Updated: Mar 24
Last week I would have argued with you about being called an artist.
I can’t paint, recite poetry, or perform on stage. My poor wife knows that I can’t sing and have two left feet on a dance floor! I have no natural talent with musical instruments, sculpting tools, or cameras. However, this past weekend I was able to attend the Underground^Open Conference in Tampa, FL, a conference designed for missionaries.
While there, we were gifted to attend workshops, listen to speakers, and hear from panels all pertaining to mission as art. As a result, I learned a lot and was impacted by each bit of the weekend.
In an effort to keep this post under an hour long read, I am going to trim it down to ten takeaways from the Underground^Open:
1. Failure can be beautiful: Several of the artists this weekend spoke to the fact that failing is part of the process. For me, like I’m sure many of you experience, when I fail, I sometimes want to burn it all and move on. But sometimes the failure makes the next attempt more beautiful. Failure allows for refining and refocusing. During one of the panels a painter mentioned that she made a mistake with a line in a painting. After completing the painting she realized the mistake was actually one of the most beautiful sections of the piece.
“Without the risk of failure, art cannot be as spectacular as it is.” - Serene Gualtieri
2. Don’t be so serious: Throughout the weekend the concept of “play” was mentioned several times. Kingdom work is definitely a serious undertaking, but if we focus on the gravity of everything and miss the levity, our work can feel flat, hollow, and dead. Following the play that brings us joy shows us something of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
“Everything around you is something God has given you to enhance your play. Don't forget to play.” - Brad Everett
3. Don’t define other people’s missions: I think this is a good word for the work that the St. Pete Underground is doing. We want to be a resource to the missional idea. We want to see small expressions of God’s Kingdom pop up all over Pinellas County. But we shouldn’t teach people what they are supposed to do. We should teach them how to discover what God has called them to do. Our lessons, workshops, classes, messages, and coaching should be on providing tools for people to be the artists themselves.
“You can’t teach people art. You can teach the tools to create art.” - Jon Seals
4. Teams are important: One of the panels this weekend was a team of improvisers from the Box Theater. They were asked a load of questions and their answers came back to some form of “We build relationship with the people on stage with us and we trust each other.” In scripture, we see Jesus send His disciples two by two. It is immeasurably valuable to have people around you that you can rely on, working towards the same thing as you.
“I’ve got your back and I want to take this on together.” - Annie Scott
5. The audience matters (sometimes): Each group of artists was asked about how much the audience or the end product matters to their creative process. After looking through their answers, I think it is best summarized like this: We are called to create and will be creating because we are called. The audience has relevance to the process because the thing we create is for consumption. This concept was fascinating to me. I think we feel called to mission, and we are on mission because we are called. Being faithful to God’s calling is enough. But realizing that each person in your audience will receive things differently is an important lesson.
“When you create, you cannot be wrong.” - Michelle Lang
6. Shut up and empower others: During the poetry panel, the discussion turned a little bit towards the next generation. The message presented was one of the incredible importance of raising up the voices around you. Encouraging and empowering people’s voices helps to release the priesthood of all believers.
“We are leading things, to empower, not to hold tight.” - Wally B
7. There is always more to learn: I was with a friend at the conference. My friend is incredibly talented and has tried his hand at several artistic expressions. During a breakout session we were asked to try a beginners workshop of something new that we haven’t done previously. My friend looked down and realized that the list of things he hadn’t tried was quite diminished. He still picked a workshop and had a go at it. This just served as a reminder to me that even the most talented and revered people at a task always have something more to learn. Sometimes the things we are called to don’t have “professionals” or “accepted practices.”
“You are never going to be an expert. If you think you are the best at something you won't continue to push, learn, create.” - Brad Everett
8. Ignite missional fireworks: The work that we are doing should be a sweet chord progression that people notice as they run to catch a subway. Something that grabs the heart of people who hear it. The eyes of those around us should be drawn to the work that we are doing, because it is so beautiful, awe inspiring, unexpected, and counter cultural. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve heard “why?” when I invite someone over to my house for an open dinner. The missional work we are doing should be like fireworks on a clear night. People’s eyes should be drawn to the work, and then pointed to Jesus.
“Do something so compelling it turns faces away from evil.” - Brian Sanders
9. Celebrate uniqueness: Our movement is made up of about 20 microchurches spread out over Pinellas County (and actually beyond - Hey Kairos and Urban Youth Justice!). Not one of these microchurches is identical to another. The Underground has over 15 sister movements in different cities and countries and not one of them is identical to another. Each leader in our movement has a unique story and a unique skill set. Each missional expression will have its own uniqueness because of context, leadership, and background. These unique expressions will hopefully come together to serve all of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
“Your uniqueness and your power is not just for you. If it's just benefitting you, you are perverting the gift.” - Wally B
10. The world is still broken: A long weekend of worship and focusing on the beauty of mission and art can paint the world with a pretty Instagram lens. The reality is that we still live in a post-fallen world. I saw a post online after the conference from a friend who also attended. The morning after the spiritually uplifting weekend, my friend woke up to police tape and shell casings in his front yard. There had been a shooting in the very center of his missional enterprise. We live in a dark world and God calls us to create light in a variety of ways.
“[We woke up] to an immediate reminder after Underground^Open of the urgency of our call to create beautiful, holy, and hope filled expressions of the church all over the city that confront evil in all of its forms.” - Lucas Pulley
Your favorite coffee shop is a stage. Your place of work is a sheet of paper. And your living room is a canvas.
The Father has gifted you uniquely to operate in these spaces. Be sent into the missional art field, take a risk, and create.
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