By Emily Baez

InterVarsity's Thriving Arts Ministry

InterVarsity’s Arts Ministry reaches a wide range of art students, from visual artists, dancers, and actors, to musicians, writers, designers, architects, and ceramists.

I had the chance to speak with Alexa McClean and Calvin Chan, Associate Directors for National Arts Ministry, about the significance of Arts Ministry on college campuses.

1. Where have you seen God at work in Arts Ministry?

Alexa: Across the country, there's been a lot of fruitful community and meaningful relationships. It feels like things are coming to life, post COVID. People are just sharing meals and experiencing deep relationships with one another, which I think is countercultural to the isolated stereotypes of the art world. One chapter at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) started a worship time on Wednesdays which I haven’t seen visual artists do in the last few years, so that's been sweet. Generally, students are really curious. We've seen a few students coming to faith because student leaders are just being bold and inviting people to say yes to Jesus.

Calvin: There was a staff in Baltimore planting on a campus and hosting a weekly teatime just to meet students. And now the chapter, a few years later, has grown to 40 people. Another planting story is from The Curtis Institute of Music. Two years ago, we started working with alumni, faculty, and local church partners to plant this chapter in a very small school of less than 200 students. And now we've seen two students come to faith in the last year from this chapter. Another thing that I think Alexa and I are both excited about is a work we're doing with alumni. We're seeing a lot of alumni from our arts chapters really interested in partnering with InterVarsity as volunteers and mentors. But not only do they want to give back, they're also becoming leaders in their field. And so, they're thinking about how to be witnesses in orchestras, in studios, as professors, as faculty. That’s fruit of the work that we've done on campus.

We've now done three different cohorts of alumni or alumni-adjacent people who have gone through a four-session training to become volunteers. That's a new project that we've been working on that we see God's hand in.

2. What are some unique challenges that art students face when it comes to faith or being a part of a faith community on campus?

Calvin: In general, the stereotype of the artistic person tends to be someone who likes to play outside of the lines, likes to do something different from everyone else, doesn't like to follow orders in a typical fashion. So, I think some of the ministry challenges can be that InterVarsity strategies don’t always work in the same way. The schools are often very small. They can be as small as less than a thousand students. We as a team have often had to re-imagine what an InterVarsity structure can look like and what the role of a student leader looks like.

Art students often also have rapidly changing, very busy schedules. A lot of artistic stuff happens in the evenings and can be very all consuming. So how do we make space for these types of people to have community? I know Alexa has often shared that visual artists like to be by themselves and have a hard time working together. How do we form those types of communities when so much of their school experiences are already moving them towards siloing themselves in isolation?

Alexa: One challenge is figuring out their purpose and their gifts. I know for myself, I was like, I love to make weird sculptures. Why does that matter when there's all of these injustices in the world? Or How do I find a community that understands and can help me answer that question? Because if no one else around me is an artist, I feel kind of alone in answering that question.

There’s also the overlap of identity, especially for visual artists, probably performing artists too. They might be asking, If who I am and what I do are so overlapped, what happens if what I'm doing is not good?

3. Why is Arts Ministry important?

Calvin: Most of us can rarely go a single day without watching a TV show, listening to some piece of music, reading a book, or looking at some kind of art. The reality is Arts Ministry is important because art, music, film, TV, dance— all these things are the movers of our culture today. We want to be influencing the students that are going to be leaders and working in these fields in the next generation. I think the work of evangelism, especially in this generation, is the work of the artist. Who are the people telling beautiful stories, and how do we help those people find Jesus and become followers of Jesus?

Alexa: I think, in addition to artists shaping the culture, the other part of what Calvin said was that artists need to know Jesus and grow in their faith. And it's not just this question of How can we use the arts for the kingdom? but How can we reach artists? We need a ministry that understands their context, their reality, the environment they're in. I think part of that is a lot of artists can feel like outsiders, sometimes through their choosing and a need to be special, and sometimes because of who they are or hurts they've experienced. But Jesus cares about them, and I think the church broadly misses out when we ask artists, even unintentionally, to fit into a certain mold or rhythm. They’re a gift to the church too.

4. What does Arts Ministry look like on different campuses?

Alexa: Three words that are central to our ministry: safety, beauty, and generosity. It's kind of the undertone of all that we do because those things, in some ways, are missing from art schools.

At SAIC, they do a weekly Bible study, and they started a Wednesday worship time. One of the leader’s names is Ana and she has “Afternoons with Ana” where she's just available to pray or to be with people. And another leader, Elijah, has “Evenings with Elijah” if you just need a person or you want to have a meal or something. Another leader has “Kiley's Kitchen,” and she is always opening up her space for people to just come and belong. Some of that was started by a student named Teila who started “Tuesdays with Teila,” where she intentionally outlined her schedule so that she could be available to people. And so, ministry looks very relational.

Calvin: There’s quite a variety of what ministry looks like in Arts Ministry. We don't have as strong a formula as maybe other focused ministries do. Some of our chapters are unstaffed, recent plants where five to seven students meet in a small group. Other chapters are more established, like SAIC or Oberlin College and Conservatory. They have large groups, small groups, leadership team, and lots of different events.

5. What is unique about Arts Ministry?

Calvin: If you imagine an art school, or even a music school, the InterVarsity chapter is always going to be the most diverse room in that school. Just within a music school, there’s no other place where you’ll get a jazz pianist, a percussionist, an opera singer, a string player, a woodwind player, all spending an hour together. That’s incredible. Everyone typically hangs out with their own discipline in their own studio. But we get to play in that space and share about who Jesus is.

About five years ago, there was a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church outside of the Juilliard School. It was as if the eclipse happened, you know, suddenly nothing mattered that week except for that protest. And the InterVarsity students, kind of already attuned to navigating some of these difficult conversations, decided to lead some very simple, commonly-known worship songs very quietly in the lobby of the school.

There was shouting and counter protests outside, and just inside the doors, there was one student with a guitar from the Juilliard Christian Fellowship. People who weren’t Christian joined to sing "Amazing Grace." I think that's a unique way that the presence of a Christian group on some of these campuses provides the opportunity for a different voice in a very polarized world.

Alexa: There's a lot of room just in general. Kelsey, the staff in Baltimore that set up the teatime, has talked about this image of a courtyard filled with picnic blankets where there's plenty of room for everyone. There's an abundance of food for people to come and rest and belong. That's something I love about Arts Ministry. If you have a project and you can't come for a month, it's okay. You can come back and you'll still belong. There are inconsistent rhythms in the artist’s life because of projects or shows or whatever, and we leave room for people to know that they're still loved and cared for.


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Emily Baez is a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. She enjoys long hikes, watching movies, and overly competitive game nights with friends. You can support her ministry at