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Local Church Transforms City by Chris Seay

Gabe Lyons: Andy, it’s great to be with you, as always.

Andy Crouch
: We have a great interview today with, really, one of the most creative and unpredictable and surprising pastors in America, Chris Seay. I was thinking, Gabe, as I was preparing for this interview that you can call what Chris pastors a church, his church Ecclesia in Houston’s Montrose District. But what it really is is much more than a church. It’s kind of a multifaceted, creative community and every time I talked to someone who knows this church I find out something else that the church is doing that I didn’t even know they did. So I’m curious, what do you know that they do besides the normal things that churches do?

Gabe: What’s neat is they’re really right there in the heart of the community. I know you’ve been there. And I think what you get when you go to Ecclesia is this understanding that this church is not just there on Sunday mornings. This is a part of the fabric of the community. They have everything. They do an organic farmers market once a week. They have fair trade coffee. They are deeply involved in the discussions of the kinds of things affecting the neighborhoods. This is a place where they instantly have a connection to the people that they are trying to connect with and influence because they’re there. They’re embodying the Gospel in a really, really great way.

Andy: You used, I think, a very telling and interesting phrase. They are part of the fabric of their community, which means they’re sort of woven into it. But this is not a community that would be especially friendly to biblical Christianity. It’s not like a homogenous community where everyone wants to be part of the church. And I think it’s the reverse. And I’m wondering, in your experience with Chris, what you think makes him so affective as a pastor in a place that many people would find kind of scary to imagine planting a church in but that Chris and his community seems to thrive in?

Gabe: I think Chris has this deep understanding of the Gospel that calls him to be in the middle of that and to not be afraid of it or to try to shelter himself. I think sometimes, church leaders or Christians…The tendency could be to have this fear of evil or this fear of sin of corruption so we try to stay away from it, try to protect ourselves. And so, when we’re confronted with fallenness or homosexuality or any sort of sin taking place in the communities in which we live, we tend to be offended by it and to run from it.

And I see the exact opposite with Chris and really the whole new kind of Christian that seems to be having effectiveness today in this culture and that is that they’re provoked. They’re provoked to get involved when they are confronted with the fallen nature of men. They go in and they try to be a light in the middle of that.

They try to get engaged and to create things versus cursing them. And so, that would be, really, what makes up Chris Seay and why the church is really such a light in the middle of the Montrose District.

Andy: Thanks for joining us, Chris. I wanted to ask you first about your church and just describe for us where you are and who you’re with because it’s quite a unique neighborhood that you’re in and it’s quite a remarkable group of people.

Chris Seay: Yeah, it really is. I mean, I just feel blessed to get to pastor in the context that I do. The Montrose in Houston is the art’s district, gay district. And Houston is a large city, it’s the fourth largest city in the U.S.. And the Montrose is a collecting point, really, for people who are in the city that are culture creatives and that view the world in slightly different ways. Montrose has the second largest centralized gay population in the U.S. so behind San Francisco and in front of Greenwich Village. We are well-placed down in Montrose. It’s surrounded by probably 40 or 50 gay bars within a square mile and a half where we are. It’s also surrounded by old bungalows and tons now new town-homes and development. And it’s just a fascinating community.

So I got to start the church about seven years ago and we have a lot of artists and musicians and filmmakers and people that are creating culture and dialoguing with all kinds of people and I hope contributing to what God’s doing in our world in some significant ways.

Andy: I mean, obviously you chose that place. But were you choosing those people, too, when you planted Ecclesia?

Chris: Yeah. I know I was, because I feel like it’s my people. Andy, I know you talked about it. Somewhat, I feel like I’ve been preaching for 15 years that when we find who we are, that we are creators, again, not the Creator, God is the Creator but we are collaborators with Him in His work and the world as co-creators, that we understand Christianity better. I find an artist when they come to faith, they have a better understanding of true Christianity because they already know what it means to create and too many Christians are in consumption mode. It’s one of the things that’s destroying true Christianity in our day and age. So these are people that, when they come to faith, beautiful things happen. They tell the story in powerful and real ways.

And so, it doesn’t take much. That’s why I was down here. As I was telling you earlier, I invite people to go to ballgames with me, I hang out at bars and coffee shops down here. All you got to do is be the bartender to the faith and you’ve got a whole crew of people that end up coming to faith with them because these are passionate people that tell the story well.

So we started down here intentionally but now we’re actually doing work all over the city and we meet people that come all over the city. It’s been exciting. There are new challenges that come with the suburbs in Houston, but we’re really excited to face those.

Andy: I’m curious what it takes, maybe, uniquely or differently for someone who sees themselves as a creator to come to faith. So what is it that’s different about, if you will, the evangelistic process, not, obviously, just as a set of techniques or something, but the genuine process of someone discovering the good news? What’s the specific shape that takes for someone whose vocation is an artist or filmmaker, or whatever?

Chris: I think, more than anything, these folks are, like everybody else, craving community. Richard Florida who writes about culture creatives says they’re mostly craving our authenticity, from a Christian perspective. But I think, without a doubt, that’s what people are longing for—and people that will speak honestly with them. Some of the most gifted artists that I’ve met with early on… Because, when I would meet an artist that I thought had a strong voice, I would seek them out to go and sit down and visit with them.

And one of the young ladies who’d gone to a fabulous art school, the Rhode Island School of Design, set out and we met over coffee and just began to open her work, I already let her know I thought her work was compelling and powerful. But as we began to go through her portfolio, I just began to critique things that I saw, some places where I didn’t see her full voice coming through, that I felt that she pulled some punches.

Some places were right away I’m wondering I don’t know her yet, we’re just having coffee. And ultimately, it’s what cemented our relationship because she was longing for people to be truthful with her in the same way with her art as with her life, to be able to deal with sin and struggle, and to be able to do it honestly and openly.

And I know, for us at Ecclesia, that’s what people have deeply connected to. It’s what I talk about in our small groups when we start a small group. At the beginning of it, people have the opportunity each one to tell their life story. So we share a meal together and they come together and tell their story.

And almost inevitably, there are people that are really afraid in that place to share what’s really happening or some really dark times in their life that most of them believe somewhere in their psyche that, “If people really knew what I’ve done, if they really knew who I am, they would reject me.” And so I often would get this call the day before saying, “I’m really afraid to tell my story” and “Should I do the PG version?” or…[laughter]

“What should I do?” And I would encourage them to tell the whole story and it’s beautiful to watch and literally, physically, as people were telling their story and getting to these really hard places. You could see, physically in the room, the chairs would begin to move closer and people physically were saying, “I’m with you and I love you. And not only am I not going to reject you because you’re broken, in some way, I’m relieved to find that we’re also broken in the same ways and find great hope in that place.” So that kind of culture at Ecclesia… And then, having from the early days as we created this space in the Montrose where people could gather… We have the only fair trade coffee house in Houston, we run our organic foods coop. We have what we describe as a Christian literary book store with great literature, so it’s beautiful and it all belongs to God. And a recording studio… We have a large art gallery space. And so, we get a culinary artist that work in the cafe and create and whoever creates we get to create a platform for them.?We do one of the biggest poetry nights on Tuesday nights here in the city every week, all kinds of musicians coming in and out and so we want to showcase people’s voices. I want to find ways as well that people can make a living creating because I believe that’s what God made us to do.

Andy: So creating opportunities, nurturing opportunities, for people to be creative in a healthy and even sustainable way is a big part of what your church tries to do, rather than just letting them fend for themselves out there and then come to church and get spiritual input, or whatever.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, we live integrated lives and we are telling stories, and we are better when we tell them together. And so, we find, quite often, that songs are written from shows that are hanging in the gallery, that a piece stands out to a songwriter or a poet, and this cross collaboration in different art forms have been really beautiful in our place. And hopefully, some of what I do in leading out in the church and telling the story of God is helpful as well. But clearly, I’m not the only one with a voice so that’s the beauty. It’s the thing that I think too often previous generations have misunderstood about art. We believe somehow the artist is the only one with the voice, but we get to speak back and respond to the art. So the artist provokes us but it’s what we do with that provocation that really matters.

It’s the thing I talk about often, that we’re looking for truth, not just for… I think, too often when I describe beauty, people separate it from truth. They think I’m talking about what it means to be pretty or aesthetically pleasing and what we find to be beautiful are things that are really true and powerful.

Andy: I think non-artists often have an image of the artist working alone and that art is a very solitary process, and lot of artistic disciplines are—whether music or sculpture or painting or writing. And what people don’t grasp is that it’s all in the service of conversation and community and there’s actually kind of desperation, I think, for real conversation about the work, not superficial, not just, “What does it mean? Explain it to me.” [laughter]

But I think you gave a great gift to that artist you were mentioning a moment ago when you engaged her in real conversation about what you saw, because I think that’s why artists are drawn to art. But because they have to spend a lot of time alone, often, it’s hard for them to have those kind of conversations or to find the people to connect with in that way. I mean, does that strike you as true?

Chris: Oh, without a doubt it’s true. And the people that are least likely to have a true conversation about art with the artist or with someone else, most often are Christians. We miss it. And again, I’ve grown up in the culture enough as I’m with this young lady and with so many others through the years part of my instinct tells me I need to stop doing this and stop being in critique mode. But that’s just instinctively what I do. I’m asking questions about what I’m seeing and, again, the questions so often Christians come with. We have these powerful paintings that are hung in our gallery that shows or changing about every four to five weeks but we have a few pieces that are mainstays in our large space where we meet and worship and where all kinds of things happen. And there are massive canvasses, black canvasses, that are all black except for the feet and the hands of Christ, and the body and the cross are missing or absent.

It’s one of those pieces you can reflect on for weeks, for months, for years. It’s just so powerful. But Christians, exclusively, when they come in, want to know what the piece means. Everybody else that comes in and whenever somebody comes in and asks, I just ask them, “What church do you go to?” [laughter]

Chris: Because I know they didn’t come from the neighborhood. [laughter]

They came from a different place. And again, some of the people that are listening they probably been to our church and asked this question just know that’s a part of our culture. That’s how many of us have been trained to deal with art, it’s how many of us have been to trained to deal with sermons, right? Jesus tells the story. He tells a parable that’s provocative, that’s powerful, that leads to the disciples to ask some hard questions. They’re a little angry, they’re a little confused, and they’re wrestling with what He said and we’re the people that think, “Let me preach a sermon on the three points of what Jesus meant,” as if he wasn’t articulate enough to say it.

He was God, but He just couldn’t quite spit it out. And that’s not true. Jesus was an artist telling a story that was provocative for a lot of people. And that they try to reduce it to propositions is a disservice to the parable, just as it is to the artist.

So I don’t mock my Christians brothers and sisters because I know I could be in the same place. It’s part of what our culture has said, but let’s begin to have some meaningful conversation. And even if you feel like you’re ill-equipped for it, if you will just allow your instincts guide you and listen to what you see and you hear, some beautiful things will happen.

And we could stay on this forever, Andy, but one of the last things I can tell you… In Ecclesia, we often do a Lectio Divina with the Scriptures and many traditions. Many of us are catching on to this where we read the Scriptures three different times and we read it and have periods of silence and listen for words, just for a direct word that God would speak to us and I would encourage people to do the same thing with art.

When pastors come to our gallery, most of the time what I’ll do is I’ll just stop and asked for a period of silence and I’ll walk them through that and to just keep walking to the different pieces until God stops them in front of one of these pieces and the spirit of God begins to speak to them about something.

And we find that through the artist. And I often like to do this when the artist is present because it’s powerful for the artist to see the way that their voice is used to speak to some many different people. When you see art, don’t just run to the easy question. Sit and reflect and see what comes at you and I promise that something will come.

Andy: And I think the idea of borrowing from Lectio Divina, coming back to it… I remember being in the National Gallery in London a few months ago and standing in front of Rembrandt’s painting, the Feast of Belshazzar where the hand is writing on the wall. It’s one of Rembrandt’s just most dramatic pieces. And I really had to walk away and visit some other galleries. And then I said to Catherine, my wife, “Let’s go back and look at that again.” Because you really you have to move away from it and then come back to it and let it speak to you several times before you even really know what you’re seeing in a way.

Chris: You do. And one of the beautiful things about Lectio Divina is that like if we were experiencing Lectio together some things would speak to you that didn’t speak to me and when you begin to tell me, those speak to me powerfully then too. And so, learning how our brothers and sisters experience art is really important and God will speak to us through them through the art. The artist will speak, the Spirit will speak and beautiful things happen. One of our artist friends in London… We sent for this book we did for the voice project I’m doing called “The Last Eyewitness.” We sent them to the National Gallery of Art and he does these fabulous drawings that he calls conscience reflex drawings. What he does is, he would sit in front of, say, that Rembrandt and he would redraw it, but he doesn’t look at the page until he is done because he just wants to experience it.

And I find his art really compelling because I get to re-experience what he experienced through the artist, if that makes sense, between multiple generations here. And his experience is always so powerful and the eye that he sees… The lens that he sees these pieces through are really, really beautiful to me.

So I’m hopeful that the church will begin to catch on and will realize this is a community interaction. That’s what happens in our gallery when we hang and show, that people get to come in and not just experience it by themselves but interact around it together then go sit down and have a coffee and talk and do like you did and come back to it again and again.

Andy: One thing I’ve noticed about artists and I’m not exactly one of them but I spent time with artists a lot is that the artistic temperament is pretty emotionally volatile [laughter]

These are folks whose emotions are close to the surface. They’re not quite as moderated and modulated as you get out in the nice suburbs where everyone mows their lawn. And I’m wandering, when you have a whole church full of folks like that, how do you manage that? I was even thinking as you were talking about people sharing their stories just how intense and sometimes painful they are and dramatic they are. How do manage the drama as a pastor? [laughter]

Chris: It’s definitely there. I think it’s one of the reasons I think God probably sends to our church. I’m amazed constantly how many engineers actually come out to our church because they find the art and the creativity so refreshing. They’re constantly engaging this other part of who they are. It is right there on the surface. For me, it’s so much easier to deal with people that you can see in their face what they’re thinking rather than people that are calculating and hiding, which is what I experienced too much in the church.?We’ve started these churches now in the suburbs up in the Woodlands, up in South Houston. We’re having to reinvent “What does it mean to be the church?” in these places. And still a lot of artists, very creative people, people that really care about social justice. In those churches we’re saying instead of building buildings and having big programs, we are going to devote the majority income that comes in towards the things that really matter.

So like the first three months of the church in the Woodlands half of the offerings are going towards human trafficking issues and international justice mission and Not For Sale campaign. The next three months is going to focus on drilling wells in different parts of the world.

We’re actually, as our youth ministry, I had… It really happens to me because we don’t have that many just off-the-chart wealthy people. But we have someone in our church has a significant windfall and will be bringing a gift quite likely to the church of somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars which doesn’t happen too often.

So I ask him, “What do we need to with this? What needs to happen?” So what we have decided instead of investing in youth ministry program that we do at many churches… What we’re going to do is put that quarter of a million dollars in front of our youth and these young people and ask them to figure out what they’re supposed to do with it in terms of dealing with the crisis of water and AIDS and orphans across the globe. And they’re going to study and this group of teenagers are going to figure it out.

Are they supposed to build orphanages, are they supposed to drill wells, are they supposed to do all the above? And we really believe that, when we’re doing that kind of work, whether it’s in the suburbs or in the city, beautiful things begin to happen.

Andy: Because you’re inviting them not just be passive recipients of an experience that some hopefully cool, young grownups put on for them… [laughter]

Chris: Exactly.

Andy: ...But to be agents and to be creative themselves. And that can happen anywhere, right? That can happen in the suburbs. [laughter]

Chris: It can. It’s really not a matter of city people and artist. We are all created in Genesis as co-creators. And as long as we can come to church and consume things, we’ll do it, many of us will. We’re used to consuming. We like to go to Target. We feel at home there, it feels great. And so, we would love the church to feel a little bit like Target. But as long as it does, we’re missing out on the big chunk of Christianity. And so, when we began to turn these programs upside down and asked people to covenant and to be participants in the work of the Gospel, I think they’re transformed. I mean, these kids will never be the same on the other end of that. And if we invested that in video games and plasma TVs and weekends away at retreats, it wouldn’t be the same. We wouldn’t end up with the kind of devoted followers of Christ that I know we’re going to end up with at the end of this journey.

Andy: Wow. Well, Chris, it’s so great to hear a little piece of the journey that you and your church are on. So thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Chris: You bet, buddy. It was great talking to you.