By Jeff Brumley
The term “missional” evokes images of churches partnering with existing ministries and nonprofits in the neighborhoods around them. Connecting with God’s work leads other churches to open their facilities to homeless or emergency shelters, feeding programs or adult day care operations.
But at Convergence, the part-church, part-arts center in Alexandria, Va., being missional translates — at least this time — into creating a contemplative sculpture garden.
“We are actually creating something that our community needs,” said Lisa Cole Smith, the pastor and artistic director at Convergence, a congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
While outdoor sacred space, such as labyrinths and prayer gardens, are nothing new for Baptist and other churches, the sculpture garden at Convergence is envisioned by its leaders as having a wide range of congregational and civic impacts. As envisioned, it will benefit individuals while contributing to the architectural and economic revitalization of an entire section of Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Ambitious aims for a sculpture garden? Maybe. But it’s also in keeping with how Convergence lives out its DNA as a church and arts center, said Smith, who serves on the transitional governing board of ABPnews/Herald.
“We have developed a relationship with the local community and built a strong foundation, and now we have an opportunity…to be an even bigger presence in the community,” she said.
Convergence was created in 2006 with the idea of serving an eclectic spiritual and secular community.
The artistic community is part of that. Convergence provides display and performance space needs for local artists, whether they are Christians or not. A recording studio is available for rent and a community playhouse stages its productions in the church theater.
But Convergence is also, very intentionally, a church where the arts and other efforts to foster creativity go hand-in-hand with worship, Bible study and discipleship. The church is a center for those drawn to contemplative spirituality and worship.
‘God brings things along’
The contemplative sculpture garden, currently in the early stages of landscaping, will initially feature four life-size figures by master sculptor Karen Swenholt.
Once completed, the garden, plus a large labyrinth, will take up most of the front lawn at Convergence. Its function will be to provide space for rest, meditation, prayer and special events.
The idea for the garden was included in the initial plans for Convergence, but it’s coming into being now due to timely donations of funds and landscaping dirt and the availability of Swenholt’s work, said Jay Smith, the church’s cultural architect.
“One of our community members, a landscape designer, loved the idea and designed the landscape,” he said of Pamela Underhill.
The timing also fits into ongoing municipal and civic efforts to revive the part of the city where Convergence is located.
“Alexandria has been looking at their West End to create tourist attractions and venues that are more artistic,” he said.
Convergence has been working with local government and community associations to find ways to bolster the economy.
“Understanding that need and trying to serve the community outside our church, we see that garden as a destination in the city — to be a sacred, contemplative place to have events or come reflect,” he said.
The fact that everything just came together organically to begin constructing the sculpture garden now, Jay Smith said, confirms Convergence is living out its mission in Alexandria.
“As God brings things along, we take the next step,” said Smith, who is Pastor Lisa Cole Smith’s husband.
The garden also will mark an expansion of sorts in the church’s ministry, he said.
Convergence members are excited because, at last, the outside of the facility will start letting people know what’s happening on the inside.
“When you come into church you feel the creativity and the sacredness, and that really resonates with people,” he said. “But our outside doesn’t necessarily fit with that.”
‘A mission mindset’
It also may not occur to observers initially that Convergence is operating on an indigenous church model, Lisa Cole Smith said.
“But we did start with a mission mindset,” she said.
Coming into the West End, she and her team saw the needs for worship space and a place for artists to create, show and perform their work both in sacred and secular ways. The result is Convergence.
“If we were to develop an indigenous expression of church in this community, what would that look like?” she said. “That’s what’s taken us on this journey.”
And the contemplative sculpture garden, she added, will only continue God’s mission on Alexandria’s West End.
“It will be an invitation to the larger community to view things from a spiritual perspective and to encourage silent contemplation,” she said.