The art of the Gospel
Melody Cameron and her two daughters had just left the stage after performing a timbrel routine at the Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings in Maine when they encountered some unlikely fans.
“We were stopped by three guys in their 20s who said, ‘That was so amazing. We couldn’t stop watching. We loved what you did.’ We were really surprised that we reached a demographic that we didn’t think would ever be interested in watching a timbrel routine,” Melody said. “It was exciting. We hope our routine is a bit of a hook to bring people in to hear the gospel message that comes with the rest of the program here at Old Orchard Beach.”
“The Cameron Family,” featuring Melody and daughters Madison, 15, and Hillary, 13, travel from Toronto, Canada, each year to perform at the Old Orchard Beach Pier against a backdrop of contemporary Christian music with the lyrics displayed behind them on a giant screen.
As thousands of people walk by the stage, the performers push the gospel message late into the night in this ultimate “open–air meeting.” Some people who know little about Jesus Christ or would normally shun “organized religion,” stop and watch for hours. Nearly every performer evokes the name of Jesus and they always work the gospel message into their routines.
It’s a reminder that the “gospel arts”—a throwback to The Salvation Army’s earliest days—remain a great way to spread the love of God and the gospel message, if tailored to today’s culture. In fact, the earliest Salvationists used zany characters (such as Nashan Garabedian, better known as “Joe the Turk”) and a band of quirky, attention–seeking acts in their open–air meetings to reach the poor, hungry, homeless, and drunkards of 19th century England and later in the United States.
It’s our history
Erin Morgan, the territory’s dance ministries specialist who leads the MOVE Dance Co., said The Salvation Army has a long tradition of taking current trends and “transforming them into acts of worship.” One example was Founder William Booth taking the familiar melodies of drinking songs and changing the lyrics to gospel–related ones. Those songs would then be sung in Salvation Army churches.
“Why is this so effective in reaching the lost?” Morgan asked. “Often there is a clear separation between the church and those we call ‘lost.’ The separation can grow so stark that those who do not know the Lord are made to feel like outsiders,” she said. “Using the arts as a means of presenting the gospel can be a less intimidating way for people to receive the message.
“People who claim that they would never step foot in a church may stop by and see a live performance and in turn be introduced to a loving God.”
Another example of changing things up a bit to reach the unchurched was this year’s performance of the musical “Peter Pan” by the territory’s Creative Arts Service Team (CAST). The audience may have come expecting the traditional telling of the story, but the directors and producers found a spiritual angle.
“The fine arts are a really good way to reach people,” said CAST member Samuel Laro, who played John Darling and is studying theater at Millikin University. “It’s sort of a non–aggressive evangelism. People are ministered to right where they are. They want to come to the show and then sometimes they receive the message without even realizing it.”
One of Laro’s castmates, Tatiana Saintilus, who played Tiger Lily in “Peter Pan,” agreed.
“I think the gospel arts speak to the everyday person,” she said. “They sense that we’re just everyday people trying to develop our relationship with the Lord.”
Saying it with art
Kathryn Higgins, the territory’s art ministries director who sings, acts, dances, and performs an aerial routine with silks at the camp meetings, said art in any form has the ability to engage people from all walks of life.
“The action of art in motion should speak to the soul, connecting with and asking questions of its audience,” Higgins said. “In this way, whether your message is deeply profound or a simple reflection, the uninterrupted relationship between performer and audience member becomes an opportunity to speak truth.”
Doug Berry, the territory’s director for contemporary music who performs with the Christian rock band UNBOUND, said beauty is often what initially attracts our attention.
“When the gospel is portrayed through something visually or audibly beautiful, it attracts the attention of just about anyone and it’s at that moment that the stand–alone beauty of the gospel message might penetrate more than someone’s glance,” he said. “People are talked at all the time, but sometimes art can say volumes more than words alone.
“People who excel in art, dance, music, and drama are often seen by the secular world as those who are most desired and important in our society. If we can use that lopsided hierarchy to get the message of Jesus out there, then so be it.”
Berry said he tries to be relatable when he performs so that people don’t see “just another weirdo Christian up there, but someone maybe just like them … but with the love of Jesus in his heart.”
That’s also the goal of Abby Robinson, who reveals intimate parts of her life through the ministry of spoken word as part of “Painting Freedom.” While Robinson addresses the crowd, Tucker Rodkey speed paints on a canvas behind her.
Speaking God’s truth
Robinson has performed dramatic art since middle school. She stumbled upon it in Philadelphia at a small Christian school she attended.
“I watched people’s reactions as I did it. I watched it stir in them the gospel that they’ve heard so many times, but in a new way,” she said. “This artform did something in them.”
Two years ago, Rodkey asked Robinson to join his painting ministry.
“Combining these artforms is a powerful force,” Robinson said. “I really think we’re visual people, we’re verbal people, and we live in a culture and in a society that’s often throwing images at us; images to sell us things and to make us feel a certain way. The gospel is power, so to use those gifts in that way can be life–changing.”
Robinson’s inspiration comes from her own life experiences, and she has some rather dramatic ones from which to draw; when she was in the 2nd grade, her house burned down two weeks before Christmas. Her father suffers from bipolar disorder.
Robinson always does a “massive Bible study” after settling on a topic and writes it. She often sprinkles it with Scripture and makes sure her words rhyme.
“The Word of God is living, and active, and true,” she says. “If it’s Scripture, then it’s true.
“My heart is just to connect with what people are feeling and with what they’re experiencing. I want to bring that reality of the hurt we all face, along with the grace we all need.”
Lieutenant Isabella Porchetti of the Bound Brook, N.J., Corps, connects with her audiences at OOB through “sand art.” Before the huge stage was built a few years ago, she and her husband, Lieutenant Alan Porchetti, performed at the Pier Ministry with the Queens Temple Praise Band. Today, Isabella performs a ministry called “Sand Story,” while Alan mingles with the crowd while taking gospel–related photos.
Using their gifts
Isabella manipulates sand on a lightbox to skillfully craft an image that is ultimately projected on a large screen.
“People are intrigued by what that message will become—and we get to show them Jesus,” she said. “No matter the language we speak, the visual arts are able to connect with people beyond words. That’s what sand art does.
“I don’t speak French, but I’m able to reach people who speak French. I also can reach people on a visual level who speak English but are from other countries. I show them a picture that’s worth a thousand words. Through that, we’re able to show them Jesus. I love to connect with people beyond words.”
Alan takes photos of the vacationers at the Pier and frames them. Surprisingly, the subject is “photobombed” by an image of Jesus. The question, “Where is Jesus in your life?” also appears. Those pictures serve as great conversation starters.
“That opens up prayer and starts tears flowing,” he said. “It’s amazing because, how many times do we get to stand on the street and pray for people?”
For illusionist Bryan Drake, the entire atmosphere of the Pier Ministry drives him and his wife, Karla. They call OOB their favorite place to perform each year.
“We get the chance to just completely hammer people with the gospel in a fun, unique way,” Bryan said. “One of our hobby horses is getting people to use their talents, gifts, and abilities for the Kingdom. Doing it in such a way that is so direct and so obvious is awesome. This may literally be the only time these people have ever heard the gospel or the name of Jesus—even in this 2020, super–connected culture, there are so many people who have never heard the gospel. This could literally be it.
“I feel people hear the gospel through the creative arts or sand art or illusions or music and the Holy Spirit starts to stir within them through the scripture they’ve heard. It’s such a powerful thing.”
Our past, and future
Drake would like to see more young people get involved in the gospel arts.
“If you have a kid who is an artist, encourage that kid,” he says. “That’s not just an idle gift that you can do for a hobby, but you can actually use that for the Kingdom. We always try to encourage people by telling them, ‘You have a gift, you have a talent, you have an ability, and even if the world doesn’t see it, even if it looks minute to you, you can use it for the Kingdom.’”
That was the case for gospel rap artist DJ Morph. In high school, he described himself as a “bedroom DJ” who grew up “in the world” in West Palm Beach, Fla. He tried to get into clubs and join hip–hop groups, but nothing ever panned out. Just when he was about to walk away, God introduced him to gospel hip hop when he started attending church with his wife.
“I’m actually a product of the gospel arts,” Morph says. “Before I was a believer, I started coming around music that was mainstream, but that had the gospel message. What I found amazing about that is there were ministries that were purposely trying to meet with me culturally, but they weren’t changing the integrity of the gospel.
“That was so powerful because sometimes people wouldn’t even think about stepping into a church, but when you meet them where they’re at, they’re a lot more receptive when they see you’re trying to connect culturally. It’s almost like making a friendship. When I meet someone, I introduce myself, I shake their hand, and I find out a little bit about them. I think culturally that’s what the gospel arts are doing. It’s saying, ‘Hey, we want to get to know you, we want to embrace you, and here is the gospel.’”
Morph has done that for several years at the Pier Ministry, performing on the main stage surrounded by restaurants, bars, clubs, amusements, and thousands of people who have never heard the gospel.
“This is exactly where the gospel needs to be presented,” Morph said. “The beautiful thing is the crowd you have in the first hour will be completely different in the second hour. It’s transient and we’re just dropping the gospel the whole night. The gospel arts are doing a wonderful job getting the message out.”
Higgins believes gospel artists will only continue to innovate, bless people, and find new ways to spread the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
“One might argue that the arts are not only the history of The Salvation Army’s voice, but it is its future as well,” Higgins says. “We are only doing what we have done for more than 150 years. As time passes, we evolve and grow with the ebb and flow of the artistic interest of our audience.”
by Robert Mitchell