I was recently driving west for a college visit with my daughter, Abby, when as we crested a hill right at dusk, we beheld a long sky, painted in colors of magenta, fuchsia, and periwinkle blended so intricately that words could not capture expression. There it was before us … indescribable colors and shapes … a one-of-a-kind spectacle. And not a bit of it was manmade.
Abby, like so many children at Perimeter Church in Johns Creek, Georgia, has been brought up in an environment rich with artistic development and expression as a student in The Academy of the Arts at Perimeter Church. Sharing that moment at sunset was richer because of the legacy of artistry that we experienced and shared in her 17 years.
The Academy of the Arts at Perimeter Church instructs, educates, and trains students in the classical and technical aspects of ballet, fine arts, music, theatre arts and ballroom dance. It’s designed for students who are eager, teachable, and curious to explore and nurture their talents within an atmosphere of excellence, encouragement, and purpose. Academy instructors work individually and collectively to equip and motivate each student to achieve their highest level of potential.
The mission of The Academy of the Arts is to develop and train students with a love and appreciation for the fine and performing arts. We encourage students to pursue their craft with excellence and innovation, and with an insight towards God’s masterful creativity.
Upon opening the doors at Perimeter Church on any given day of the week you will see or hear artistic expression in action! Students, teachers and a bevy of creatives tend to live out their various artistic expressions as a natural extension of their lives. Raised with an awareness of God as the Giver of all good things, children are encouraged to praise God with both skill and expression. It’s in the expression that I believe we see the work of the Holy Spirit transcending mere talent and catapulting emotion to God’s stratosphere of creativity—where the soul embraces the meaning of the artist’s message.
Tiffany Godfrey, mother of two says, “The ballet studio at the Academy of the Arts is such a blessing to our two daughters. Part of what we love about it is that the ballet teachers choose worship songs for the end of the year recital. It warms my heart to see my four-year-old dancing around the house, arms uplifted, singing “We are the light of the world” as she practices her ballet routine. She is learning to praise Jesus at such an early age through song and dance, and I love that! Their recital is a true worship service and always moves the audience to tears! We are so thankful for a ballet studio that includes Christ-centered worship as a normal part of its curriculum. The children have fun dancing, but they are also learning how to worship at the same time!”
Children are so tender to creativity. Their imaginations are so vivid and open to interpretation. We, as parents and teachers, strive to nurture and train up children in their natural bents. For instance, Renee Imbesi noticed something early on in her daughter’s personality. “Erica, from day one, has had busy hands. She wasn’t mischievous, but because she was curious she always seemed to be getting into trouble. Since she has been taking piano lessons, now when she gets her busy hands, I direct her to the piano and she’s happy as a clam working the keys. It reminds me of the saying, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.’ We found a productive way of keeping her hands busy through music.”
So why, in this small portion of suburban Georgia, has this Academy of Arts, roughly 500-600 students a year, thrived and permeated not only the church, but the community as well? I believe it is our focus away from self-absorption and toward our Creator. It isn’t so much WHAT we perform or create as it is HOW we perform and create.
There are two elements that are fundamental in my teaching of young theatre arts students. For whom do you perform? Hands shoot up in maniacal fashion eager to be the one recognized with all of the wisdom in Miss Cherie’s class. “THE AUDIENCE!” of course. And this is true. Still beaming with satisfaction, expressions turn from confident to perplexed when I add that the most important audience is their audience of One—God Himself. Once you realize for whom you perform, the rest is easy. The pressure is off. A certain measure of joy and humility pushes out the human tendency of self-absorption and star quality. Knowing that we are never going to be perfect, that insane goal is replaced with the realistic goal of excellence. Now, that we can do … with God’s help.
The second element in my teaching is believability. Do I believe what you are trying to express? Is it understandable? Can you explain it through your craft? If your method of transposing your art form is muddled with anything but the message, then you need to rethink your presentation.
When Jesus took out a stick and drew pictures in the sand, his audience understood Him. He wasn’t trying to be abstract. He wanted to communicate, and rather than pulling out a PowerPoint presentation, He used stories, parables, drawings, and analogies.
With message at the heart of the art, we’ve seen a steady stream of students over the years. Many of our students begin at the earliest of years with Early Childhood Music, taught by Gail Burnett. “In class, we sing, dance, keep steady beats, move, wiggle and match pitches … all to help your child achieve ‘primary musical development’ … but in a playful and age-appropriate way. Even the youngest child benefits, because just as they learn language, they are ‘soaking in music’ like a sponge, well before they are actually making music.”
Art is a universal language. It breaks down communication barriers and speaks to everyone. In a church environment many are seeking answers to life. Young families, in particular, are re-establishing spiritual ties and roots in the early childhood stages of parenting. Oftentimes, parents will find that they feel safe in a church environment, and they recognize that the church has, for years, been a cultural hub to the community. The earliest composers and artists displayed their works in the church. So, it’s natural that a church the size of Perimeter would continue to nurture the arts and provide their people with the means of expressing their faith through the arts.
KidsQuest is a weekly worship service for the 1st – 5th graders in our church and community. The KidsQuest Theater generates a high energy, fast-paced form of worship that appeals to their particular audience. It reflects the sensitivity of children who may or may not have a spiritual background. In doing so, it begs the question: Isn’t this just entertainment? Shouldn’t we just teach them from the Bible? Does it really have to be this elaborate?
Entertainment is a significant part of our culture, with many benefits and some real drawbacks. Many times when people ask if this is entertainment, what they are asking (in more precise terms) is this: Is this only entertainment? The simple answer is “No.” KidsQuest is designed to be a worship and teaching program. We work very hard to make all of the components work together to teach the elements of worship and the Bible lesson. We want the kids who come to KidsQuest to be attentive and absorbing as much as possible. Therefore, we make the program as engaging to the imagination as possible. The more their imaginations are engaged by humor, wonder, and the various creative approaches we take, the more likely the lessons are to stick. This approach to teaching the Bible may well be entertaining, but it is not merely entertainment.
Many of the students of The Academy of the Arts are also students of Perimeter Christian School, where the curriculum and method of teaching incorporates styles of learning, such as merging nature studies into everyday learning. Children might be learning about art through the study of a dogwood tree, which leads to a walk about the grounds of the church where a more detailed study ensues. Students are taught to diligently observe details and then recreate drawings or paintings from their observations.
Just as informing and inspirational ideas are gleaned from the words of wise scholars, so also the works of the great artists bring truth and beauty to our lives, whether from watercolors, musical scores, or one act plays. By exploring these works, the motivation of the artists, the effects of their art on society, and the decision-making skills in creating a masterpiece, our students learn to appreciate the men and women behind the works. In creating their own works, students develop higher level thinking skills, which are necessary for living.
So what do we hope to accomplish? My children will tell you I’m not quick to dole out goodies. When asked, “What do we get?” for tasks or achievements, my simple answer is, “The satisfaction of a job well done.” That is in keeping with the scripture, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men; knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” (Colossians 3:23-24).
And in doing good work, there is no doubt that we will encounter struggles. There is no doubt that the world has become a darker place, as is so aptly phrased by the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien:
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” Haldir of Lothlorien
We may not be able to successfully fight dark places on our own, but perhaps the idealist in me wants to believe that there is still much that is “fair.” If we are raising our children on “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute—if there is any excellence or if anything worthy of praise—let your mind dwell on these things,” (Philippians 4:8), then through God’s grace, the Light will shine and it will permeate the darkness with a brilliance that is not manmade.