It’s Saturday night in St. Louis, Mo. A crowd gathers at a hot new venue for music, art and theater that’s unapologetically named The Chapel and sponsored by Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Tonight a punk band is playing. It could just as easily be an indie, acoustic, rock, folk or experimental group. The Chapel has featured all of these plus artists and theater groups.
The people arriving are the young and hip. Urban dwellers. Students at Washington University. Internationals. Gays. In short, people in the creative classes, the unreached populations near the church—those who Memorial set out to influence in the city by serving it. And serve it they do.
For renovation Memorial used volunteer labor from the church—picture a 60-something elder and a 20-something with a nose ring working side by side to remove pews and carpet, then lay bamboo flooring. Memorial spent $60,000 and supports the ministry with $10,000 annually. Continuing to worship in its main space, the church converted its mostly unused gothic chapel into a sanctuary for the arts, a place where local artists, musicians, and actors can be showcased and—get this! —make a living.
Some arriving tonight may have read Pete Cosentino’s review in Vital Voice which, says its masthead, provides “a diverse and independent voice,” including news of interest to the city’s gay community: “… this location gave me some misgivings since my halo light is so low-watt it makes the fireflies snicker … I must confess that when I got there my mood was as wrinkled as my slept-in shirt and scruffy as my unshaved, nubby face. I don’t know if it was the weather, the wine or the wonderful art but everything weary, worn, and cynical in my soul discernibly dissolved and took a hike somewhere.”
Cosentino adds that “the people were all welcoming and pleasant.” About the art show he attended: “Like fine cuisine, each piece was blended with wit and sprinkled with savory gravitas.” He develops an equation throughout his review that defines truth, beauty and art, coming up with this: “Truth = Beauty = Art = The Chapel.”
He heaps more praise for The Chapel’s business model, which provides all services free to its artists, musicians, and theater groups, including giving them 100 percent of the cover charge— “No exceptions. Ever.” According to Memorial’s vision statement: “We support St. Louis as it positions itself as a premier city for the arts and music. The Chapel is designed to lose money so musicians get their due.”
Writes an astonished Cosentino: “Say what? Come again! You mean to tell me this place which calls itself The Chapel, Sanctuary for the Arts is just exactly that? Generous, benevolent, selfless, inclusive, inviting … and gratis, to boot?”
More positive commentaries flooded the St. Louis print publications and airwaves after Cosentino put The Chapel on the media map. But none referred to the good decisions made by “the Cheese-in-Charge,” as did the Vital Voice’s reviewer, who relished meeting the many dedicated Memorial Presbyterian volunteers who staff the venue, such as gallery curator John Early, that night busily attending to the featured artist and guests, along with wife Kate.
Tonight Danny and Ariadne Holladay have door duty. They collect the cover charge, assuring guests that, yes, every penny will go to the band. They check IDs, providing wristbands with two tabs, entitling guests who are old enough to two free drinks— beer and wine donated by church members. The 20-something couple is “all about getting to know people and loving them.” On Thursday nights they cook a large dinner and invite people to their in-town home, often drawing folks from the latest Chapel gathering for more fun and conversation.
A 35-year-old who works in the financial industry by day, Merelyn Tolbert runs The Chapel’s bar and provides direction for the volunteers. She relates well to many of the edgy, alternative attenders, especially those in the gay and lesbian community. She came out of that lifestyle herself, “turning to the Lord, partially because of the ministry of R.C. Sproul, who helped me understand the theology of how God had been pursuing me, then eventually I made my way to Memorial,” she explained.
She hopes more African Americans like herself— other races also— will continue to populate The Chapel. “Diversity is a value of Memorial Presbyterian, one reason I love the church.”
Colin Ravenhill is there too, along with wife Stefanie, an attorney. He has booked tonight’s group. Ravenhill is Memorial’s assistant pastor of outreach, also known as “minister to the music scene.” The 32-year-old is a self-described avid music follower who’s personally unmusical. He happens to favor acoustic rock but likes the variety of music in St. Louis and enjoys interacting with musicians.
“Almost every band remarks that The Chapel is the most beautiful venue they’ve ever played,” says Ravenhill. In addition to magnificent gothic architecture, the windows include three panels of stained glass probably inspired by Marc Chagall whose artwork is associated with modern movements after impressionism. “Somehow this fusion of modern and historic elements works to create a wonderful ambiance.”
He adds: “The Chapel is a ministry of hospitality, presence, and relationships. I make connections with people by booking the entertainment. Our purpose is to serve them, make them feel welcome, introduce them if they aren’t yet known in the local community and help them make a living through their gifts and talents.”
No Bait and Switch
Bible study groups have resulted, but Ravenhill emphasizes that The Chapel is not a bait and switch—no getting people into The Chapel, then making a gospel presentation.
Associate Pastor Greg Johnson agrees. He contributed much of the wording for The Chapel’s theological vision statement, which went to the Session for approval. Sample wording: “Memorial Presbyterian Church seeks to be a vital community of love and grace, but not for itself. We exist for those friends, neighbors, and associates who have not yet encountered the grace of Christ—we are what Jesus called a city on a hill. As a church for the city, our vision is subversive … to always put ourselves beneath others, washing their feet—fighting not for the crown but for the towel. Jesus will serve St. Louis. The city’s artistic and cultural life will be renewed, and St. Louis will again become a leading music and arts city. As diverse people are brought together, and as the knowledge of God grows in love, the city will be renewed—not only culturally—but socially and spiritually as well.”
When Johnson arrived at Memorial Presbyterian in St. Louis fresh out of seminary in 1994, he recalls looking at “a sea of blue hair, gray hair, no hair, and hair pieces.” Today, Memorial’s membership of 250 includes a large number of young people plus core leadership made up of mature Christians in their forties, fifties, sixties and older. “They saw that God can use our vision to influence the city in new ways like The Chapel.”
Johnson himself was influenced by several within PCA, including Jason Dorsey of Redeemer in Indianapolis, which launched a successful ministry named Harrison Center for the Arts, and Tim Keller of Redeemer in New York City, who Johnson heard speak about Christian culture.
“Tim said we’re often getting ‘our guys’ into influential places—such as politics— but we really need to be serving from the bottom up. That made me think of the gospel.”
Washing their Feet
Indeed, The Chapel’s vision statement says “Just as Jesus influences us from below by serving us— being there for us, washing our feet, dying for us— so we will put ourselves beneath local artists and musicians, being there for them, serving them …
“They will not be pressured to attend worship services or be proselytized, but will experience a taste of the community life of the church. Artists will find a community not of judgment, but of welcome and love. Christians will love and serve each other with genuine affection, and this love will overflow to our guests. Those ‘outside’ the church will see in this love the gospel’s power to bring diverse people together.”
Johnson recalls when Memorial member Craig Dunham, co-author of TwentySomeone: Finding Yourself in a Decade of Transition, mentioned that “our chapel, a kingdom resource that was literally in mothballs with dust everywhere, could be used for the outreach we were considering. I thought that was brilliant. Here was a musty space God used in the past that had become mostly an appendage to us recently.”
That conversation and Johnson’s encounters with Dorsey and Keller plus Memorial’s study of how the building could be better used reminded Johnson of an event years ago when he discovered how poorly his friends in the arts community are sometimes treated.
Johnson was at a venue and noticed at least 100 patrons paying the $7 cover charge to hear a popular band which the bar owner saved for last to sell more drinks. When Johnson’s friend, a member of a band featured earlier in the evening, returned to collect their hard-earned fee, the owner lied about how much money he’d taken in. “I literally prayed that a club with such low integrity would close.”
Not a fate that’s likely to happen to The Chapel.
Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor and speaker living in Fort Worth, Texas.