Kenyon Adams and the Imaginative Life

Creative people create, and Kenyon Adams is very creative. He’s a singer, songwriter, actor and poet. All these talents blend well in Kenyon’s position as an Arts Ministry Coordinator for Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith and Work. In this interview, Kenyon shares his thoughts on his band, the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing culture, and nurturing the imaginative life of our faith communities.

Alternate Arts: Could you share with me your thoughts on what it means to renew culture through the arts?

Kenyon: I constantly have T. S. Eliot’s view of posterity in mind—the idea that we knead the dough of culture over time. It’s this idea that we are only ever responding back to a culture that has already been. So, every writer is peeling back, calling back, responding to Virgil and Homer, all the early writings of the stories. It’s all just a responding back, a call and response to history. It’s taking in the materiality of the cosmos and reworking it. I feel like, with each generation, the Holy Spirit is working with the materiality of our moment and working to perfect creation. And one day he’ll ultimately restore it all.

Each generation that comes, the Holy Spirit says, “Okay, I can work with that.” No matter what we throw, Jesus is the Great Redeemer and the Spirit is this great mover. We can throw the enlightenment at them; they’re going to work with that. We can throw post modernism at them; they’re going to work with that.

I imagine the Holy Spirit can work with anything and, of course, Jesus is the Master Redeemer who looks at something like post-modernism and says, “Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing, we can reprocess and reconfigure and then come up with something that is from the old, but yet new. Yeah, that’s part of the Kingdom too.” It’s like they’re sweeping in all of this history and our current moment.

You have the big work of the Holy Spirit, but then artists have this smaller work of being responsible to cultivate and steward the imaginations of those around them.

So, we nurture the imaginative life of our community. How do I make sure that my church community and the community believers’ imaginations are alive and awake? How are we able to have healthy intuitions, and exercise intuitions to discern the work of the Spirit in our midst? How do I bring that into my singing, my acting, my painting, my passion?

I think the work of culture through the arts is just like any other renewal of culture: it is the work of the Spirit. But I feel the artist gets to participate with the Spirit by taking a responsibility, taking a role in the time that you have been given: which is to steward, cultivate and nurture the imaginative life of your community, your city, your church, your school, your family.

Alternate Arts: Could you share how you encourage community in your context at Redeemer?

Kenyon: Because we are a New York City church, I would say building communities is our greatest challenge. I don’t know how it is in other cities. I’ve heard that’s also difficult. But, New York is a transient culture. People generally come to New York to work and then want to leave within a few years. The idea, even for artists, is: “I’ll come here, I’ll get a tour, or I’ll get representation from a gallery, or from an agent. I’ll get some job that will allow me to be propelled into another place.”

How do we build community despite that challenge? Well, we try as many things as we can. We have between two and three hundred fellowship groups at Redeemer. We encourage every single person that comes to Redeemer, even just attendees, to be a part of a fellowship group. But of course, we find that’s still not enough. We have a campaign every year for what we call Beta Groups at Redeemer. We say, “Hey, you’ve never been in a group, or you are in-between groups. How about joining a group just for eight weeks— just try it to see if it flies. If it doesn’t fly, no problem. If it does and you want to continue that group, great.” We are constantly planting seeds we hope will take on a life on their own.

Within the arts ministries, one of the things you learn is that frequency really is a strong determinant. So, for instance, I don’t expect quarterly gatherings to build community, although they can be a foot in the door or a first entry with people.

I also find monthly meetings to be insufficient. You are not going to know people well. You are not going to have enough frequency to really feel at home with people. So, what we have created is a space, a smaller, more intimate space, no more than 25 people. We call it “In The Living Room.” It’s a seven-week art and faith discipleship and theology series. It’s kind of like salon meets theological training. We’ve done it twice a year the last two years. And it’s been the richest, most intentional place.

And there are things that grow out of that. We spend time every week with somebody sharing art, going deep with theology, praying for each other. This plants good seeds and I think people take that and run with it. People are no longer just faces you pass; they’re people you know that you start to share life with.

In New York there’s autonomy and anonymity, which a lot of people love. You can slip into the subway, pull-up in another part of town, and another whole different life really can happen here.

We try to fight that. We challenge them verbally all the time. “Don’t do it alone. Don’t try to be alone.” We say you’ll never experience the fulfillment of your calling outside of community.

I think that’s a Christian truth; it’s a theological truth that God himself lives in community (the Trinity.) We are meant to be seeking our calling within community. So, the idea of coming to New York to seek your calling, if you leave Christ out of it, that’s just a myopic experience. But, if you bring Christ into it, suddenly you are in a community that becomes integral to your calling.

We try to say that as often as we can, and try to demonstrate it in The Living Room, demonstrate it in our quarterly or monthly gatherings, in our fellowship groups, and then we try as best we can to meet one-on-one. If I’m getting coffee with someone, then I’m encouraging and praying for them. I hope that they are going to go and do that for someone else.

We have a wonderful group of leaders each year that are working with people, working with artists in the city. I see them loving each other, taking a role of leadership. Not that they are higher than anyone else, but to say, “Hey I’m willing to be there for you, to be someone you can go to for prayer, I’m willing to step up here and be a leader in my community”. I’ve seen that in so many artists inside Redeemer and I think that’s probably the most effective way.

Alternate Arts: I’m wondering if you might have any encouragement for the thousands of independent Christian artists who do their work as an avocation? I mean, they might have a small following, but not enough to make a living out of it. Would you have any encouragement for those independent Christian artists? They have a gift, they might even have a sense of calling, but it’s clear that at this point in their lives they have to pursue it as an avocation.

Kenyon: I think that the role of the artist in stewarding the imaginative life of the community still applies bi-vocationally, or avocationally. It’s just a matter of who is your community. If you are an artist of any kind, find the community that you are meant to nurture.

I think of New York in the late 70’s in the village with Andy Warhol and the whole scene. There was a certain imaginative life that they wanted to cultivate. They felt something and they were trying to respond to their times. They were trying to take responsibility through their work.

We as artists should take responsibility for stewarding the imaginative life. And that does not limit itself to being a full-time artist. It just means: how much responsibility are you willing to carefully take on for a community?

Alternate Arts: Does the arts ministry at Redeemer have resources for church leaders who might be interested in being a little bit more purposeful about integrating faith and arts in their church?

Kenyon: If you want to go straight to our website arts page, it’s faithandwork.org/arts. There is a resource page, and you’ll find recordings of our quarterly lectures.

Also on our resource page is a booklist which is ever expanding. The first read I always suggest, even in groups just getting together at your church, is Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle, which is on our booklist.

The caveat (to starting an arts ministry in your church) is, if it’s not coming from the pastor, I think maybe it could wait, there may need to be some prayer, maybe something less formal. It should start with some conversations with the pastor because they see needs in the congregation and they have their own responsibility in that context. For instance, we’re in New York City, which is a hub for artists. Our ministry leaders saw that and asked, “What are we going to do to serve them?”

Alternate Arts: From what I can tell you do a lot of things well. You’re a singer, an actor, a musician and a poet. Is it fair to ask which of these you like best?

Kenyon: Sure, I think singing is my thing.

As an actor, you substitute yourself into the experience of another on their behalf. You incarnate a character and you go into that story. This is what the actor attempts to do, you are pursuing the characters highest end within the story.

Interpreting a song is different. Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, they are great interpreters of songs. Once they do a song you feel like it’s theirs, it belongs to them. Nina Simone covered Hall and Oates Rich Girl, and I just feel like I can’t listen to the original anymore. She does that for all the songs she covers.

I guess the thread physically is the voice. You find your voice as a poet, you find your voice as an actor, and you find your voice as interpreter when you sing.

Alternate Arts: Just one last question, how are things going with your band?

Kenyon: The band (Kenyon Adams) is a project with me and my brother-in-law who is a bass guitarist. I always was a southern singer and I’ve been playing harmonica for a long time. Our band is Chicago blues meets southern soul. It’s blues, rock, soul. We just released an EP hard copy and we’re available on iTunes (as Kenyon Adams & American Restless.) We have a great time. I play amplified blues harmonica.

Alternate Arts: Is your harmonica slightly distorted?

Kenyon: I wouldn’t say slightly.

Alternate Arts: All right. I hear you!

Kenyon: Yeah. It’s a couple of mics from 1950s.

Alternate Arts: You’ve been so generous with your time. Thanks.

Kenyon: Thanks so much. I pray that God helps us to continue to take this movement and glory for himself, and I hope another generation doesn’t pass and miss the opportunity to reconcile the church and the arts.

Alternate Arts: Amen to that Kenyon.

Find out more about Kenyon at… The Center for Faith and Work

Facebook Kenyon’s band to listen to tracks and sign-up for news, etc.

Watch Kenyon Adams perform on YouTube

Access resources for artists and arts ministry leaders from Redeemer Presbyterian Church

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