by Mike Picconatto
During our first term in Germany about 10 years ago, my wife, Elissa, and I helped an Alliance-affiliated church plant in Berlin establish a ministry center where we started exhibiting art to draw in the community. We stumbled through our first few exhibits and rapidly discovered that displaying art was far more complex than merely hanging pictures on walls. We partnered with a local artist, formed a curation team, and ran a gallery, called Gallery2, in partnership with the church for the next two and a half years.
Through the 17 exhibits we held at the gallery, we discovered that art sparks conversations because art itself communicates. It has a way of bypassing our logical or pre-conceived arguments by connecting directly with our emotions. When the gallery displayed pictures of women in Morocco who shared that the only freedom they have is the color, pattern, and fabric of their clothing, we had conversations with neighbors and visitors about the intrinsic value of people created in the image of God.
At another exhibit, we displayed a glass sculpture that represented reunification by a South Korean artist who views Germany’s reunification as a hopeful message for his own land. This opened new ways to talk with guests about conflict and resolution. Art consistently cut through small talk and bridged connections between the artist’s passion and ours.
A new community formed as we created spaces for these art-inspired conversations. The exhibits resonated with our community, and Gallery2 was twice named “Gallery of the Month” in an important local magazine. Our guests began to interact with the works we displayed, and artists felt they had the opportunity to communicate ideas that were vital to them. And as people learned we were Christians and that the space was connected with a church, they began to view the church differently.
A Meeting Place
Before Elissa and I left for home assignment in 2017, we exhibited an artist named Thomas, who highlighted how important these dialogues are as he reflected on his past. Thomas started following Christ during the peaceful revolution in former East Berlin that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the government oppressed art and music they disagreed with, these artists found their home in the church. Churches would let punk bands perform concerts to provide people a safe place to express themselves. When people wanted to plan for peaceful protests against the government, they found harbor in churches. This pattern was repeated not only in Berlin but also in churches across East Germany.
Thomas was attracted to the church because it gave room for creativity and space to address cultural issues of the day. He laments that the church no longer consistently gives fringe artists a voice nor creates a safe space for non-churched people in the community to wrestle with meaningful questions.
Thomas’s rubric for a church’s engagement—assisting artists to have a voice and joining with non-churched people in cultural dialogue on important issues—was one I had never used before. Some of my friends were concerned that it might not be a biblical rubric. However, the Apostle Paul displayed a remarkable ability to present the gospel using artistic symbols (including statues to idols) and cultural references as well as engaging with contemporary non-churched thinkers and philosophers.
As a long-time pastor who used fall festivals, Motorcycle Sundays, and other means to connect with the community and as an international worker who helped run an art gallery overseas with a similar purpose, I was intrigued by Thomas’s ideas.
When I decided to use these ideas on our home assignment in 2017–2018, Elissa and I were struck by how many Christian artists talked with us. Artists approached us in almost every church and regularly communicated three messages to us:
- Artists felt affirmed as we emphasized art as a means of communication; they finally had a space to bring their emotive responses to God and the world around them.
- Because their expression is often image or performance-based, many artists felt like they had no voice in Christian community. If a church primarily emphasizes the spoken or written word, the communication style of many artists is left out.
- Many artists saw nuance in issues that they did not know how to address, which sometimes made them feel like outsiders in their own church communities when they weren’t willing or able to pick a side on complicated issues.
Artists often feel lonely and isolated in the churches they call home, and they struggle to find the words to express this feeling. One artist friend of ours shared, “If I could use words, I would be an author. I can’t, so I paint!” Members of our church family are struggling because we do not fully understand their ways of communicating. The church needs to create a space where artists can use their language of creativity and be valued and understood.
As Elissa and I processed these themes, we became more curious about what it would look like to reach out in post-modern, post-Christian Germany if we deliberately sought the treffpunkt (meeting place) of art, faith, and culture. Throughout the history of the world and the Church, these three elements have greatly impacted one another. We determined that we would work to create a place where these three strands (art, faith, and culture) could meet.
Faith-Based Culture Care
Elissa and I wrestled with what Makoto Fujimura, an artist, author, and Christian, calls “culture care.” We yearned to create safe places for artists to come together, places where people from multiple cultures gather together to discuss, argue, lament, and rejoice in the complicated issues of culture and faith. We wanted to be part of shaping and impacting our community for the Kingdom in a way that recognizes and values artistic, cultural, and intercultural expressions.
Part of this plan involved creating faith communities that will remain after our ministry in Berlin concludes. When we returned to Berlin, we initiated a house church network called Journey. We had the privilege of welcoming some amazing colleagues onto our aXcess team to work with German and Arabic-speaking people. The Journey church plant now has three house churches and a Bible study that meet weekly with one monthly meeting all together. For Easter, a few other local house churches joined Journey for a total of 65 people representing 15 different nations celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus together! This gathering included some of our friends from former East Germany, Arabic speakers from different cultures (some of whom moved to Berlin during the 2015 refugee movement from Syria), and Ukrainian refugees.
Elissa and I left our aXcess team to found Envision Berlin in April 2021 with the hope of reaching more artists in our community and provide opportunities for U.S. artists to use their gifts in ministry. The Envision Berlin team now includes the Jones and Siemens families, who are currently in language school and beginning to engage in local ministry. As we reflected on our experiences in our first term and what we had encountered on home assignment, we developed Envision Berlin’s core values:
- developing a deeper-life community through shared patterns of core, Jesus-centered, spiritual disciplines;
- participating in presence-based ministry by being deeply involved in and committed to our local community;
- engaging artists and creatives from both the U.S. church and our local community;
- using applied education principles: being lifelong learners who apply what we learn and offering transformative education to people on-site and in our sending churches; and
- serving other Alliance and local ministries well by functioning as a ministry hub.
In practice, this has meant building a library of resources for local partners, producing podcasts that help people explore and apply new ideas, exhibiting local artists in our new gallery space, leading and co-leading house churches, interacting with and honoring our neighborhood’s painful history by developing a Jewish history tour and telling the stories of our historic neighbors, and more.
Founding the Envision Berlin nonprofit organization in Germany and sharing our vision of investing in next-generation ministry leaders at the intersection of art, faith, and culture has led to challenging and exciting discussions with our neighbors and other Berliners.
We love finding opportunities to be involved in the culture of our community and witnessing how different art mediums create welcoming places for people to engage in meaningful ideas. In March 2022, we had more than 100 people stop and listen to the music at our first window concert, where a musician performs inside our gallery behind our large show-windows and the audience gathers on the street to hear the music over our sound system. More than 40 people also came to the opening of a recent art exhibit in Envision Berlin’s creative space.
On the opening night of our first art exhibit in our new space June 3, 2022, a highly engaged local volunteer stopped by at the invitation of one of our aXcess colleagues. She was fascinated by the art, captivated by the theme, and spoke passionately about what sets humans apart from other living things. She told us that a small art gallery had existed across the street from our new space for decades until the elderly artist and gallerist could no longer manage the necessary work. The neighborhood volunteer was thrilled to see art being shared again on this very same street.
Envision Berlin’s creative space exists in the Weißensee district of Berlin. For the almost 40,000 people who live here, there are only four evangelical churches, including the Journey house-church network. Many of our formerly East German neighbors are atheists, not because they are angry at God, but simply because they don’t see Him as relevant to their lives.
Through house churches and gallery spaces, we are endeavoring to become places where everyone has a voice and meaningful dialogue is exchanged. We are striving to be all things to all people, so that by all possible means, we might save some (see 1 Corinthians 9:22).
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