Cultivating Community with Artists: An Interview with Ben Grace
Ben Grace is the Worship Director at Forefront Church in Brooklyn. He also works as a songwriter and performer in the broader New York City music community. Nicholas Zork sat down with Ben to discuss his approach to engaging artists in worship ministry.
Nicholas Zork: Many churches find it very difficult to engage artists in their community. Worship ministry would seem to afford space for artists to become involved and contribute. But so often that doesn’t happen. Where’s the disconnect?
Ben Grace: Well, most of the artists I know are question askers. They want to know the “why” behind what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re not asking the right questions as a church, or we’re afraid to ask the big questions. Also, for many churches worship has a very functional purpose: namely, to unite worshipers in praise of God. But I think we’re often afraid of the other function of worship, which is to promote beauty and awe and wonder. So when an artist doesn’t fit the typical mold of a worship leader — maybe they sing like Bob Dylan or they’re hard to understand in some way — we think we haven’t worshiped properly. But I would argue that if we’re going to unite together in all our diversity, with worship leaders being who they are and being authentic, we need a slightly different way of looking at what worship is and how people connect with God.
NZ: Because we want to bring people together, which is a good thing, we often fail to integrate worship artists who some might find inaccessible and favor those who are. Accessibility is hugely important, but it’s not the only value. What have you found to be helpful in cultivating a eclectic community of leaders who are artists?
BG: I steer pretty clear of any form of censorship. There are definitely times when I have exercised my right as a leader to say “theologically that’s not what our church believes” or “that song is off the table, and here’re why.” But if someone puts forward a song that I don’t particularly like aesthetically, that’s not my business. So I’m quite happy to let leaders be who they are. And people need to be given permission to make mistakes. In worship, it’s not about being perfect but being authentic. To cultivate community, people need to feel free to be vulnerable and bring their mess. For example, we run a monthly songwriters’ guild. And one night, we asked everyone to share the first song they ever wrote. It was so powerful to experience that vulnerability, laughter and camaraderie, hearing those first evolutionary steps, which where quite frankly not very good! It created a sense of companionship that we’re in this together; no one is better than anyone else. We all started somewhere. To a certain degree that’s what we do in church. We get together and tell the great story we’re a part of. And we recognize that we all start somewhere — we feel distant from God, we don’t feel whole, we feel broken. And so we start in that place in order to gaze together into a future that is bigger and better.
NZ: You mentioned the songwriters’ guild. Do you think there’s a synergy between the artistic community you’re cultivating within the worship ministry and beyond it?
BG: I think there is. But it wasn’t designed that way. The guild wasn’t set up to dupe artists into coming the church.
NZ: It wasn’t designed as an “onramp”?
BG: It was not an onramp. But I was actually just reflecting on the fact that all of the artists in the guild were involved in our church’s worship ministry this month. When you do have authentic community, people want to give back. Too often, we think of community as a group of likeminded people getting together because of some shared interest or identity. When we start thinking instead about what actually builds ordinary and healthy human connection — how people are seen, how people are heard, how people feel like they belong — then, you see transformation and connection. And that genuine connection does translate to people’s experience of church.
NZ: A lot of churches don’t have someone on staff who is an artist, but they want create a welcoming space for artists, where they can connect and cultivate community. What’s one thing that a church could explore doing this week?
BG: We need to have the courage to start asking hard questions. Ask the artists in your community what their hopes and fears and dreams are. Really these are “relationships 101” questions. But I think artists will respond to them. When they feel seen, when they feel known, when they feel that it’s safe for them to try something new because their pastor knows what they’re working on, they’ll have a true sense of support.
NZ: Listening is essential to cultivating any healthy community.
BG: Yes. It’s a fundamental human need. And with artists, it’s often deeper and more fractured. There’s a reason why artists are often portrayed in movies as, let’s say, a dancer who grew up in a small mining town and whose dad doesn’t understand him. Many artists realize they don’t fit in the world they’re currently in, and they trying to resonate their story out into the world, hoping it will come back to them with greater meaning.
NZ: Artists use the materials of this world to express a longing for what is not yet. So if we really want our worship to reflect the tension between the “already” and “not yet” — what God has already done and what is not yet accomplished — we need artists to express both the beauty and agony of what is and a longing for what is not yet.
BG: We have a phenomenal spoken word artist, Amy Leon, who is part of our church community. The first service she led was the week the Ferguson decision came down. She said she wasn’t sure what to do. And I said she should feel free to lament. And she did in a powerful way. That was a huge day for our church. People began to see that this was a space where their cries would be heard, where they would be listened to, where their voice matters, where they matter. And that’s what we want to do in worship.
NZ: The fundamental assumption undergirding the book of Psalms is that our cries are heard. Whether it’s a Psalm of praise filled with affirmations or a lament filled with questions for which there seem to be no answers, the assumption behind these cries is that God is listening. That’s essential to worship. And I hear you saying that knowing your church is listening is essential to cultivating community as well.
BG: Artists and all participants must feel free to make their cries audible, knowing that they have the church community’s support and understanding that they’re being held in the hands of a loving, listening God.