The purpose of beauty or the purpose of preaching is to restore that sense of the broken, fragmented sense of the world. And so in some ways, no matter how you think about all the cameras, how you think about the media ministry or how music is being used for one thing–I heard one scholar talk about how, and this is true of a lot of different contemporary Christian music today, it’s so high because the main vocalist is a tenor, and so it’s pitched so high that women can’t really sing or it’s super, super high. And so women tend to have to sing down an octave or sing a harmonic or harmony in order to really sing. So you can’t really sing the melody in your own voice. You have to shift your voice in order to sing along with the person leading worship, which is great if you’re a tenor, but everyone else has to kind of like, oh, I’m not sure where my voice really fits in it.
And I’ve been in enough congregations that have wrestled with this where I hear the person next to me changing octaves every once in a while because they can’t actually sing what is up front. And so people tend to maybe not sing as much, or they actually opt out of the singing and just kind of listen along. So even that’s like the signal of, what are we participating in? Are we being invited to participate or are we actually being invited to just take in what is being offered? But if beauty restores reality and beauty is this kind of almost conduit or a vehicle for that beginning of reconciliation in each heart and in each mind and each body, then that’s a different way of understanding what is the purpose of the music that’s being sung? Why are we preaching? What is actually being restored? And in some sense, if the model or the perfect form of beauty is only the pastor that’s upfront, which is kind of a Mark Driscoll way of thinking about preaching, I, I’ve heard him critique, and other traditions and other preachers, and I’m like, wow, you just think that you’re the only one that can preach the word, which is why he wants to take over the media empire of Christianity, if you think that you were the only one that holds the world or hurt-holds the word.
I don’t know, even saying that out loud, I’m like, wow, what do you think was happening at Pentecost when the spirit given, when Peter’s preaching and everyone there began to hear in their own language. It was the spirit that translated not the power of the preaching. The power of the preaching was that Christ was being preached, not the preacher himself. And so this is where you’re like, when beauty is preached, when beauty is actually embodied within art and sung within worship, that’s a restoring of reality in the world. We are realigning ourselves to how God is bringing about healing and love and compassion in the world. We are not assenting to a particular way of thinking about God in the world. In some ways it’s like it’s Christ and the spirit who are transforming us. We are being transformed in that moment. But if we are having to be conformed as anything other than Christ, well that’s idolatry
Joel Kiekintveld: It. It feels like the differences between do you want art or when we were talking about some really large things here, like, even the way the service is laid out, the building’s laid out. Do you want that to convey what ultimate reality is or what the understanding of the nature of belief is? Or do you want to use those as tools to control the narrative? And it feels like it’s those two different things of either wanting to set this environment where it mirrors the reality or draws us into the reality, or in the case of what you were saying around Mark, wanting to control the narrative in a certain direction where that it’s about a cult of personality. It’s about what’s going on up front. Even this idea of it’s not being able to sing the pitches, doesn’t invite people in, it sets the people on stage apart. That feel all feels really, that’s really helpful for me to think through this difference between transcendent and transactional kind of uses of art.
The other thing that popped into mind as you were speaking is this idea of liturgy as the work of the people, which is something that our little faith community has been a part of. So the faith community that I’m a part of moved from a very attractional sort of upfront-driven version of church to now a small group sitting in a circle. There’s no sermon. We have a discussion moving to a more kind of priesthood of all believers sort of approach to things. But would you talk a little bit about the understanding of liturgy as a work of the people as opposed to what I hear you saying, a program that’s performed for the people. Does that make sense?
Chelle Stearns: Yeah. And here we’re getting into different denominational styles and [JK: absolutely] I would, I’m a bit of a high Anglo-Catholic, so I do have those tendencies. I also have some Pentecostal tendencies. So there’s part of me where I’m like, every tradition asks the question, where does God show up? And I think where we get into trouble is often when we stop thinking that God is showing up within the body itself. What does it mean to become? This is a very Episcopalian or Anglican way of thinking of: we participate together in order to become the body of Christ. We are being transformed together as the body of Christ. And so everything we do in liturgy or in our services, whether it’s high or low in-between, indifferent or all of it, it really, we’re asking the question together as a group, what does it mean to be faithful to the presence of God with among us, whether that be by participating in the renewal of our baptism in the Eucharist, or whether you gather together in a circle and you talk over the Scriptures together and you see, well, where is God actually communicating with us today?
What’s happened in your lives to act, to wonder if God is with you today and then you have a meal together? I think a great example was a story I heard at a keynote at a conference, and there was an indigenous leader up in Canada that was talking about early missionaries, Episcopalian and Anglican missionaries, that there was a hymnal in Ojibwe that was translated, I’m hoping I’m saying that correctly.
And so they were like, oh, well, doing this translation of the hymns, maybe this will drop people into church. And hardly anyone was actually coming to church. But then a couple times a year, they would have these hymns sings where they would sing all night. And the priests were, like, really, really confused. And it was almost as if, and they were singing these hymns, and it was kind of like, well, why aren’t they coming to church on Sunday? And there’s part of me where I’m like, did you ever bother to ask the people who are in your congregation and in your community how they actually wanted to worship? Was there a way that God was communicating with them or that went with, or ways that you’re doing things that are actually stifling how people interact, how they are who they want to be before God, how God seems to be showing up to them. And so in some ways, liturgy is about that communication between leadership and people, how God is actually, I’m like, you can tell I think God actually shows up and that’s a big assumption. Will God actually show up? Will there be things that happen? And so if there’s a community where it’s like, well, God shows up when we sit down and we break bread together. We’re going to dance and we’re going to sing and we’re going to eat all night, and we’re going to see where God leads us from that. And I’m kind of like,
It’s almost the opposite of the reformation. It’s like the priests are trying to hold onto something and the people are like, yeah, we just don’t have time for that.
And I kind of love that. I love that story of taking ownership of over your own faith. And so then the liturgical life is really like, these are the places where we’re going to create community and this is how we are becoming the body of Christ. And so art tends to be, like, right at the center of that. We’ve kind of moved from, in the early church art was in some sense about participation, where we can participate, where is safe. In the Middle Ages, it started to get farther and farther away from how is it that we’re able to participate and the Reformation wanted us to get in there and get our hands dirty. And, seems like we are always kind of wrestling with this, but in many ways, the arts are always at that place of how do we get in there and participate in our faith as a community? So that sense of possibility and participation, it becomes an embodiment of how we are in Christ, how the spirit is transforming us. And so I do think that the arts are really critical to that because they bring us in. I’ve been doing a lot of research around how music functions in the brain and in the body, and there’s nothing like music to actually bring us together as we join our voices together. But even more so than that, our hearts, when we sing together, our hearts begin to beat together. We become attuned and entrained together.
And I think that’s really significant. I think where we get in trouble is when that entrainment becomes on a one person up front as opposed to, you’re right, we are together in this. We are being joined by the spirit. We are one in Christ, and therefore we are becoming the church. We are the church. So however that happens,
Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, I heard a number years ago, I think it was Rob Bell talking about it, but I’m not sure, that the research around yoga and singing and so on and how that actually syncs up our heart rate, our breathing rate, we become one in very powerful ways through that, in ways that we don’t think about. And that had never, I remember hearing it and just having my mind blown of like, oh, that’s what we’re trying to do when we do that. It isn’t just in a sense, filling time before the sermon. There’s something more powerful going on here that I had never had never really connected before. And hearing you say that again brings me back to that place of how does that happen in our services. So I want to ask a question about how do we practically as churches begin to move from this idea of transactional art or the ways that we’ve been talking about to some of the ways that you were just talking about where we begin to think about the whole group together, how we use that as a ways to move towards transcendence. What are some practical steps that faith communities can begin to do to make that shift or to ask the questions about how they’re doing with that? Maybe they don’t need to make a shift at all, but haven’t thought about it in a long time.
Chelle Stearns: That’s a a tough question because in some ways, if we go back to Mars Hill, perhaps one of the things that really happened was the disempowerment when the church start started to fall apart.
When the front couldn’t hold the unity that it claimed. When the place of preaching wasn’t able to hold everything that then began to happen when things began to fall apart. I think in some ways that exposes something of where unity was actually located. And so maybe that tells us maybe something really important philosophically or theologically about what do we actually trust? I, I’ve seen churches that really trust the production up front, really cool lights, and I mean, the worship team is just amazing, or the choir is amazing. The church is gorgeous and beautiful, you know, have all the arts going on and it’s dynamic and it’s cool. And in some ways I’m like, absolutely, that’s like that is a priority for the church and that should be a priority for the church.
The second movement of that is how then does the church understand its place in its community? So if beauty does restore reality, if beauty is that place where in some sense we see God’s face more clearly or we know something about how the spirit is moving in the world, that is never just for us. This is kind of an old way of understanding sin, this idea that sin tends to circle us and kind of move us back into our own selves. The Latin is the incurvatus in se. We become more and more curved in upon ourselves. And so maybe that’s the place of resistance. Beauty in some sense moves us outward and moves us into places of prayer where we begin to feel that the spirit is healing us. And in that we have what Luther talked about is the excurvatus, we begin to move outward.
There’s an outward, and this is throughout the entire tradition, that the way the spirit really moves is to be within us and then to in some sense help us to know what else is going on in the world. So the church is never for itself. There should never be just an inward movement and a hunkering down, if you will. But instead, how do we then bring the beauty that has been enacted in us and that we participate in? How does that help us then to be a participant in the world? So whether that be I’m going to help to feed the people in my neighborhood. Maybe it’s just that I become active in the places in my neighborhood. I’m going to know my community. But I’m like, if you believe that God is active, who with you, isn’t it a natural thing to think that God would then be active in the world and wanting to enact that reconciliation in other places as well?
And then we get into like when people do this and it becomes an unhealthy model of missions or things like that. I mean, that’s a different conversation to have. So I just want to have that as my caveat. But if this is really happening, that sense of beauty being growing and participant, you’re always going to have something that marks that you are now the church for the sake of the world because you are the body of the Christ that goes into the church, but also steps out into the world. And that’s always, throughout the Christian tradition, been a theology of how do you know the spirit is at work in your church or in you? Well, it’s usually because you’re having, you have your eyes open, you have a sense of curiosity in the world, something is probably happening because if God is real and God does show up, you’re going to see that around you.
Joel Kiekintveld: So it’s interesting, what I hear you saying in this, maybe in the last half of this conversation, is this idea of being curved toward outward instead of inward, which is a image that I love, but being curved outward. How are we part of this community, the community of believers in worship, but then how are we in the community that we’re placed in as well, this curve out in maybe those two ways of, we come together as a body of believers, but then also we’re part of this larger community. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about art. We often think about art and worship kind of individually or in much more of a consumer mode and not this communal mode. So I think that’s a great way for us to begin to reframe. My final question for you is just what did I miss or what did we not cover, or what would you want listeners to know about this topic that maybe we haven’t covered yet?
Chelle Stearns: Oh, geez, where do we begin? How much time do we have? No, it, it’s funny because I tend to think about a lot of these things maybe a little bit differently than someone who just does liturgics or talks about what does beauty look like or what does art look like in the church. And every tradition has their ways of working this out. And so in some ways, paying attention to what is going on within your own congregation or within your own community I think is a vital thing to really understand. I don’t think there’s one, only one way. I also think you don’t have to leave your particular tradition in order to find the one right way to use the arts in the church, but sometimes we have to leave our traditions in order to find a place for ourselves.
Maybe that’s my gender. We’re not talking about gender, but coming from a tradition that didn’t let women really do a lot of leadership roles or have very limited leadership roles and feeling like the spirit was actually moving me in different places. So there’s a little bit of that of, well, where are the places where we can really enact some of these things? Also, there is art that is for the sake of the world and that really has no place in the church. And this is maybe going back to Mars Hill, this is maybe a question of should Mars Hill–and I can’t answer the question whether it’s right or wrong–but should Mars Hill have moved in such a strong direction of doing a mass media, having so much preaching be online and in essence having the preaching of the word be so disembodied? And even in saying that, I’m like, but I know that Mark Driscoll’s preaching really impacted people very positively in a lot of ways. We could do a lot of critique about his preaching and some of the themes that he had, especially around gender and gender roles.
But what does it mean to be a believer that really doesn’t have a community? I think it’s a very dangerous thing. So again, coming back to this idea of that beauty restores reality be beauty restores us to ourselves in some sort of way. And so to have preaching that comes from someplace that is your primary place of engagement and participation, I think it disconnects you from yourself. And I don’t really know what to do with that, especially in this transactional sense and that the arts, in many ways, were a means to attract people to that. And in some ways really manipulate people’s feelings of, well, how do I go back to my church that sings these really weird old hymns that I don’t like this. This is like Soong-Chan Rah–he talks about this and his understanding of what should evangelicalism be. Well, we have two primary things that he talks about here: individualism.
I can listen to the word wherever I want, and I don’t have to go to church. I’m fine on my own. And I’m like, I don’t think you see that in scripture anywhere that you can be a solitary person who just takes from whatever thing that you want, because there’s nothing really helping you discern what it is that you’re bringing in to your mind and into your heart. The other is, I can just consume what is most like me, which is again, in that kind of consumerist model of I’m only going to go to the church that reflects me back to myself, or these are my preferences. I’m only going to go to churches that sing the songs I like. And the people around me look like me. I mean, we may not say that overtly, but this is a hallmark of the American church because we’re ahistorical, we are focused on, well, what is it that, and it means to me rather than can I sing on behalf of someone else? Can–
And my hope with art in the church really always is how does this art help you become for the sake of someone else? Not that you have to be lost in the midst of it, but how are you connected? Because you can’t do healing. You can’t ever really understand reconciliation without being in relationship on some level. So if faith, if this transactional kind of artistic way, wow, cool videos and this guy says the cool things, and the music is just so, and all of that. I’m like, well, church should not be a Beyoncé concert, though I’ll say for people like Beyoncé, she’s always challenging and pushing people back into what is your narrative and how are you living in the world? And I’m like, wow, what does it say that someone like Beyoncé is doing church better than people are doing church?
I mean, hallelujah, because the spirit’s going to move lots of different places and I love Beyoncé, but it’s like, but her purpose is not to make disciples for Christ. And so this idea of only going toward what is most attractive to me or yeah, this is maybe gets back into how we define beauty. Beauty isn’t just the thing that makes sense to me. Beauty’s often the thing that challenges me and causes me again to look a little bit outward, something that lingers with me, that the narrative isn’t so simple that I understand it right away. It kind of stays with me and causes me to think about what is going on, which is good preaching as well. It sticks with you. It causes you to maybe challenge a few things and it makes you wonder, well, how can I live this out better? How can I think about the world with more love, capacity?
And I’m like, that I think is the purpose of who the church is. And when the church just becomes another commodity or another transaction, another place to go and sing the songs I kind of think are cool. And this is where maybe I get in a little bit of trouble. I tend to look around and go, well, this is really great and I’m having a lot of fun, but who’s left out of this? Because if the gospel is really for everyone, who is not included in the way we’re doing this? An aesthetic tends to actually expose. Like when you start to think about what the aesthetic, the aesthetic is of a particular church or the kinds of things we’re singing. So the aesthetic of Mars Hill really was this aesthetic of a really narcissistic pastor who had all the answers and that you kind of assent to that.
And then a lot of the people that were hurt along the edges of that, really found themselves, well, if that’s the gospel, then I have no place in this. So when your aesthetic really cuts people off like that or really damages people, and you’re like, well, I think maybe we need to look for something else. Even that’s just kind of that maybe discernment thing. So yeah, even that kind of, so again, that overly-individualistic, over-consumeristic, that tends to be what is rewarded when we think about church planting especially. And then you go, what have we done to create both an aesthetic and a way of training pastors or privileging certain kinds of pastors that actually really kind of leads to places of harm and abuse? I don’t think it’s a mistake that we’re seeing a lot of church leaders now that have been given too much power, too much ability to create the Consumeristic gospel, and they didn’t have enough discernment and accountability around them. And so what do we do now? So a lot of the questions I ask in my classes is, how does our aesthetic help us to get back to maybe healthy models of relating, of being able to bring our full selves to church, of being able to not be false selves, but actually be transformed to really be people that are in Christ being transformed by the spirit, that are for the sake of the world. And that’s a really different priority than I need to sing the songs I like.
Joel Kiekintveld: Well, Chelle, thank you so much for spending time talking with us about art, but also about how beauty calls us back to this reality that’s communal, that’s for the sake of the world. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts about that and challenging me to think about what does the aesthetic of my community say about us. But I hope that listeners as well will ask that question as they think along with you today on this episode. So thank you so much,
Chelle Stearns: Joel, thank you for inviting me. This has been a fun conversation.
Joel Kiekintveld: You’re welcome. My thanks to Chelle Sterns for this thought-provoking discussion. I know I have a lot to think about and I hope it gave you food for thought as well. If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the low-residency Master of Arts in Theology & Culture (MATC) programs at The Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at: theseattleschool.edu. I also invite you to check out the Center For Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that 1 in 3 pastors is at risk for burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local contexts – and in the process, to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach at transformingengagement.org/offerings
Until Next Time, I’m Joel Kiekintveld. Grace & Peace.