In preparation for our upcoming workshop I was able to interview Luann Jennings of the Church & Art Network.
How did you get interested in the connection between faith and a career in the arts?
It was the very first thing I thought about when I started to understand what Christianity was all about, because being an artist was my primary identity then. I wasn’t ready to give that up. I had already been working for several years as a theatre director in Atlanta, when I first heard the Gospel in a way that started to make sense to me. I had “hit bottom,” emotionally and spiritually, and realized that nothing I did or tried or ran after made my life feel meaningful. My life was all about me – and I knew me, so I knew that some terrible disconnect was going on there. There had to be something better than a life built around someone so flawed.
I stumbled accidentally into a Bible-teaching church, Intown Community Church in northeast Atlanta. That’s a funny story in itself, which I won’t go on a rabbit trail to tell now. But after listening in church for a few months, getting to know some people there, and attending a seeker-friendly Bible study, I found myself nearly ready to profess faith in Christ. I met with my pastor (Bob Cargo) and asked him, “If I do this [become a Christian], will I still be able to direct the plays of David Mamet?” Mamet is known for the poetic genius and ear-blistering quantity of profanity in his plays – and I had recently had some success directing two of them. So I was already wrestling with two of the biggest questions that artists who are Christians face: What am I “allowed” to do? And, will I have to give up any hope of worldly success? My pastor replied, “Well, I don’t know who David Mamet is, but you’re just going to have to take it on a case-by-case basis.” That was the very best advice I could have been given then, and I’ve repeated it to others many times (without the David Mamet part). I got to hear early on that there’s not a one-size-fits-all, or a one-situation-fits-all, way to be a Christian in the arts.
Thank goodness, no one ever told me that it wasn’t okay to be a Christian in the arts. Frankly, if anyone had, I don’t know if I would have ever put my faith in Christ. Why would I want a Savior who wouldn’t want a theatre director? And why would I want a Creator who wouldn’t want my creativity? I didn’t discover until years later that many, many artists had been made to feel that they had to choose between their faith and their creative gifts. A lot of them landed in New York City, far from God. I got to hear their stories as God drew them back to himself through telling them a different story about the value of their art to him.
How did you end up in New York City?
God brought me here, although I didn’t realize that at the time, of course. I thought – as I tend to do – that I was making a decision that would be good for my life. I’d been working a “day job” in the worship and music department at Intown Community Church for seven years at that point, and had started my own theatre company on the side, FirstStage. We’d produced thirteen shows in four years, and we were tired. Plus, the two people I’d started the company with, Jen and Mike Tamborello, were expecting their first child, so we decided it was a good time to take a year’s break from the theatre.
I came up with a great plan to permanently get out of that church ministry day job and work full-time in theatre by opening my own acting studio. So I enrolled in a nine-month program in New York City to learn an acting technique that I planned to come back to Atlanta and teach. I had absolutely no intention of staying in the one place I swore I’d never live. Well, what God had planned for me was (1) marriage, to – I kid you not – the first single man I met here and (2) a continued life in ministry, in NYC. But I didn’t know either of those yet. Through networking, I got a day job working at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in their worship and music department, while I took my acting class on nights and weekends.
Around the same time, Redeemer was founding an innovative new ministry department, the Center for Faith and Work. Their pastor, Tim Keller, had long realized that people who came to NYC to “make it” in their professions often struggled with integrating their faith with their work – basically, with understanding the real meaning of “vocation,” or calling. I knew that CFW’s new director, Katherine Leary, was interested in creating programs for artists, but wasn’t an artist herself. So I approached her, and became the second staff member of CFW. And Redeemer’s Arts Ministry was born. Redeemer had programs for musicians through its music ministry, had programs for musicians through its music ministry, but nothing for visual artists, dancers, writers, filmmakers, etc. So that’s what I did for six years. I like to claim that Tim Keller’s new book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work is dedicated to me. Really, it’s dedicated to the staff of CFW, which I still consider myself (historically) part of.
Why did you leave Redeemer and start Church and Art Network?
Once again, God brought me here. During my time at Redeemer, I became very interested in professional development for artists – an emerging field often called arts entrepreneurship and leadership. Whereas great books, sermons, organizations, and other resources were out there to help artists think well about their work theologically; no one was really helping artists incorporate their faith into the practicalities of being a working artist.
I’ve seen so many talented artists get discouraged and quit, when a few new skills and some adjusted expectations might have given them the tools they needed to continue on. If our work as Christians, in this world, is to build God’s Kingdom and “renew culture,” then culture is not served by artists who aren’t working.
It doesn’t sound terribly spiritual – or terribly artsy – to talk about economics and marketing and business strategy. But they are “the law of gravity” in the arts (if you want to know what that means, come to the workshop). If a bunch of Christians got together to build a bridge, we wouldn’t expect to just know what it was we were supposed to do, or expect that God would wave his wand and make it all miraculously work out well. If the bridge collapsed, no one would say, “Well, I guess it just wasn’t God’s will for a bridge to be there.” Yet that’s how many of us artists have approached our creative work – we haven’t done our homework then blamed God when it didn’t work out. Or, we’ve refused to participate in the ways of the larger marketplace and have created our own Christian arts subculture, which might be okay unless we want our work to have impact outside of our own community of Christian believers.
So that’s what I’m working on now, and what I started Church and Art Network to help do. C&A’s mission is to “engage the church with communities through the arts, and engage the church with the arts through arts leaders” – and through arts entrepreneurs. I consider entrepreneurs to be leaders, too (again, come to the workshop to learn more). It’s exciting to be thinking and talking about something so new, and I love sharing it with others and sending them out with new tools to use in their Kingdom work.
But the most important question is: Do you miss Atlanta?
I sure do. Especially on days like today when I look out my window at snow on the ground. I’m really excited to be there in March and see dogwoods! And do you know what these people charge here for barbecue? It’s criminal.
If this has spurred you interest in learning more about the Arts and Faith, I encourage you to join us at the Art Talk and Artist Workshop at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church. More information about this event is found on our previous blog. Atlanta Arts Network Presents: Art Talk and Workshop March 15-16