Open Mics, Open Doors: Cultivating Culture and Relationships

“All culture making requires a choice, conscious or unconscious, to take our place in a cultural tradition. We cannot make culture without culture. And this means that creation begins with cultivation – taking care of the good things that culture has already handed on to us. The first responsibility of culture makers is not to make something new but to become fluent in the cultural tradition to which we are responsible. Before we can be culture makers, we must be culture keepers.”[1]

When we start talking about the church acting as a community center or a cultural center, people get understandably nervous. The local church should be much more than a community or cultural center, and those models should not constrain a church’s mission, and yet it must act in those capacities if it is to be both local and the church.

Your neighborhood may be different, but mine has some serious trust issues with “church” in the abstract. Organized Christianity has earned a reputation for bait and switch. Free meals! But I have to listen to someone yell at me about death and hell before I can eat? Welcoming community! Until my work schedule changes and no one notices I’m gone. (Or worse, they do, and hound me to come when I can’t.) Hip music! Followed by half an hour of trying to work through which two-thousand-year-old cultural mores still apply to women. Christians rationalize these kinds of disconnections on a regular basis, but we need to hear these disjointed messages as our visitors do. These scenarios come off as false advertising at best and intentional deceit at worst.

Why are there so many strings attached to the things we do in Jesus’s name? It communicates that we see the gospel as such a tough sell we have to lure people into the salesroom with a gimmick. In the words of R.E.M. “What if we give it away?”[2] What if we fed people simply because Jesus himself invites us to and tells us he’ll be on the receiving end of anything we give? What if we applied our shrewd-stewardly stratagems toward working out how to make the most of our resources to care for others more comprehensively, not how to get more out of them in return? To the degree that our churches have tried to sell and barter the words of life entrusted to us freely, we must own responsibility for the numbers of people who have chosen not to buy in to the churched life.

"Shelter?" by Heidi Estey. This was our poster monster for an outdoor group show in which almost all the pieces were eventually "taken in" by passersby - part of why we now put together our outdoor shows with in-house artists aware of such eventualities.

“Shelter?” by Heidi Estey. This was our poster monster for an outdoor group show in which almost all the pieces were eventually “taken in” by passersby – part of why we now put together our outdoor shows with in-house artists aware of such eventualities.

Considering ourselves, our traditions and our assets to be cultural and community resources would correct our attitudes substantially. A church, building and people, should be a blessing to its parish. The whole Judeo-Christian story we find in scripture is about God forming a people set apart to be agents of blessing to the rest of the world. To be chosen does not mean that we are in with God and the others are out; it means we are the ones called to invite the others in. This has nothing to do with imposing our lifestyle on others and pressuring them to conform to an enlightened Christian culture so they can know God like we do. It has to do with welcoming them in a way that communicates God’s desire to be known by them, creating buffer zones in which to hear that quiet voice, and making room amongst us for those who choose to follow it.

Few of us had any say in the physical design of our meeting places, but the onus is now on us to make them convey welcome. Our church is by far the churchiest looking church I have ever been a part of. Those of us moving in after years of worship in a movie theater and an office building suffered some serious culture shock. It’s an extremely staid and solid red brick and stained glass affair. Approaching from the front all you see are concrete stairs leading to three massive sets of wooden double doors. The view most often seen from the street is of these six immense and eminently closed doors. It’s imposing. I’ve been going to church all my life and I can hear these doors slamming shut just looking at them. The transformation when those doors are all flung open is supernatural, especially at night with warm light and music and voices pouring out onto an otherwise dark street. Suddenly it’s inviting. All the connotations of sanctuary make sense again. Strangers pop in just to say how happy they are to see the doors open.

The openness of our doors has become hugely symbolic for me. The unfortunate reality is that the cavernous open space behind those doors is an absolute bear to heat. In July and August it’s a relief to have the doors open, but almost any other time of year it’s a sacrifice. If you come to worship with us in February you will find one of the six doors propped not quite half open. If you’re fifteen minutes late the only thing holding that door open will be a tripped one-inch-wide deadbolt. We have bass and drums and lots of porous windows so if you walk by you know something’s going on, but it’s hidden behind essentially closed doors. Suffice it to say, I think any excuse to open those doors that’s not antithetical to the gospel is a good excuse. If it’s an activity that blesses our neighbors, meets needs in the community, or helps us fulfill our commission as cultivators of creation and creators of culture, so much the better.

Cultivating culture is different than conserving culture. Whether or not we avail ourselves of them, the Church on the whole has done a fine job of conserving its cultural goods: the writings of the first bishops, medieval mystics and the Scholastics; the stories of Asian martyrs; the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo and treasured Orthodox icons; the chants heard morning and evening for centuries throughout Europe. If we only conserve culture, though, the Church will function merely as a museum. The Church is a unique institution called both to conserve and create, and as such, must be continuously reinventing the priestly ministry of representing humankind to God and God to humanity while consciously maintaining a tradition that runs back through the apostles and the patriarchs to our creation in the image of the Creator and Ruler of all. We who have historically been at the forefront of movements to recreate and reorder society have abdicated our responsibilities. Neither conservatives who commit to structures simply because they exist nor radicals who reject the very idea of structure that makes creative life sustainable are embodying the image of God or serving as Christ called us.

As cultivators we watch for the new growth peeping up from the earth around us, determine whether it’s the genuine article or a choking weed, and nurture the good growing things around us. We look for the plants in need of particular care, especially those good for food or medicine, and tend to their specific needs. As a Christian and as a poet, when I look around, one area of the garden that I see failing to thrive that I would like to help maintain for my culture is the thoughtful use of words. Dana Gioia wrote a fabulous essay called “Can Poetry Matter” in which he talks about the decay of language and discourse and offers six concrete suggestions for bringing poetry back into our public lives as a corrective to this decay.

I borrowed three of his ideas and distilled them into one event that answers our corporate call to be cultivators of what’s beneficial to our society and serves as yet another reason to have the doors open. Due to an ongoing failure of imagination, we called it a no-mic open-mic community reading, although Literary Potluck might stick eventually. We would call it a read-in, but that makes it sounds like we’re protesting something. Like an open mic, people can sign up ahead of time to read. Based on one of Gioia’s suggestions and our congregational ratio of significantly more readers to writers, we invite people to read either their own work or something they’ve read recently that they would like more people to hear. Open mic audiences tend to consist of writers there to read and close friends of writers there to read. They don’t draw a wide audience and the tenor of the events generally vibrates between ego and nerves. With this format anyone can participate and we all hear a lot of great writing. We also tone down the pressure to perform by removing the actual microphone from the scene. The first time we planned one of these we were a small enough group we could sit in a circle at the back of the church. The next time we set up a small table in the aisle in front of the last few pews. A microphone was not necessary to be heard.

As we held the events on Arts Walk nights we made sure people had easy access so they could sit or stand and listen a while and feel free to leave. Readers have ten-minute slots, but we ask them to keep individual readings to five minutes or less, so there are plenty of opportunities and to slip in and out without walking out on a reading. The Arts Walk is three hours long, so we took frequent breaks for coffee, tea and snacks people from the church brought to share and just to talk, catch up with other and meet anyone who came in during the reading.

[1] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 74-75.

[2] Mike Mills, William Berry, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, “What If We Give It Away?” Life’s Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986). From the first verse and chorus:

On the outside underneath the wall

All the money couldn’t buy

You’re mistaken no one’s standing there

For the record no one tried

Oh I try to…

What if we give it away?

For years this chorus would begin to play spontaneously and, as it turns out, prophetically in my head as a response to that hard sell mentality. Our first outdoor gallery initially felt like a bust. It was the only time we issued a call for submissions and got nothing of artistic merit from the outside world. It was raining so hard we almost cancelled the show because it was so miserable to install. Then a friend of one of our artists showed up with a couple of nice pieces. It lightened to a typical Seattle drizzle by the time the Arts Walk started and we had a good time hanging out on the sidewalk with our umbrellas and loaning them out so people could peruse our quirky little installation called Shelter. Half the pieces disappeared over the weekend. An editor of a local arts magazine happened on it during that time and mentioned to a mutual friend that he was debating whether or not to take a piece home as well, and an important conversation about public art, gift culture, and the church ensued. My friend referenced that same line (“What if we give it away?”) when he emailed me to say it sounded like the church was doing something right.