France - Words from Justin Thomas

Pastor of Calvary: The Hill, Justin Thomas penned these words on Friday after the first day of our planned installation. 

In this update, he talks about what he has learned in working with artists in the church. His words have extreme value and meaning to me - I hope you find something new in this as well. 

Friday Paris Update
Today was such an encouraging day. We had our first debrief as a team and it was much needed. I wasn’t the only one feeling tired and we all agreed it was time for some changes. We decided to dial back some of our schedule to leave more time for recovery and reflection. We were all running so hard that by the time we got to our evening events (the focal points of our time here) we were barely holding on and therefore not very present.
We also decided to attempt the art installation we have been working towards. Doing something so out of the box in a foreign place is intimidating. You don’t know if people will engage, if the police will shut it down, or (since it was conceived in brains and on paper back home and then built here) if it will even work. After explaining the project to the team and a little bit of prayer we set out through the streets of paris. Some of us carrying large wooden posts over our shoulders, as if to announce “the american artists have arrived”.
The installation looks like this; people use string to answer a few multiple choice questions such as, How old are you (0-18, 19-39, 40-60), What is more important (Liberty, Fraternity, Equality), etc. We then asked them to write one word on a piece of paper and pose for a polaroid with the word. We gave them a copy and hung the other one from their answer string. Over time the strings started to make different patterns across the wooden posts.
This project was the brainchild of the Artist Reformation Intern Scout so once we arrived she called the shots. Under her direction we blocked half the promenade with the installation and completed a few strings ourselves. By then already people were starting to stop and look (baguette lunch in hand of course). What followed was good conversations (one of them more than an hour long) and surprising questions. One person, after hearing we were Christians asked if we were only doing this to take pictures of atheists to laugh at later. Christians are such a minority here, not many parisians know any Christians personally. Apparently they assumed that Christians were hostile against non christians which makes a project like this especially valuable. The misunderstanding can be easily disproven and thus opens them up to conversation.
One of the best parts of the project was that the whole team easily found their place in roles that they felt both useful and comfortable in. Some ran around drawing people in to participate, others led them through the project or took pictures, others still engaged in follow up conversations. Together we accomplished something compelling and valuable.
I have been working with artists regularly for a while now (remember it was short films that brought us to Paris) and I can tell you that the excitement of an artistic project coming together is nothing less than magical. As I dream of seeing churches reengage with the arts, I thought I would take the time to share some of the things I have learned. First trust the artist. Seeking to control or contain or use them mechanically for your vision forgets both that they are artists and that you are not. The body of Christ works best in diversity but that always requires trust. Second, recognize they see more than they are able to communicate beforehand. The primary way an artist communicates is through the art itself, so be content to see it in action instead of preemptively trying to shape or fix it. Lastly, the best role you can play (as a leader or pastor) is support, help them to know that you believe in the project and in them and avail yourself to them in any way possible.
I long for the church and christian artists to get back to how it used to be; when the church was the great patron and promoter of the arts. Art is like a side door into the truth and its tremendously capable of getting past human defenses. (Just think of the Prophet Nathan telling David a story about a man and a sheep to get him to recognize the horror of his own sin). Christianity itself believes in creativity because we were created in the image of the creator God.
We took the photos back to the church and hung them on the wall so that if anyone joins us there is a contact point between their participation in the park and the church.
That night we discussed the short film we’ve called “the Self-Loving Mother”. This character is the reason I wanted to do this Great Divorce project and I love watching people engage with the deep and difficult message it presents. We had a long and wonderful discussion with the audience about love, loss and the paradox of how making Jesus first makes us better (and not worse) lovers of our friends, family and neighbors.
By the end of the day the change in our team was palpable. We weren’t just recovered but rejuvenated and excited for what God is doing in our trip. Our whole week is moving towards Sunday when we show all the films, tomorrow is our last day of outreach and we are excited to see its culmination.