The following post comes from Lynne M. Baab the author of numerous books, most recently Reaching Out in a Networked World, which considers the ways congregations can express their identity and values in an online world. She has also written several books and Bible study guides on spiritual disciplines, including Sabbath Keeping and Fasting, and lots of articles that are posted on her website, . She is a Presbyterian minister with a PhD in communication, and she teaches pastoral theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand
God’s Kingdom: Arts for the Wider Community
I sensed the presence of the Kingdom of God recently when I heard two people speak at a conference. Both are leaders of groups of Christian artists who create installations in public parks. Dave White helps facilitate a group of artists in Hamilton, New Zealand, who create stations of the cross during Lent. They did it for the first time in 2004, and 350 people went through. In 2008 and 2009, attendance topped 3,000, spread over eight consecutive evenings. (The 2010 stations were postponed until 2011.) The stations are viewed in order, so often there’s a line of people waiting to enter the park 45 minutes before the stations open.
The artists create fifteen stations, covering Jesus’ last days, plus the resurrection. Dave used the words “static,” “interactive” and “reflective” to describe different kinds of stations. For the artists, the process begins months earlier when they meet together to read and meditate on scriptures related to the 15 stations. Dave asks the artists to sit with the scriptures and write notes about their responses. Then the “combat sessions” begin. The artists discuss three stations each evening, laying all their ideas on the table, sharing thoughts and building upon each other’s ideas.
The whole process, Dave said, is “ego-deflating.” Often one artist’s idea gets assigned to someone else to implement. The stations need to be set up and taken down each night, so a team of 70 volunteers is involved. Dave reflected, “The set up and take down have been a blessing because the group jells into a community.” Here’s the website for the 2009 stations: http://www.stations.org.nz/about/ A second group of New Zealand artists creates a Christmas peace labyrinth every year in a park in Christchurch. Bales of hay form a pathway, and stations within the labyrinth raise questions about peace in various settings in everyday life, such as peace in the workplace, the home, the environment, and between nations.
Peter Majendie, who with his wife leads the group of artists and craftspeople who create the labyrinth, said, “I want to make people feel so deeply they can’t help but think.” Here’s the website of the peace labyrinth: http://www.christmaslabyrinth.co.nz/
Why do these two large scale installations make me feel as if I’m getting a glimpse of the Kingdom of heaven? Why do they lift my heart in gratitude for these faithful artists? To me, these projects represent the best of the Christian Gospel. Because they care about people who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church, these artists create thought-provoking experiences in public spaces, providing an access point to issues of faith. The organizers, volunteers and artists believe that the Christian gospel has relevance to the everyday life of people who are both near to God and far from God, so they are willing to bring aspects of that Gospel into public spaces in order to demonstrate that reality. They spend a lot of energy creating experiences that help people think about what really matters to them and who God might be in their lives. Because artists are involved, the spaces draw on the five senses and integrate emotions and thoughts like all good art can do. The spaces help people think and feel in ways that may be beyond words, but that touch the inner self.
The artists rely on carpenters, plumbers and electricians to help them build the stations, allowing trades people to use their skills in new ways. The set-up and take-down allows involvement of others as well. Community is built between people who normally might not have much contact with each other. One of the amusing roles on the team in Hamilton is “tract buster.”
Some evangelical churches view the stations as a perfect opportunity for passing out tracts to the people who are waiting in line to get in. Someone on the stations team, the “tract buster,” gently tells them to take the tracts elsewhere. The stations team has decided to let the art and experiences of the stations stand on their own, without making explicit connections to the four spiritual laws or other factual presentations of the gospel.
Their commitment to helping people experience aspects of biblical truth, without necessarily explaining it, raises many fascinating questions about what it means to preach the gospel in our time. The art, the teamwork, the emotions and thoughts evoked – all of it in public parks – made me rejoice in the presence of God’s Kingdom when I heard about these two teams of committed people and what they do.