Arts, faith and technology converge in new ways at local church

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Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

Twin figures, carved out of stone with hands raised to the sky, eyes searching for something in the clouds, stand outside the walls of a Baptist church on North Quaker Lane. The statues are more than an art installation; they are a statement of purpose for Convergence.

At Convergence, located at 1801 N. Quaker Lane, the arts and faith mix together like paint on a palette. The organization’s goal is to re-engage the artistic and the spiritual through creative worship.

“This was an opportunity to explore that experiment of what would it look like to bring art and faith back into conversation around cultural issues and day-to-day life,” Lisa Smith, pastor and artistic director at the church, said.

Through creative Sunday services, partnerships with local arts organizations and the recent launch of a podcast, the experimental Baptist church has created an open, modern space of expression for artists and churchgoers alike.

Sculptures made by congregation member and resident sculptor Karen Swenholt stand on the lawn outside Convergence, a local Baptist church, at 1801 N. Quaker Lane. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

The road to Convergence’s arts-focused approach has been paved with false starts and fading congregations. Originally established as Fair-Park Baptist Church in 1948, the church served the Fair-Park community even as its congregation shrank and aged. In 1996, it merged with Duke Street Baptist Church, but attendance continued to diminish.

Looking for ways to save the church, the congregation made a bold move: A hard restart.

“Basically, they shut down, chose some trustees to bring in new leadership and kind of plant something new within that soil,” Smith said.

The trustees brought on Smith, a trained actor and seminary graduate, in 2006 to propose the vision for an experimental new church. Convergence was born from Smith’s combined background in seminary and the arts, and how much her theatrical experience had impacted the way she approached theological study, she said.

“I started trying to find ways that you could use the rehearsal process and play to bring [Bible study] alive for people so that they’re hearing it in a way that most people haven’t heard it before,” Smith said.

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Inspiration also came from the new leadership’s desire to bring the arts and church back into modern conversation.

“By cutting that cultural tie, that’s when church started becoming completely irrelevant,” Jay Smith, cultural architect at Convergence and Lisa Smith’s husband, said. “It no longer understood culture to be able to engage culture and talk about it on a real level. … Now it’s lost in this cultural abyss and has no idea what to do.”

In America, the church’s efforts to separate itself from the arts left it apart from, the world, Jay Smith said.

“Without a vibrant spiritual imagination, it’s not really possible to have a vibrant faith,” Lisa Smith said. “It’s essential for the life of the faith community to have art and creativity be a part of it.”

Transitioning from a traditional Baptist church to an experimental, arts-focused faith community was challenging. The congregation, mostly comprised of elderly hangers-on from the Fair-Park and Duke Street congregations, wasn’t used to Convergence’s new vision.

Lisa Smith, pastor and creative director at Convergence, was brought on in 2006 to help re-start the Fair-Park Baptist Church. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

Recognizing they needed to grow their following, Lisa and Jay Smith, along with community coordinator Dan Abh, started by building a sanctuary for Alexandria’s arts organizations.

“Very quickly, we connected with the local artistic community and were able to be a resource in that way and provide space, provide things like artist way groups and some professional training by partnering with organizations,” Lisa Smith said.

Convergence rents out office and work space to different groups, including Empowered Women International, the Brave Spirits Theater Company and Arts on the Horizon. The church also established ongoing relationships with the Torpedo Factory and other organizations. Convergence’s main building became a mixed gallery-worship space where the congregation could meet on Sundays and artists could also show off their work.

The church constantly experiments and plays with what worship and a service can look like. Conversations themed around metamorphosis and transformation, jazz Sunday services, silent contemplation and Bible passages performed by congregants have all been a part of Convergence’s programming at one point or another.

“We do imaginative prayers. We do creative response times,” Lisa Smith said. “We might do something where you have a contemplative time and then you go to stations where you can draw or write or make music and then we come back and share.”

Now, the first and third Sundays of every month, Convergence holds Bible studies that combine different creative components, such as theater icebreakers and drawing exercises, with scripture analysis. The fourth Sunday of every month, the church hosts a shared fellowship meal based around a specific theme, and the second Sunday, it holds a Taize service. The latter is based on a French model for contemplative worship.

“It’s a mixture of song and prayer and then there’s 10 minutes of silence,” Laura Lyon, a member of the congregation, said. “My best projects have come from that time of just sitting there in silence for 10 minutes. You’re left with your own thoughts. There’s nothing distracting you.”

Taize services draw direct links between the artistic and spiritual worlds by emphasizing silence, introspection and reflection, according to Lisa Smith.

“[We] just want to push the boundaries a little bit more with what you can do with art within the context of creating these liminal spaces that give people a space to pause and breathe and reconnect with themselves, others and God,” Lisa Smith said.

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Although the congregation features only 25 to 40 regulars, it is tight knit and drawn to the church’s unique emphasis on creative expression and asking questions.

“A lot of times, at other churches I felt like I needed to say the right thing, look put together,” Kathy Prudden, a congregant, said. “If I had questions or I believed something a little different, then that wasn’t OK. … Here it was OK to disagree. It was OK to be different.”

“It’s a very honest group of people,” Lyon said. “Honest in their lives, as far as their strengths, their struggles, what they deal with on a daily basis.”

Convergence uses contemplative, creative worship to help its congregants engage with the Bible in new ways. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

Congregant and resident sculptor Karen Swenholt is, like many members of the congregation, a living embodiment of Convergence’s mission. Embracing her faith led Swenholt on an artistic “quest” that influenced her work in ways she could never have imagined, Swenholt said.

“I found that oddly the art form itself creates a whole way of meditating or struggling with God,” Swenholt said. “It wasn’t always religious work, but it was always work that was reaching into that unknown place of hope.”

A small, strong community might be good for the soul, but it can be a problem for the wallet. Over the past 12 years, the leadership at Convergence has had to find creative solutions for funding issues.

“Our congregation is very committed in their giving and then we do rent our space to local arts organizations,” Lisa Smith said. “It is the best deal in town, but still it helps. And then we rent to another church on Sunday mornings.”

Convergence also holds events that promote the local artistic community, including an all-ages open mic night for local bands that has a small entrance fee.

While maintaining is important, Lisa Smith said her greater goal was to grow the church and continue experimenting.

A recent grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has given the church room to explore its vision of creative, arts-based worship more deeply. So far, Convergence has used the money to takes its mission online. It launched the VergeNow website and podcast this summer.

The church is using its new digital presence to document the hills and valleys of its own creative process and bring in other voices to the conversation around arts and faith. Lisa Smith is also looking at how to expand the community beyond the walls of 1801 N. Quaker Lane.

“One of the things that we’ll also be experimenting with is a church community that’s not necessarily based in one particular physical location,” Lisa Smith said. “For our audience, it may be 20 people in Alexandria and 20 people in Malaysia.”

The idea of a digital church might still be abstract, but the concept behind Convergence remains relevant.

“This convergence, this crossroads, [is about] lots of different people coming together from different places, having conversations and hopefully growing from that,” Lisa Smith said.

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