Evan Thomas Way: On Pastoring Artists

Over the past couple of years, I've developed a great affinity for Portland's Door of Hope church. It's the home church of Josh Garrels and Lize Vice, and over the past two years I've attended multiple services and interviewed former pastor Tim Mackie and songwriter Wesley Randolph Eader. Last summer I met up with Door of Hope's worship pastor Evan Thomas Way, who also leads the popular and highly acclaimed West Coast indie band The Parson Red Heads. 

For a church that has such an emphasis on creativity, producing some of the best church music of the 21st century, Evan is surprisingly down to earth. "Artists have the tendency to think that they are a gift to the church, that the church needs artists. I feel like one of the best ways to disciple artists is to try and strip away the idolatry of their art. You don’t live for your art. You live for Jesus. And you’re lucky to be able to do art.”

 My profile on Evan got published by my friends at Mockingbird. We talk about his songwriting for Parsons, but most of our conversation revolves around his thoughts on writing and leading music of his local congregation. Working on this piece greatly encouraged me in my current role of making humble music at my local chruch. I hope you give it a read. 

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The Perils and Rewards of Artmaking: Micah Bournes's Blues

While in Portland last summer, I spent an evening with blues singer Liz Vice and spoken-word artist Micah Bournes. I listened in as they swapped stories of the frustrations and joys of making art amongst the church. During our conversation I learned that Micah, a well-regarded poet and hip-hop artist, was about to release a brand new record of blues tunes that he made in collaboration with Liz. He played us some of the early demos and they were haunting, relevant, and felt as old the genre itself. 

Later that year, his album, No Ugly Babies, dropped. It had me dancing with infectious joy and mourning over irrevocable failures. I had to learn how this spoken word poet picked up this well-worn genre and made it his own, so I arranged an interview with him over the phone.

This week Mockingbird has published the finished piece. Friends, if you are in any way creative, you've got to read the lessons Micah learned making this record. His insights on the creative process are so insightful and they've been shaping my creativity since I first heard them. Go read the piece and then go check out Micah's terrific music. 

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Healing Wings on 'Highway Winds': An Interview with Wesley Randolph Eader

I first discovered Wesley's music when I visited Door of Hope, a church in Portland. A young man with long blonde hair was leading worship and we sang the song "Oh Perfect Love Come Near to Me".  The song described what was going in in my spiritual life with poetry that felt torn out of some long lost hymnal. I had never heard it before and wondered if someone at the church wrote the song.

That night I discovered the music of Wesley Randolph Eader, writer of the most extraordinary hymns of our modern time. I introduced his songs to my family, my friends, and then my church. A year later, I sat down with Wesley for an in depth interview on his work, his church life, and his latest album of world weary storytelling. 

And now I can share the result of that interview with you. My profile on Wesley has been published by Mockingbird. I'm proud of this piece, thrilled to have it published, and excited for you to read it.

If you like what you read and want more of Wesley, I've published an edited transcript of my full interview here. 

 

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Humility and the Craft of Hip-Hop: A Visit to Humble Beast

Trinity Church of Portland is located on the tree filled campus of Western Seminary and I arrive for a service half an hour late. I quietly ease myself into a back row, the sermon already underway.  Since their teaching pastor, Art Azurdia, is away on sabbatical, one of the elders, a professor of counselling at the seminary, is taking his place. As he preaches from 2 Kings 6 and necessity of having our eyes opened to the greater reality of God’s work amongst us, I glance around the chapel noting the ordinariness of the congregation. The church isn’t large, but it is filled with all ages and all are listening attentively. (I later learned that whenever the congregation outgrows the building, they plant a daughter church.) After the sermon, Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads us through a communion liturgy with the eloquence and passion I’ve come to expect from the emcee, extolling the excellencies of the Gospel we are celebrating. An amateur church band ends the service with unabashed enthusiasm. 

I leave the building an hour after the service, deeply encouraged by both its teaching and the long conversation I had with a member of the congregation, Josh Hill. Josh had shared with me the story of how he became the Director of Operations at Humble Beast, the ministry that brought me to Trinity Church and the city of Portland.

 Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads the congregation of Trinity Church through a communion liturgy.

Bryan “Braille” Winchester leads the congregation of Trinity Church through a communion liturgy.

Humble Beast, a hip-hop label dedicated to producing excellent content it gives away for free, calls Trinity its “home church” and submits to the church’s statement of faith. The label consists of four artists, with diverse styles and lyrical approaches, all united under a lush, acoustic driven production. Their talent is legendary in the hip-hop community. Propaganda is a modern day prophet, preaching into his culture while restoring hope in his community of Los Angeles. Jackie Hill Perry’s intricate wordplay produces a cracked mosaic drawing us to seek our joy in the Lord. JGivens’s depth of lyrics and intricate soundscapes tell a multi-layered story as complex and varied as life itself. I turn to Beautiful Eulogy when my soul is dry and my heart is broken, and they restore me in the hope of the Gospel, my cheeks often getting wet in the process. To say that their music has impacted my life is an understatement. I was eager to see what happens behind the scenes and to learn more about their unique relationship to their local church.

I arrive at the white bungalow in the suburbs of greater Portland that housed the studio at the time of my visit (they have since relocated). Josh welcomes me in. The team has just finished their morning devotional meeting and are beginning the day’s work, quickly dispersing from the main room to enter various meetings and recording sessions. In the kitchen, whose shelves are packed with enough equipment to stand in for a coffee shop’s merchandising wall, are gathered two of the label’s three producers, Daniel Steele and Courtland Urbano. In dress and mannerisms they couldn’t be more different; Courtland has a sculpted moustache and quiet smile, and Daniel wears an XL t-shirt and a backwards snapback cap. I learn that Daniel provided the majority of production on Jackie Hill Perry’s remarkably acoustic driven album, so I ask him about its unusual sound. 

 Daniel Steele prepares some beats for an upcoming project. Sitting next to him (not pictured) is James " JPoetic "  Calkins, a Humble Beast intern.

Daniel Steele prepares some beats for an upcoming project. Sitting next to him (not pictured) is James "JPoeticCalkins, a Humble Beast intern.

“I would describe our sound at Humble Beast as boutiqueDaniel explains, carefully choosing his words. “Do you see Courtland making coffee?” I watch Courtland carefully pours hot water from the gooseneck spout of a copper kettle, engrossed yet clearly enjoying his task. Daniel continues: “That’s how we craft our music.”

The analogy is apt. Throughout our conversation I hear sounds from the recording studio, located deeper inside the building. 10 seconds of a track are played and then paused, played and paused, again and again. I wander into the studio, where Braille and Jeremiah “JGivens” Givens are fine-tuning a song for JGiven’s upcoming album. The two are utterly immersed in the music. Braille, helming the computer, repeats yet again the 10 seconds of track, closing his eyes and swaying to the beat - “oh here we, here we go, Geronimo, look out below” - before pausing and adjusting the deep base line. JGivens, sitting next to him, nods wordlessly. Again the line is played and this time the snare is tweaked. Then three separate lines of background vocals are fine tuned, followed by the effects. All morning the artists work, and I’ve only heard the first third of the song. Boutique indeed; this is hip-hop craftsmanship. 

 Hip-hop craftsmanship: I lost track of time while observing Braille and JGivens work on one of the standout tracks of JGiven's album  Fly Exam.

Hip-hop craftsmanship: I lost track of time while observing Braille and JGivens work on one of the standout tracks of JGiven's album Fly Exam.

That afternoon, an adjacent office is cramped with Jeremiah, Courtland, Anthony Benedetto (who’s responsible for the visual style of the label), and Thomas “Odd Thomas” Terry, the owner and proprietor. The four are planning a music video they are producing for JGiven’s song “10 2 Get In”. The office is packed with computers and cameras. Artwork, logos, bookshelves, and timeline filled whiteboards cover the walls. There is a serious tone to the discussion. The message they are communicating and the preciousness of their resources demand their best abilities. I notice the weight of this responsibility particularly in Thomas.

Thomas is also an elder at Trinity and he has a meeting with the other three elders later that afternoon. The whole team is getting hungry and Thomas suggests a Lebanese restaurant near the church. We all pile into several vehicles and our commute gives us some time to talk. I ask him about the ego struggle that so regularly accompanies the creation of art. “You always have to fight your pride, the way people perceive you, and your affirmation” he tells me. “The pride— and sometimes slipping into finding your self-worth, dignity, and value in your artistry—is something I think every artist has to wrestle with. I don’t know many people who have conquered that.”

I’m relieved that I am not alone in this battle. He continues; “It’s a constant day by day thing. Where am I at? How is this impacting me? For the artist who's figured that out, I would like to talk with that person. But I think that there is a responsibility to constantly approach God with your art and with your talents and say, “God, search me and expose the areas of my life where new areas of pride because of artistry has popped up, or I’ve believed things that are untrue, or I've believed things that are exaggerated about myself.” I don’t think it’s special. I think everyone has to wrestle with those things, but art just tends to put it on display more.”

I wonder how being connected to the local church affects this struggle. “I think one of the things the church does is it should—if it’s a healthy church—give you a good balance, reminding you that you are just one of many people within the church, that you are only one part of the body. They shouldn’t elevate you because you’re an artist over and against the person who is not artistically bent, but who is serving the body in an equally important role.”

 Thomas and Jeremiah excitedly bounce ideas for their upcoming music video, the innovative .

Thomas and Jeremiah excitedly bounce ideas for their upcoming music video, the innovative.

We arrive at the restaurant along with the rest of the team. Thomas will have to eat quickly in order to make the meeting. While we wait for the food to arrive, I ask about Humble Beast’s relationship with Trinity Church. “When we come to Trinity we don’t necessarily come with our hip hop burden and say “do something with our hip-hop.” We basically just serve in our church.” This includes ordinary tasks like stacking chairs and brewing coffee, as well as more specific roles, such as serving in the liturgy and being an elder.  “They encourage us to keep on, they encourage through prayer, and support our efforts. But we haven’t come into the church saying “Here’s what we do; support what we do.” We are members of the church that have a particular vocation that has a ministry bent. We are artists who've found that in order for us to be effective we need to submit to a local church.”

Thomas leaves for his meeting and I end up next to JGivens in the back seat of a car returning to the studio. Jeremiah is staying in Portland for several weeks recording his upcoming album Fly Exam, but he was born and raised and continues to live in Las Vegas. I ask him about his church and he tells me about its location in ‘Naked City’, a mile and a half radius that five years ago was considered one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. It was then that a family moved into the area and planted a church. Through a balanced blend of ministries—including open air preaching, food distribution, and weekly discipleship—the church has grown to 150 people. Some of its main contributors were initially those most violently opposed to its work. Jeremiah told me about the church’s active role in the community, their careful balance of word and deed ministries, and how folks who were just kids when the church started have now grown up and are almost raised by church families. “We’ve taken them on their first drive to the ocean or even their first time outside of Naked City.” 

 JGivens on God's sovereignty in his life: "it's just dope!" This moment of joy stayed with me and defined my trip to Portland.

JGivens on God's sovereignty in his life: "it's just dope!" This moment of joy stayed with me and defined my trip to Portland.

It was out of this church that Jeremiah’s rap ministry was born, beginning with live outreach performance on the streets and in local churches. As a kid, a career in hip-hop was far from his mind. “Growing up, all I wanted to do was design rollercoasters as a Disney Imagineer.” After he completed his engineering degree and interned for Disney, he realized that it wasn’t what he wanted to do every day. Nor was successfully selling $17,000 contracts for a communications start-up he worked for. “I went home and I was like “I’m out.” I’m going to rap these songs for my church.””

“So I sold my car, sold everything, lived at home and just had a phone bill, doing shows and selling CDs.” But Jeremiah applies his engineering degree and the problem solving skills it taught him everyday. He is also incredibly creative. “Art is a lot bigger than music. It’s everything—it’s the way you arrange your clothes.” He discussed the aesthetics of his upcoming album and the music videos he and his collaborators at Humble Beast were creating to supplement the narrative of the album. The album’s story is all about pride and the subsequent fall. It mirrors Jeremiah’s own journey through drug addiction and the resulting humility that came from being anchored in the local church. All of the aesthetics, from the album cover to his Instagram feed, support this story.

“Remember, I wanted to work for Disney,” he tells me as he shoots hoops in the small basketball court outside the studio. “So my whole way of producing something is a Walt Disney mindset, it’s the entire experience.” I remark on how interesting it is that these lifelong desires, while not fulfilled directly, are still being used by God in the end. “Right?” Jeremiah exclaimed. “He redeems it! God has been like “I’m going to let you do what you wanted to do you, just didn’t know you wanted to do it like this.” It’s just dope!” We laugh together, truly enjoying the way God turns our selfish dreams and aspirations into something that magnifies him in ways much better than we could have imagined. 

As I sit outside the studio in the summer heat, I reflect back on what I’ve witnessed that day. These are men who are honing their skills with excellence. They are deeply grounded in their church communities, discipling while being discipled. Their unique circumstances led them to this place, despite disappointments, disillusionment, and even failure. But God had worked through it all, impacting many though the overflow of their lives: their music. Even me, in my world of Calgary.

I return home having seen a little clearer how God has been using my messy circumstances, my gifts, and my failings. I’ll pray all the more for faithfulness and humility, and I’ll stay even more rooted, thankful, and committed to the oversight of my church community. 

 

My conversation with Odd Thomas was so helpful and encouraging that I couldn't fit it all in this essay. I've instead published a transcript of the entire chat here.  

Scriptures Shaping Community: A Visit to The Bible Project

Many of the topics I discussed with Tim Mackie did not make it into this final essay.  I've published the full transcript of that fascinating interview here

I arrive at Door of Hope church in northeast Portland shortly after its first service begins at 8 a.m. As I open the red doors I hear an upbeat rendition of one of my favourite hymns: ‘On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.’ A six piece band plays with simple precision and although the congregation has the clothing styles and facial hair one would expect from Portland,  I’m surprised at the diversity of ages. Tim Mackie preaches, but his conversational style is more akin to teaching. As he walks us through a passage from Matthew, his care for the congregation and what he is expounding is obvious. As he tells me later “the Bible is a living thing and the whole point about why I care about it is the way it shapes people and communities for the Kingdom of God.”

And shape people it does. As I listen, my preconceived way of thinking is confronted by the teachings of Jesus. After Tim concludes his message the band plays a song written by a member of the congregation. I’m challenged and comforted by the lyrics, “oh Love that breaks all sinful bonds, please conquer more of me.” I leave, encouraged to trust Jesus as I face my uncertain future, and the second of three services begins. The building is packed and the congregation is asked to give up any extra chairs in order to accommodate the people who are still arriving.

 
 Tim preaching from Matthew 16: 1-12; "Oh you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourself that fact that you have no bread?"

Tim preaching from Matthew 16: 1-12; "Oh you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourself that fact that you have no bread?"

 

Door of Hope is one of the reasons I’ve come to Portland. I heard about the church through its music (Josh Garrels is one of the elders) and through Tim Mackie’s work at The Bible Project. The Bible Project is a series of crowd-funded videos that offer animated explanations of the books of the Bible. They are beautifully presented, clear to understand, and use a form of communication that is open to anyone, regardless of your religious or cultural background. I’m eager to learn more about the creation of these videos. I’m also intrigued by the number of ministries in Portland that embrace creativity as way of sharing biblical truth; so I arrange a visit with the other half of The Bible Project, Jon Collins

Jon invites to me to visit Sincerely Truman, a communications consulting company that The Bible Project is based out of. Their building is located across the river from downtown Portland, in a former industrial neighbourhood that includes Stumptown Coffee’s headquarters. The space breathes creativity and collaboration, from the endless sketch-filled whiteboards, to the bar featuring local brews and three Chemex's working in rotation. 

 
 Sincerely Truman, an open office filled with tables rather than desks and where couches are as ubiquitous as sketch-filled whiteboards.

Sincerely Truman, an open office filled with tables rather than desks and where couches are as ubiquitous as sketch-filled whiteboards.

 

Jon originally wanted to be a pastor before realizing that he was too young for the job. Putting his communications degree and storytelling skills to use, he co-founded Epipheo, a company that produces videos that “reveal epiphanies to people”. Out of Epipheo Sincerely Truman was born. Jon describes his strength as “distilling information.” He learns everything he can about a client (a local brewing company or a charity dedicated to diagnosing blindness), clarifying the details into a package his team will use to create everything from the company’s logo to their website. 

Jon and Tim became friends while interning together during university. Tim, a self professed Bible geek, was studying Hebrew and taking any opportunity he could to teach — Sunday School, student classes in university, even a series of self-produced videos featuring him and a whiteboard explaining the literary structure of each book of the Bible.  It was while Tim was working on his Ph.D. that Jon, who had built his career around making videos, pitched an idea: “What if we did some Bible videos together?” When Tim returned to Portland to pastor Door of Hope, he and Jon started meeting once a week. It took a year and a half of those meetings to flesh out the scripts, develop a visual style, and decide on the crowd funding model. Door of Hope’s donated one day a week from Tim’s schedule, providing initial support until the crowd-funding model gained momentum upon the launch of their first video.

 
 Tim and Jon plan the outline for the yet to be released Proverbs video, part of their  Read Scripture series of videos.

Tim and Jon plan the outline for the yet to be released Proverbs video, part of their Read Scripture series of videos.

 

Tim arrives. He and Jon sit down in a restaurant style booth that provide the perfect spot to brainstorm and they work on the outline for an upcoming video on the Book of Proverbs. Tim already has a script in place and a rough outline for what will become the finished video. The two spend almost an hour together fine tuning and clarifying the outline. Watching this process, it becomes clear why they make such a good team. Tim is prepared with a script and a sheet of paper filled with a rough outline, well equipped in his knowledge of how to read and understand this book. As Tim walked through his plan for the video he would ask Jon to clarify the best ways to visualize the information on the page. The finished product was much clearer following their collaboration. It was also a pleasure to see how interested Jon was in having his understanding of the Bible strengthened through these conversations, which is also apparent when you listen to their podcast

 It takes several drafts before arriving at final poster used in the video. An example what such a poster looks like when finished  can be found here.

It takes several drafts before arriving at final poster used in the video. An example what such a poster looks like when finished can be found here.

Unlike many arts and faith organizations, folks at The Bible Project, along with other Portland creatives like Humble Beast and Josh Garrels, are faithful to their art while being truthful to the Gospel. A common element seems to be their location in Portland, which surprises me. My experience on the rest of the West Coast has left me with the impression of a creative but spiritually vacant region. I ask Tim why Portland is different and if there is a common thread tying these ministries together. As he ponders the question I remember my experience at Door of Hope yesterday. “Is it something to do with the healthy churches?”

“For sure.” he answers. “To be honest, it is a huge piece of it. Door of Hope is one of a network of churches planted in the core of Portland during the last decade and a half. It was something significant, part of a new wave of younger, more innovative church planters who were really trying to engage the culture of the city.” He names about a dozen churches of various sizes and denominations, describing the collegiality and friendship amongst the pastors. “Among all of us there is a common focus on discipling people who are engaging the culture of the city with their careers. And so 15 years in, you see the fruit of that through a business like Epipheo or Sincerely Truman, or a ministry like Humble Beast.” This even applies to Portland’s thriving coffee scene. “The coffee industry in Portland is riddled with really, really committed followers of Jesus. Among the main roasters there is a core that are owned or managed by Christians.”

We then make our way downstairs into the basement of Sincerely Truman and into The Bible Project's headquarters. One wall consists of a giant whiteboard where a complex timeline of video titles, assignments (“Record, Illustrate, Edit, Launch”), and schedules are organized. A row of desks house a team of about 9 people, all of whom are quietly working. The walls are covered with posters from the Sketchbook series, frames from films like Song of the Sea that are inspiring the project’s style, and bookshelves filled with Bible commentaries.  Tim pulls up a chair next to Mac, a storyboard artist, and together they begin illustrating the Proverbs video. I chat with several members of the team. Robert, the art director, tells me about his work maintaining a constant style amongst all the projects. Kayla, an animator, shares some of the influences for upcoming videos. Guy, who’s working on visual effects, tells me about his journey prior to joining The Bible Project and his experience with the churches in Portland. I even chat with Jon’s mum, who is volunteering her time by helping send out posters to monthly sponsors. 

 
 Tim and Jon now bring the video's outline to Mac, who does a rough sketch before polishing it up and sending it to the animators.

Tim and Jon now bring the video's outline to Mac, who does a rough sketch before polishing it up and sending it to the animators.

 

“You need to find a way for your vocation to overlap both inside and outside the church” Tim tells me. “The way we’ve done it at Door of Hope is that we all have significant creative projects on the side to keep us engaged in our areas of interest. So [our worship pastor] Evan has a band that is quite successful here in Portland. He tours regularly and just fits that into his life while being full time at the church. There is a value of weaving your life into the culture of the city but having it overlap with the culture of the church, as opposed to being very separatist or distinct.” I’m seeing an example of this principle as Sincerely Truman, a secular company, parents this very Christian endeavour. 

What’s the future for the project? Plans are in place for a series explaining how to read the various literary types of the Bible. Tim wants to tackle the making of the biblical cannon and the history of the book. Jon’s dreaming of a Holy Land tour in a hybrid of animation and onsite footage. Ultimately, their vision is that The Bible Project’s YouTube’s channel becomes a centre for learning with hours upon hours of free content for anyone who wants a Bible education.

 
 A partial view of The Bible Project's headquarters. Turning around, one would see the desks of the animators along with more shelves of books.

A partial view of The Bible Project's headquarters. Turning around, one would see the desks of the animators along with more shelves of books.

 

I wonder if their visual approach will pull viewers away from the word-centred faith of the Bible. “We’re not trying to replace people’s experience with the Scriptures” Tim explains. “We areproviding a tool that makes them coherent, understandable, and approachable. If anything, one of my goals for the videos is that someone watching them will come away thinking “now I want read the book of Genesis.” But at the same time the Scriptures are united to living church communities that are themselves being shaped by the Scriptures, — encountering Scripture within the web of relationships with other disciples.” In fact they regularly hear from churches from around the world who are using the videos as tools for doing just that — hence the study guides the team are producing.

The afternoon is getting late. Before leaving, I thank Jon, Tim, and the rest of the team, Tim says “I hope this visit has been invigorating.” Indeed it has. I’ve seen a healthy, gospel centred church bearing fruit in its community through ordinary discipleship. Out of that fruit is born a ministry of creativity; men and women using their skills in both the church and the world. Their ministry, one video view at a time, is impacting lives around the world; even my own life in Calgary, Alberta. Perhaps there is hope for my city too. I leave encouraged and renewed in my calling to be faithful at home amongst my church and in my community.