By Jennifer Johnson
We all need a community of some kind—a place to be accepted and loved for who we are and challenged to grow into who we might be. Churches at their best have always been a place for people to find these connections by serving, worshipping, and studying together.
Forefront Church in New York City encourages all of these expressions of community life, but the church is also developing new opportunities to support, nurture, and encourage artists and entrepreneurs through a program called “Creative Guilds.”
The concept of a guild developed hundreds of years ago to encourage artisans and practitioners of specific trades to hone their craft and teach others, and Forefront’s guilds carry the spirit of this tradition. Eight groups currently gather for monthly meetings and activities, ranging from a start-up guild for freelancers and small business owners to a “movement” guild for dancers.
“The whole thing started a few years ago when we realized we have a lot of creative people in our neighborhoods and in our church who might be interested in engaging with each other,” says Matthew Kern, former creative director and guilds director at Forefront. “Ryan Phipps, who’s now lead pastor at our Manhattan campus, came up with the idea and asked me to lead it.”
Kern and his team “stumbled through” the first year, he says, until they realized creative excellence in a discipline does not always equal excellence in leading a group.
“Our first leaders were really good at their creative discipline, but some weren’t as good at building a community where new people felt comfortable coming in and joining the rhythm of things happening each month,” he says. “We learned from that and changed our recruitment process for future leaders.”
Today each of the guild leaders not only plans and promotes the monthly gathering, many of them also organize other activities throughout the month, manage a Facebook page for their group, and communicate with guild members between meetings.
Another key learning was that people aren’t natural collaborators.
“We thought creative people would thrive with the chance to share their work and respond to each other, but it requires coaching,” says Ben Grace, worship director at Forefront’s Brooklyn campus. “That’s one reason we launched the Guild Collective.”
This special event, held for the second time this past May, features members of each guild and focuses on the creative process, including the vulnerability of sharing unfinished work. This year’s Collective included stations representing each guild with activities and information to help others understand the unique challenges each group of artists faces, as well as to celebrate examples of good work.
Grace notes that some of the guilds, such as the one for graphic design, skew toward the professional with most of its members practicing that art as a vocation. Others, such as the songwriting guild that he leads, are more “aspirational” communities of people trying to build careers.
“One member of our guild joined us while she did an internship in New York and then moved to Omaha,” he says. “She decided to move back, and the whole group rallied around her to help. One person asked her to join his band. Another one funded her new record in part through relationships she formed in the guild, and we packed out a venue with 200 people to support one of her shows. When I talk about the guilds, I always emphasize that if you’re trying to make it in New York creatively, you don’t have to go it alone.”
Of course, the guilds attract—and welcome—people who have no connection with faith or with Forefront.
“We have people attending our groups who have never set foot in a church, including ours,” Kern says. “But they know the group is connected to a church and perhaps that can be a good first step for them—that the church does care about creativity, that we’re not just interested in getting you to come to our service, but we’re also interested in helping you get connected to people who care about you.”
“Throughout history, the church has always had a tricky relationship with creativity, but it’s always supported the arts,” Grace says. “The guilds can be a place where we all learn from each other—the artists, the supporters of art, and the community of faith.”
Architecture & Design—Open to anyone interested in the “dynamic built environment,” from practitioners to the simply curious.
Graphic Design—For all levels of designers and design aficionados to share ideas, work on projects, and “nerd out over typefaces, color schemes, and the latest subway ads at your local train stop.”
Hacking—For software developers, web designers, and anyone interested in building computer programs, working on projects, and discussing the field.
Movement—Open to both novice and experienced dancers who want to dance, learn, and have fun.
Photo—Welcomes photographers from every skill level to share their work, experiment with technique, and learn from each other.
Songwriting—Open to any songwriter who wants to be challenged to write more regularly, be less conscious of the finished product, face the fear of failure, and “eat more Oreos.”
Start-up—For freelancers, small business owners, and the self-employed to improve business skills, share stories, and solve problems together.
Writing—For both beginners and established writers of essays, poems, books, blogs, and more to share their work and receive feedback.