How is ministry like jazz? Marlon Hall, founder of the Awakenings Movement, a nontraditional, nondenominational church in Houston, challenges denominational leaders to answer that question.
Using stories from his own life and work, Hall described to participants in a recent Denominational Leadership program how he “curates human potential,” helping others discover their unique, God-given gifts.
In the process, his innovation disrupts predictable patterns and transforms “junk to jazz.”
Hall is one of a number of Leadership Education faculty who work with program participants to understand how improvisation can be integrated into their leadership skills. Using the arts to fire the imagination and inspire leaders is a theme woven into Leadership Education’s teachings.
Creativity and imagination are keys to Hall’s ministry in the Pleasantville section of Houston.
Among its projects is a public art installation consisting of six 4-foot-by-6-foot aluminum panels featuring the likenesses of historical figures, both local and national, created by Robert Hodge, a Houston artist. Each panel has a bar code that can be scanned for more information.
It is a modest manifestation of a big idea that Hall has nurtured for years.
“We are all suffering from cultural amnesia,” said Hall, a trained anthropologist who applies his observational and analytical skills to contemporary culture. “We seem to have no memory of who we are, who God is and what he has called us to do. … In order to imagine the future, we have to remember the past.”
Reviving cultural memory and connecting to the past is a central idea behind both the installation and the larger Awakenings Movement, which Hall founded in 2005 because he felt that traditional churches no longer spoke to the lives of young people.
Too many churches were tied down in outdated traditions and were boring, he said. People associated church with much that had nothing to do with following the example of Jesus.
Hall grew up in a family of religious nomads; he was educated at Fisk and Vanderbilt universities and ordained in the United Church of Christ after attending what is now the Houston Graduate School of Theology.
He then worked at Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the 16,000-member Southwest Houston congregation led by the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, where he was inspired by the teachings of John Wesley. Among other things, Hall led an outreach ministry there that targeted Gen Xers, just as the Awakenings Movement does now.
One way he did that was by redefining the meaning of church.
“I did an anthropological study about why young people were not going to church,” he said. “The study revealed that people my age didn’t want to go to the church building itself.” They were receptive to the teachings of Jesus and to following his example, but the church building — and much that they associated with it, including fundraising and dogma — turned them off, Hall said.
So Hall’s Awakenings Movement was founded with no building. From the start, it has held worship services in restaurants, bars, coffee shops — “accessible worship,” he calls it. Hall tries to hold services in one place for no more than three months at a time.
“I wanted to let them see that we were not a church; we were a people,” he said. “Ministry can be life art. Beauty is the goal of everything that we do.”