Religion vs Arts, Who Wins The Battle Of Orthodoxies!

Since the very beginning of the blog, I have been keeping an eye on the intersection of performing arts and religious communities. A recent NY Times article seems to include quite a number of places where this occurs.

It starts by describing a warehouse space that has the

“trappings of a revitalization project, including an art gallery, a yoga studio and a business incubator, sharing the building with a coffee shop and a performance space.

But it is, in fact, a church. ”

If you look at the website of this art gallery-cum-yoga studio-cum-etc-cum church, it might take a couple glances to realize it is a church.

You can say a lot about the importance of adhering to propriety and doctrine that should be part of sacred institutional practices and how the approach of many organizations isn’t invested with appropriate due seriousness.

But you can say the same thing about churches, too.

Oh wait, I mean arts organizations. Wait, which one was I talking about? This is so confusing.

You may be surprised to learn that not only has church attendance been falling lately, but there is a churn rate of about 40% annually.

Sounds a lot like the plight of arts organizations, eh?

Not only that, there is a real bias toward entrepreneurship

“For new leaders coming out of seminary, “the cool thing is church planting,” Mr. Bird said. “The uncool thing is to go into the established church. Why that has taken over may speak to the entrepreneurialism and innovation that today’s generation represents.”

Sounds a lot like the sentiments of performing arts kids coming right out of school that want to start their own company.

Like arts organizations, there is a push to connect with the communities in different ways, some going so far as to remove references to “church” and “services” in favor of “gatherings” and “communities.” One group has seen some success with centering their spiritual communities in coffee shops and is preparing to franchise their coffee concept.

As strange as a chain of spiritual coffee houses sounds, the trend seems to be away from the huge mega-churches, many of which have been foreclosed on, toward smaller multipurpose spaces that can be turned toward earning revenue rather than being empty six days a week.

In some respects having a church be the center of community center is a return to old practices. Chartres Cathedral was a bustle of commercial activity both inside and out.

One of the prime questions that emerges for me as I read this article is how religious/spiritual groups, which I believe stand to suffer much more from embracing the trappings of popular culture and entertainment than arts organizations do, seem to be a bit more nimble than the arts community at experimenting with new approaches?

I realize that many trends reported on by the NY Times are often not as widespread as the paper makes it appear, but as a person who rents a facility to religious services, I can attest that the article isn’t many degrees different from my experience.

It amuses me to think that the arts community self imposed idealism about selling out and becoming too commercial might actually represent a more inflexible orthodoxy than those embraced by religious communities possessing texts containing rules of behavior.

Though it isn’t as if the arts community isn’t having this same conversation. This is what Creative Placemaking is really all about. What these churches are doing may provide some interesting models and even potential collaborators in the pursuit of placemaking.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Religion vs Arts, Who Wins The Battle Of Orthodoxies!”

  1. Joe Patti,

    The NY Times article you cited seems to suggest that churches are trying new venues, new coats of paint, new architecture in the hopes of connecting with attendees.
    But no where does it suggest that churches are willing to changing their ideology to better reflect the times.
    Yet the first thing you suggest is that the Arts community needs to change their “ self imposed idealism about selling out”. What does that even mean?
    The problems that the Arts have faced in the last 20 years have been more along the line of being starved out. The Arts have always existed outside of the mainstream economy and if we as a society demand more inclusion from the Arts, more diversity and more availability we need to come up with a way to pay for this direction. Treating the Arts as just another free market commodity isn’t fair.

    • I don’t know that I said they were willing to change their ideology. It does appear they are going to some pains to disassociate themselves with any appearance of religious services. In that respect, I think they may undermine themselves because they end up basically just providing a social experience which has little distinction from any other social experience. When the trend they have aligned themselves with (yoga, coffee shops, etc) pass they stand to lose their community to the next interesting thing unless they are prepared to change with it.

      If their goal is just to provide a more welcoming environment to people and model/spread their religious views in the process rather than focusing on gathering a large following, then I think that is fine.

      I think that the arts have far less to lose by similarly positioning themselves as a center of community activity or at least closely associated with related services/companies. It does happen, but not in as widespread a manner.

      I don’t know that it is necessarily related to the hand wringing that goes on over selling out. But the artist’s vow of poverty is often entirely self imposed whereas it would be fairly easy to find something to cite in any religious text arguing against the activities the NY Times article says these churches are engaging in.

      I think this activity by churches is a byproduct of years of the prosperity gospel preaching that is okay to be successful. I think that has freed them up to experiment with what a religious service/witnessing/whatever means.

      Maybe a little bit of that needs to be preached to the arts so that the perceived way of doing things is not so narrowly defined. I think that constricted vision is part of what is contributing to the failure of so many arts organizations, especially orchestras, because no one feels like they have permission to engage in a radical revamp.

      I would count myself among those with a lack of imagination. I feel like I am ahead of many but behind others in this respect which is why I write this blog.


Leave a Comment