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P1040079_lgIn its heyday University Baptist Church in Baltimore overflowed its expansive neoclassical sanctuary.  Designed by the same architect as the Jefferson Memorial, the church’s impressive dome now shelters fewer worshippers each Sunday.  But changing times haven’t discouraged the members of University Baptist Church.  Instead the congregation continues to find new ways to impact its urban neighborhood.

Located across the street from Johns Hopkins University, University Baptist Church draws dozens of students each week for its Sunday evening service, “The Gathering.” But as the neighborhood on the other side of the church evolved into an arts enclave, church members wanted to reach out to these artists as well.

“We are in our fourth year of hosting an arts camp for children,” Associate Pastor Robin Anderson explained.  With that experience, and a growing arts presence in their neighborhood, members sought new ways to engage with their creative neighbors.

A casual conversation about art galleries led Robin to ask, “Would it be a dumb idea to do an art gallery at the church?”  Church members thought she might be on to something.  The result was  Art Under The Dome, a gallery show for local artists hosted by the church.  Twenty percent of show sales went to the African HIV/AIDS ministries of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  On the night the art show opened, an African drummer stood on the steps of the church, beckoning passersby inside with the rhythms of authentic African drums.  Almost 500 people attended the art show opening, and 400 of those had not been to the church before.  Dozens more viewed the show during its two-week run, and many signed up for a small group study.

Here’s how they did it:

1.  Direct mail and internet sites advertised the event. The church solicited artists through art-related internet message boards.  Direct mail invitations to the show opening were sent out to the neighborhood surrounding the church.

2.  A gallery team coordinated the show. One member acted as curator, selecting artwork submitted by local artists.  The curator’s choices were reviewed by the entire gallery team for final approval.  Over 20 artists participated in the art show.

3.  Professionalism was important. The gallery team maintained a professional atmosphere by replicating a real art show opening at the temporary church gallery.  This approach showed respect for the diversity of artists and patrons, while inviting further contact with the church.

4.  The community came together for a good cause. Johns Hopkins University is world-renown for its research, including research into HIV/AIDS.  Raising money for this cause helped draw both church members and artists together for a worthy endeavor.  In addition, local HIV/AIDS groups were invited to display brochures about their work in the Baltimore area.

5.  Follow-up included a small group study. Over 30 people signed up to study “The Artist’s Way,” a book written by a Christian artist, but directed toward the broader arts community.

The church is already preparing for its next art show.  The majestic church sanctuary is now a landmark recognized by the arts community as a place where faith and creativity meet under the dome.

— This article first appeared in Outreach magazine in my Small Church, Big Idea column.