Artists Build the Church
Inside a dark theater in the center of Chicago, the frontman for Milano sits at the piano, illuminated by only a dim spotlight. He begins singing a composition based on Psalm 127.
I work for a wage but my pockets have holes
He won’t leave us, He won’t leave us
I’ve seen a lover betray and I am she
He groans out for you, he groans out for you.
It’s Sunday morning. Jon Guerra is leading worship at The Line, as he does every Sunday. But he is not a music pastor. At The Line, an Acts 29 church plant in Lincoln Park, they do things differently; Guerra is their artist-in-residence.
The Line was planted in 2009, and the artist-in-residence program began shortly thereafter. It was a product of two uniquely gifted people—Jon Guerra and Aaron Youngren, The Line’s lead pastor—coming together under a unified determination to tear down the walls between church art and city art so that music can freely flow between the venues.
As The Line’s artist-in-residence, Guerra (pronounced Gare-A) receives a livable income simply for making music. Though he is not a music pastor, Guerra leads worship on Sunday mornings, often playing original compositions or creatively rearranged covers. He also disciples other artists in the church. Aside from those responsibilities, he is set loose to create. He spends his days writing music, studying theory, editing recordings, and reading the Bible. “I can make my schedule around writing music," Guerra, 25, said. "That is a dream come true.” And it’s a dream that both he and Youngren have worked hard for.
Guerra, the son of a pastor, was raised in Wheaton, Illinois. He began writing music in high school, and in 2004, he formed the band Scarecrow Garden. The band’s popularity quickly swept throughout the Chicago area. They entertained various contract offers with Warner Brothers, Virgin Records, and their subsidiary labels while performing all over the United States. But as quickly as the band formed, it broke up. In the aftermath, Guerra enrolled at Moody Bible Institute, where he studied historical theology. When he graduated in 2008, he tried to dedicate himself fully to his new band, Milano, while also working various jobs to pay rent. It was a tough balancing act.
Meanwhile, as Guerra was making his way through school, Aaron Youngren was in Seattle quickly climbing the corporate ranks of Amazon. Though successful in his work, Youngren's real desire was to plant a church in an urban hub that would cherish art as revelation and value artists as spiritual leaders. Being an artist in his own right—a musician and a writer—Youngren had long struggled to reconcile the seemingly off-kilter role the arts had played in his own church experience, and he hoped to correct that at The Line.
“We never say ‘something is missing in my Christianity because your voice isn’t there,’" Youngren said. "We never say, ‘I want to see artists who are theologians and leaders who will teach me something about God that I otherwise wouldn’t understand.’”
What Youngeren was frustrated by is exactly what painter and founder of International Arts Movement Makoto Fujimura mourns in his must-read essay, “A Letter to North American Churches”: “An artist’s relationship with you has not been easy; we are often in the margins of your communities, being the misfits that we are. . . . Instead of having quality artists at the core of your worship, we were forced to operate as extras; as in ‘if-we-can-afford-it-good-but-otherwise-please-volunteer,’ Extras.”
Youngren, the son of church planters in Ecuador, began to see artists through a missiological lens, thinking of these “misfits” and “extras” as a lost tribe.
“Modern missiology says you don’t value a tribe or people group until you go in and preach the gospel," he said. "But at some point you have to hand it off to them and then sit under them and learn about God." Youngren hoped to plant a church that could specifically minister to artists and clear a place at their feet where the entire congregation could sit and learn from them.
So in January 2009, Youngren, his wife, and three children moved from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago to plant The Line. One of Youngren’s hopes was that The Line could ask and then affirmatively answer the question: “Can the art that is present in the world be redeemed and be a part of the church?” By “redeemed,” Youngren doesn’t just mean hung up on the wall, but fundamentally changed from the core so that, as he said, “everyone can respect it and see it right alongside the rest of art and know that it’s different.”
Many churches in Youngren’s past had been aware enough to ask this question, but answered it negatively, believing refined art is not appropriate for a church setting. “In other words,” Youngren said, “We can turn the amps up, we can make it sound more modern, but when it comes to things like abstraction, impression, and subtlety, we think they are best left outside the corporate church setting.”
The poet Luci Shaw has also noticed this trend, and in her essay “Beauty and the Creative Impulse,” she expresses her concern:
The church has given considerable attention to Truth and Goodness, to theology and ethics. But too often beauty has escaped us, or we have tried to escape from it. This is partly because of its innovative, experimental aspect, its way of reaching for originality or a new way of expressing an old standard. In many Christian circles this is felt to be dangerous; the pursuit of beauty is seen merely as an option, and a seductive one at that, because beauty can be neither controlled nor programmed.
Despite many churches’ fear of artistic impression in a corporate context, impression is often how God works. At The Line, they look to Abraham for their theology of impression. When God called Abraham and first told him he was going to make him into a great nation, he didn’t sit him down and say, “Here are my promises 1-5, sign here.” Rather, God said, “Abraham, come outside. Look up.” Abraham gazed into the luminous Middle Eastern sky. As he was contemplating the stars, God continued, “See how amazing that is? That’s what I’m going to do with you.” God started with impression and then moved to propositions. He directed Abraham’s attention to his handiwork, and then asked him to imagine the impossible.
In his essay “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture,” George MacDonald writes:
In truth, a very wise imagination, which is the presence of the Spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen or ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.
The church should foster imaginations, but they must be wise imaginations. At The Line, artistic excellence is always paired with spiritual maturity. Becoming more Christ-like, not just better artists, is its main priority. “If we ‘re not doing the hard work of studying Scripture and taking care of our own spiritual lives, why in the world would people listen to anything we put out?” Guerra asks. “There needs to be a well from which we are drawing, and that well needs to be rich in the truth so that we aren’t given to vagueness or heavy-handedness.”
Together for a Purpose
Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Youngren began his search for a mature Christian, a theologian, and a public artist who was making art that could hold its own in the city and enrich his church. He didn’t want the history and tone of evangelical culture to shape The Line’s worship. He wanted the church to reap the benefits of an artist who was creating within the context of the Chicago music scene. Knowing how difficult it could be to find someone who could straddle sacred and secular music, Youngren expected to be looking for a while. So when he met Guerra at the second church meeting he held in his apartment, he was skeptical. Could he have found his artist so easily?
As Milano shows filled to capacity, Youngren carefully observed Guerra, getting to know him as a Christian and as an artist. Not too long after their initial introductions, it became undeniably clear that God had brought Youngren and Guerra together for a purpose. Youngren approached Guerra and made his proposal: The Line would support Guerra with a salary, and in return, Guerra would continue making great art and shipping it into the city.
The financial strain of such an arrangement on a new church is no small matter. In fact, the program initially began as a patron program, in which The Line asked those within and without the community to financially support Guerra. Papers were written to explain the theology behind the methodology, websites were made, and the vision was cast. But in the end, only a few signed up as patrons while the rest remained unsure about what their money would actually be buying.
Despite the discouraging response, Youngren persisted. “We decided that we were going to have to do this regardless of if anyone got it,” he said. And so even with a tight church-planter’s budget, The Line chose to prioritize its vision for the arts by funding Guerra without any patrons, hoping others would follow.
The challenges to such a program are not only fiscal. Perhaps the biggest difficulty with launching the program was leading the congregation into unchartered, artistic territory.
In most evangelical churches, many view artistic expression as being merely supplemental to other forms of revelation and understanding. Its centrality to worship is muted.
Put another way, “This practical modern world is prone to conceive beauty as an extraneous luxury,” Charles G. Osgood writes in “Poetry as a Means of Grace.” “We do not think of it as an integral and inseparable element of our living, as did the Greeks; or as did the Christians for many centuries. . . . .Beauty is an indispensable and logical part of practice and worship in the religious life.”
Because many don’t treat art as an integral part of living or worship, they do not know how to experience God through creative impressions and musical abstraction. They don’t know how to receive art unless it is spelled out plainly.
At The Line, it wasn’t any different. Since its beginning, Youngren and Guerra have worked tirelessly to coach people on how to read and listen critically, how to understand the tones and backdoors through which beautiful truths and experiences of the gospel can enter. As Youngren and Guerra helped their congregants mine the depths of impression as part of a worshipful experience, the people submitted themselves to it, and they grew. “It was a wonderful, wonderful process,” Youngren said. “The rewards! The rewards are so great!”
Before attending The Line, Sarah Lee, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher who has been at The Line since February 2009, had for eight years attended a church in the suburbs where the worship was mostly traditional hymns and contemporary Christian music. She says that when she first came to The Line, she was a little uncomfortable. “My personal taste didn't jive with Jon's vocals or music style at all, so everything seemed so melodramatic!” But through the leadership of the church—the preaching and the music—she has grown in her understanding of God through a growing understanding of the arts.
I particularly remember a Sunday when Jon and the crew were playing “Gloria.” The powerful dynamics of the lyrics to the glorious orchestral sounds brought me to my knees, and I was more worshipful than I'd ever been before. Corporate worship took on a greater meaning to me from that point on. We preach God's transformative power through the Word and the gospel; shouldn't the music be just as powerful? There are times when a melody brings me to tears because I'm in pain with the impossible beauty captured in the sound. Then there are times when the thumping beats of one of their electronica-renditions of an old hymn have me and even unbelieving visitors really listening to the words for the first time and carried away to a place where we're truly celebrating with our every being as the author had originally intended.
Joe Lieske, a 22-year-old photographer, was initially suspicious that what was happening at The Line was authentic. “I spent some time in the Emergent church, so I had learned to doubt if what I was hearing was real or just pretentious,” Lieske admitted. Now attends The Line regularly, sometimes helping Guerra lead worship or making coffee on Sunday mornings.
When Les Rorick, a 25-year-old actor, started coming to The Line, he was surprised to find himself rooting for Guerra as an artist, challenging him to push his music to new limits. Rorick admits that he has never felt that way about a worship leader before. “I always gave worship leaders a huge latitude of grace, thinking that, as an evangelical, the text is more important than how it sounds. But now I’m in a process of finding a balance in that. Finding that the sound is an expression of other attributes that are important, like goodness and beauty.” Text remains important of course. But, as Rorick has learned, artistic impression, wordless conduits of truth, are also of great value.
'Through the Eye into the Eternal'
In his letter to North American churches, Fujimura writes: “An artist’s task is to see through the eye into the eternal, into the invisible.” So much of God’s truth is located in the eternal and invisible. God is in the sublime, but the sublime is often only accessed by artists. To inadvertently push artists into the margins, then, is to limit a congregation’s experience of God to the finite realm of mediocrity. Artists ought to be central to any church body, because they can reinforce these unseen truths in people’s souls. Guerra is well aware of his responsibilities as an artist and does not hold their power lightly. “It’s a gift to participate in the searing of truth in people’s lives,” he says.
The Line is on a mission to give back to the church a voice that has long been muffled, the voice of artists who lead in the church. “There is an undiscovered richness of the character of God that we will find when we are led by this particular tribe of serious makers and artists and when we submit to that,” Youngren said.
Submitting yourself to this tribe is not limited to attendance at The Line, or churches with a similar elevation of artists. Anyone can submit to beauty and art by simply learning to appreciate it. Learn how to read a novel or a poem. Learn how to listen to music and experience a painting. Support the artists in your community not just spiritually but also financially. Seek out creative and unsolicited ways to do this. Attend a Milano concert or buy their new EP. Purchase a painting or attend a friend’s show. By supporting artists, you are co-collaborators with them in creativity and truth-searing. And remember that, as Fujimura pointed out, “the first people known to be filled with the Holy Spirit were not priests, kings, or generals, but artists named Bazelel and Oholiab, who built Moses’ Tabernacle.”
We need artists who can build the church, and others who are willing to fund the construction. “We need artists who are strong, who are free, who know their story, know their songs well, and can lead people into our freedom dance,” Guerra urged. And we need people who will follow them.