What Is Love Is Concrete?
Todd Fadel is a worship leader in Portland, Oregon, and his approach to participation is as “folk” as you can get but also what you might call experimental worship. Everyone is encouraged to sing, to write, to lead. And that’s just what they do. Even if this type of artistic approach is unrealistic in your worshiping community, there are still things to learn from those on the cutting edge. So our first question for Todd was, of course:
WL: What is Love Is Concrete?
Todd: Love Is Concrete is a supportive environment made up of a growing network of worshipers, both leadership and laypeople, where love and worship can be practiced and modeled through collaborative arts, imaginative community experiments, and inspiring exhibitions and conversations. A place where we creatively skill-share and “reverse engineer” the frequently vague flow of community participation. We employ playful approaches and find ourselves laughing more than most people.
The online environment [loveisconcrete.ning.com] provides windows to other communities where we can take our experiments on trial runs and work the logistics out. We try to employ every available (inexpensive) technology to do this. Currently, due to our meager means, we only use free online services that provide collaborative tools (sneffel, ning, ustream, diigo, mindmeister, ninjam, livestream, hobnox, tokbox, google, etc.). For some smaller communities, that need to plug in to a network of this kind, that’s a liberating concept: to not have to exhaust already dwindling resources to help foster community engagement.
WL: What is the aim?
Todd: We see the need to encourage a more complete representation of the heart of the people before God, in all aspects of that journey; the humor and the hunger, the wrestling and resting, the sacrificing and the submission, the raging and the reflection. And, in doing so, we hope to provide an opportunity for those voices who have been consistently overlooked to finally be honored and heard.
WL: What needs to happen in a service of worship for those “overlooked voices” to feel encouraged to contribute to devotional art?
Todd: Art can tell the story of the under-represented voice in a visceral, palpable way, and shared experiences provide the healthy soil for the complete representation of the heart of the people before God to manifest itself. Many leaders see art through the lens of a consumer. Widespread artistic literacy training in every community could help provide a backdrop for showing the necessity of these expressions and their positive impact on community. Leaders need to be invested in the idea that art is an excuse to bear witness to the Spirit of God moving among us, illustrated both through our common pains and perseverance. When we treat art as a luxury for the elite, we rob our communities from seeing a more robust account of God’s glory through every aspect of our lives.
One way church leaders can move forward in a more artistically literate way would be to start approaching artistic works with a heart for discovery. Michael Demkowicz, a friend and educator, uses a helpful question to exercise this “muscle”: “What insight can be gained by a reading of this poem? A viewing of this film? A hearing of this song?”
When a backdrop of artistic literacy finds its way into our communities, stories, and songs of all sorts can find their home. The gospel is a story that illustrates the inclusive love of God, invading humanity and incarnating himself—jumping into his own work—and becoming acquainted with our grief, sympathizing with our weakness, braving torture because of the assurance of joy on the other side. Art then, must not only illustrate our joy, but also our struggle, if it is to engage community more effectively.
We can use lyrics that open up that conversation. We can resist the urge to “tidy up.” We can remind ourselves that Jesus is our high-priest and that we can boldly approach God as adopted ones.
WL: Do you think there needs to be an intentional push for leaders to “lower the artistic bar,” so everyone can feel encouraged to be involved?
Todd: Leaders tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to the possibilities of art. The “bar,” as you call it, needs to be broadened to show what possibilities there are. If we cling to familiar expressions, the imminent danger is that unfamiliar expressions are deemed “lower” or sometimes “profane.” I perceive the psalmists to be experimental and occasionally flippant in their conversations with God, illustrating an intimate trust that assumes that contending with God can be more daring than what is currently employed in most communities.
Also, a broader aesthetic, in general, gives voices context. For instance, I had a private songwriting student that came to me with no previous experience. In addition to teaching, I also ran a concert venue in my home town, hosting over 1,000 concerts from various artists; from acoustic to hardcore, filmmakers to performance artists. With these experiences floating in my memory, I was adequately equipped to hear her emerging voice in a context that I was more familiar with. In fact, I was able to introduce her to artists whose expressions she could more readily identify with. The more we are able to see the vast possibilities of expression, the more we can value those that embody those expressions and include them in the joyful experiment of bearing witness to God’s interaction within our communities.
WL: How do you motivate the people in your community to risk themselves and join the artistic expression?
Todd: I never want to downplay the amount of courage required to risk looking like a fool (or an undignified-freedom-flaunter) in an environment where that behavior is only exercised by a select, “qualified” few. I don’t feel brow-beating a community into participating more is an effective motivator. What is needed is for leaders to exhibit the type of extravagance they envision, and tap into that compulsion to “cry out.” Show one another how vulnerable, we ourselves, are allowed to be. I believe we often find ourselves trapped in a line of reasoning that leads to regulating more and giving less and less permission in a community setting. Maybe we’re afraid the messiness will frighten the tithers, I don’t know.
Play is a word we, in Love Is Concrete, give for experimentation in an environment where premature reflection and criticism is temporarily withheld. It has been my observation and experience that joy is a fruit of this risky labor: to allow room in this rigid environment for our people to take risks and learn from (perceived) failures. Maybe that’s because we feel God’s acceptance more completely when we value even the uglier moments. For instance, “to weep with those who weep” is not a song we often sing, even when we have the cause or opportunity to do so. But we are all capable of creatively exploring these common human characteristics in a service setting. When we under-represent certain more complicated chapters of the human-God interaction, or merely over-represent the tidy chapters, we communicate the belief that God doesn’t want to hear our grief. What psalmist wants to hear that news?
So those that sit and simply listen sometimes have good reason to, but that’s not all there is. A greater joy is waiting.
WL: Do you feel like you sacrifice anything sonically when you take the inclusive approach? How do you define excellence, in your paradigm?
Todd: What we “sacrifice” in sonics, we more than make up for in love, joy, and peace. Excellence would be defined as a people surrounding each other in the intimate knowledge of their creative God, feeling supported enough to risk extravagantly, and being sensitive enough to the context so as not to trample on the risks taken by others—a community where all voices are honored and heard.
WL: Please share one inclusive artistic activity that you do that you could see translating to a more traditional approach to a service of worship.
Todd: One activity we’ve tried that has been effective is giving everyone a piece of paper on their chairs and ask them to, off the top of their heads, write a seven-syllable phrase that describes “how God messes things up for you.” We don’t tell them what they are for. After we collect them, their anonymous phrases are projected and the worship facilitators lead the people in singing the lines that they wrote, including them in a song/songs where the syllable structure fits (e.g. seven syllables). It’s a simple-yet-empowering thing to give value to the people’s personal, sometimes messy, thoughts by singing them in a community song immediately, without edits.
WL: You are also a bit of a music activist, discovering fresh sounds in the Church. Which bands or artists are you most excited about?
Todd: I love Aaron Strumpel’s ability to go anywhere with his music. We’ve found a great pocket of music experimenters with him. The Blackthorn Project, A Boy and His Kite, Tim Coons, and others. I like reading what Sally Morgenthaler, Mark Pierson, and Steve Collins have to say about worship. The drawings and sketches of Breena Wiederhoeft and John Hendrix blow me away. Dan Merchant is nicely pulling together this messy narrative with his movie. I’m also very interested in where John Mark McMillan is going. He is a great collaborator. Soul Junk, Danielson Famile, and Dan Zimmerman are all favorites because they have been so faithful with their mission to stretch the Christian community. Watch out for Great Comfort Records in the coming months. Bifrost Arts is honoring community song creatively. Josh Garrells’ next album is going to rule, methinks. The songwriters and artists that we are still discovering within our home community, The Bridge, are very exciting: Laura, Mimi, Inkre:Mentals, Kim, Meheriet, Joel, Olga, and others. We’ll be releasing 50 songs before year’s end, if we can raise the money to record and make CDs.