What is Success in the Life of the Christian Artist?
by Catherine Miller
On July 9-10, Trinity Anglican Thomasville hosted our second annual United Adoration Songwriting Retreat. We had artists, pastors, and a deacon unite to write new songs for the local church, collaborating across generations and denominations. From the ACNA, we hosted Fr. John Wallace & Chad Watson (Rosemary Beach, FL); Fr. Jon Hall, his wife Dr. Sarah Lebhar Hall, and their two children along with Worship Leader Kelsey Tesalona and three artists from Incarnation (Tallahassee, FL); my fellow Institute for Worship Studies cohort member Jennifer Nicholson from St. Peter’s Cathedral (Tallahassee, FL); Darlene Fray, Worship Director at Redeemer (Jacksonville, FL); David LaCagnina, Worship Arts Director at Servants of Christ Anglican (Gainesville, FL), and Dcn. Kim Allen, Christ Church (Vero Beach, FL).
What happens at a UA Songwriting Retreat?
We gather artists and pastors to write songs, develop community, worship, and collaborate. Our writing theme for this retreat was “Unity” and we had hymns, collects, and scriptures related to that theme to inspire our work. Friday evening we wrote songs based on children’s toys (Yes...there was a song called “The Eye of Chewbacca” and a ballad about a toy fighter airplane!) and then broke for quiet meditation and contemplative time before our Compline service, planned by Jennifer Nicholson and myself. Saturday we had several hours to write words and music, alone and together. We made space during the day to talk about our struggles and to encourage each other. Intercessors from Trinity Anglican (Thomasville, GA) were available throughout the weekend to pray for the participants.
We hosted experienced songwriters as well as novices. Four people with limited or no experience wrote songs, and two of them were youth! Jennifer Nicholson wrote a canticle with Chris Hall, a multi-instrumentalist from Trinity Anglican Thomasville. She said this about her experience:
Recently, my daily prayer discipline of reading the daily office during my lunch break at work has motivated me to write canticles. I had an idea on Friday night of the retreat for the canticle "Arise, shine, for your light has come" - but my song idea was complex. At the retreat the next day, it was suggested I partner with Chris Hall, who was able to help me with the chord structure and give some feedback on my melody. I had only met Chris once briefly before, but our unity around our faith helped us both engage and consider the Scriptures creatively. In the moment of performance, I felt I was exactly where I needed to be: glorifying God through my gifts and the gifts of others.
The theme of unity provided inspiration for songs. David LaCagnina, Rick Guerry, and Dave Hall (Gainesville, FL) wrote “One Body, One Spirit, One Hope” based on the Collect for the Unity of all Christian People. Josh Rivers, a jazz artist from Valdosta, GA, collaborated with Sarah Hall, Cassidy Christenson, Kelsey Tesalona, and Sophie Silver from Incarnation TLH to write “Burn Within Us.” The chorus is a communal prayer:
We hear your voice
Open our eyes
Soften our hearts
May they burn within us
What is Success in the Life of the Christian Artist?
At the Compline service, I spoke about success and failure in the life of the Christian artist. The world says that success is found in writing chart-topping songs, selling paintings for tens of thousands of dollars, working for large churches, achieving a generous salary, or directing a large choir. The life of Christ says something different. Jesus lived in the wilderness with a small group of close friends. He didn’t raise up an army like many thought he would. He spent time with his Father and this union directed his path.
Some artists may ask themselves, “if success is found in revenue, social status, or the number of Instagram followers, then what is the point of my meager offering?” I was in this state of mind a few years ago. I remember sitting in my backyard, crying out to God - what was the point? Why did I go to music school? Why did I have a desire to make music but no venue to do so? At that time, I was still equating sharing my music with monetary gain. I also had places of pain in my life tied to songwriting and writing in general that needed to be healed.
I had bought into the lie that my work did not matter. The Church, though, is richer with me in it. The church is richer with you, also. Evangelists, pastors, prophets, teachers, and apostles (Eph. 4:13): we are all important members in the body of Christ; without any one of us, the body is not whole. What if our churches were strengthened as we embraced a team-leadership model that practiced decision-making with communal discernment? What if we redefined failure as a failure to risk? What if we redefine success as following Jesus, creating from a place of prayer and Scripture-reading even if it means our work doesn’t sell? So often we run our churches and music ministries with the marketing and business wisdom of the world, absent from a posture of prayer. We attempt to lead on empty tanks, starved for the relationship with the Father that fueled Christ’s ministry on earth.
Our success cannot be found in albums sold, the size of the choir, or the budget. Obedience to Christ is all that our success is built on. He didn’t ask us to be famous. He didn’t promise us that our music would sell millions, or at all. He just said, “follow me” (Matt. 4:19).
A follower of Christ knows the scriptures. They live a disciplined life of Sabbath rest, daily prayer, private and corporate worship, and deep relationships with others on that journey. A Christian artist engaging in these practices can be open and unafraid before God, bringing to the canvas or studio the wisdom and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their work.
Collaborating with the Holy Spirit softens our hearts to be able to collaborate with each other, working together as the Church to fulfill Christ’s mission. The work of the Spirit in the lives of believers in Acts was what set them apart. Not their church size. Not their marketing plan. Not their trendy worship music. The vision of the church in Ephesians 4 is one in which we each have a unique role to fill, where we reflect the image of the Creator in our collaboration, an effort only possible when we lead from our union with Christ.
We need to give our vocations, our churches, our ministries, and our plans to Christ, using the gifts he has given us to serve his mysterious work of new creation in the world. Success in the life of the Christian artist is the same as success in the life of any Christian: following the Holy Spirit and growing more Christ-like in our devotion and obedience to the Great Creator who formed us.
Our next retreat will be a multi-disciplinary Worship Arts Retreat on November 12-13, 2021, in Thomasville, GA. If you would like to host a UA Event at your church, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. United Adoration will be hosting a conference October 7-9 in Ft. Wayne, IN and online ($25), focusing on building healthy creative communities.
Catherine Miller is a Master’s student at Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies and serves as the Online Team Leader and a Retreat Leader for United Adoration.