A functional faith: School of Theology lands grants to support worship arts and church youth

Seattle Pacific University’s School of Theology received more than $1.1 million in grants to fund two programs focused on building relationships with area churches and helping those communities nurture teens and diverse ways of worship.

“SPU has a good track record of thinking of how the creative arts and faith go hand in hand, and we’re a school that cares about the local church,” said Matthew Sigler, assistant professor of Wesleyan studies and director of both programs.

SPU’s Center for Worship and the Arts will manage what is currently being called The Program in Worship Renewal, which will help congregations design, test, and create new models for nurturing teens’ religious lives and provide opportunities for them to engage with their congregation’s mission and ministries. The project will receive $1 million over five years from the Lilly Endowment as part of its Strengthening Congregational Ministries with Youth Initiative.
Studies show that students are much more likely to remain faithful disciples as they grow into adults when their local churches invest in them and involve them in their congregations.

Starting in October 2020, The Program in Worship Renewal will assemble intergenerational groups of high schoolers and adults from five churches to cultivate a vision of diversity and unity in worship.

“We’ll bring together churches that are not like each other and yet have a common denominator of love for the risen Lord,” said Sigler, who plans to run three yearlong learning groups. “The goal is not to say there’s only one right way. We need churches that can get beyond ‘we know what we like, and we like what we know.’”

The attendees will participate in a retreat, followed by four Saturday sessions at SPU and opportunities for fellowship and worship at each other’s churches over the course of a year. Members will choose from different learning tracks led by Seattle Pacific faculty, as well as keynote artists and speakers.

“Being able to speak with students who come to Seattle Pacific with no religious background, or students who struggle to understand how they can integrate their own faith with what they learn in our classrooms, is an integral part of my calling and our mission as a university.”
—Jennifer McKinney

The program concludes with a night of worship open to all participating congregations and led by those completing the program.

The second project, co-led by Sigler and Stephen Newby, professor of music and director of SPU’s Center for Worship and the Arts, supports conferences for the study and use of the arts in worship.

With a $150,000, three-year grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, SPU intends to bring knowledge, study, conversation, and vision to Seattle Pacific Seminary, the University, and churches in the Puget Sound area around worship and the arts.

“There’s a real need in our area for having the academy invest in the local church to assist creatives who are leading worship in churches, to have them feel seen, and to provide a space where they can connect with each other,” said Sigler.
The funds supported the Convergent Conference at SPU this past June. The sold-out conference’s 80 participants included a mix of pastors, musicians, and laity from diverse backgrounds and churches.

Through prayer, song, creative arts, and conversation, the attendees pondered how the creative arts might help congregations cultivate new ways forward in a fragmented age, and how worship gatherings can reflect diversity while not falling prey to cultural consumerism or appropriation.

Sigler and Newby led the conference, along with Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, SPU’s Minister of Worship and Production Priscilla Onyedikachi Ozodo, and Shannon Steed Sigler, executive director of Brehm Cascadia, the Seattle-based branch of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.

In February 2020, SPU will host its first joint conference with Brehm Cascadia, which has long held annual conferences related to worship in the arts.

For Sigler, both grants point to the foundational connections between SPU and area congregations.

“As a university, we have a reciprocal relationship with churches,” he said. “I don’t ever want the work that I’m doing to neglect the life of the church.”

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