January 12, 2012

Evangelism and the Spoken Word Performer: interview with Christian poet and Boeing 777 pilot Phil Long

Mary: Phil, I haven’t seen or heard anything as innovative or effective as your poetry performances since Carmen evangelized and captivated crowds in the 1980’s by singing Gospel stories such as Lazarus. How did you get started with your amazing ministry?

Phil: I’d been a closet poet and writer for 30 years before I discovered slam poetry on a layover as a commercial airline pilot. I recognized the potential for engaging people with the hope of the Gospel, and the beauty of the art involved was appealing too, so I dove in.

Mary: How do people generally respond?

Phil: Audiences respond well when the poetry is written for and to them. I have found that to succeed in this community of spoken word artists one must not only have something that they want to say but also respect the audience. This is particularly true in a poetry slam where the audience judges one's poetry and decides who advances to the next round of the competition to perform again.

Mary: So true! Yet so many poets seem to think that published or public poetry is only about themselves and their own words. Your ministry, however, physically draws people, so you can see their faces and energy, and immediately sense their reactions, which poets and writers usually cannot do. Most of us work alone at our personal computers or laptops, but your ministry sounds like it involves other people from the start. Does it?

Phil: I, too, write alone, but there is no question that spoken word poetry is interactive and viscerally personal. You get to see "the whites of their eyes" and hear them react audibly as you perform. You watch your art strike and move the audience. This, of course, means that you need an audience. I have performed and networked for over 3 years now, and that effort is producing more gigs and more contacts. I collaborate with many individuals, churches, and organizations such as Prison Fellowship (approved speakers list), CRU (Evangelistic Speakers Forum), the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association (Next Generation Alliance), and others to complement their mission rather than promote any agenda of my own.

Mary: What do you hope will happen? Where do you see this ministry going?

Phil: That is the most exciting part for me! The young Christian poets I have encountered along the way are brilliant and native to this genre while I feel a bit like an outsider who has moved into the neighborhood. I am recruiting and building a collaborative community of Christian poets who write of their faith like it really matters primarily for spoken presentation with secular audiences. I'm finding this to be a surprisingly rare pursuit. I find that most Christian spoken word artists write for Christian audiences. The goal of a nonprofit poet community I am building, the Sacrificial Poet Project is to "promote faith conversations through the art of spoken word poetry." Our YouTube channels are "jesuspoetryslam" where we have showcased videos for some of our younger poets' work along with some non-Christians who write about our faith and "madatamyth" where my own, lesser, material is moldering. So, my main effort now is to expand success in this genre to other young Christian poets who write and perform for secular audiences.

Mary: Excellent! Although your work will undoubtedly encourage Christian poets and writers and strengthen faith in general, your performances for secular audiences make your ministry highly evangelical.

Phil: Well, writing that "preaches to the choir" lacks a certain authenticity and edge that we are looking for in this project, so I prefer to let the secular audiences decide who is a competent Sacrificial Poet. If a poet succeeds while presenting the hope of the Gospel to a hostile or indifferent audience, they have what it takes. There's a certain laziness of expression that infects one's writing when speaking to an audience that already shares your view. Personally, I find it invigorating to share my faith with people who may be antagonistic or skeptical, and doing so in a way that they will appreciate. The challenge, of course, is to remain true to the Gospel while doing so. It's a fine line.

Mary: Provocative term “Sacrificial Poet,” but I want to understand exactly what you mean, Phil, and readers will too. Expound on that a bit.

Phil: "Sacrificial Poet" is a term I've lifted from the poetry slam world. It describes a non-competition poet who is invited to the stage before every slam to perform an original piece so that the newly selected audience-judges can practice their untested judging skills. And since God is clearly a poet and a spoken word artist, and since we are His poema (Greek word for workmanship), and since we reflect Jesus Christ who is the ultimate Sacrificial Poet and The Word become flesh, it just seemed a natural fit on so many levels. Stunningly, really. We call our collaborative community of poets the Sacrificial Poet Project, and I'm actually amazed that the URL for our website wasn't already taken since this is not a new idea. For example, Acts 17 records the apostle Paul in an ancient example of the contemporary "open mic" scene that these Sacrificial Poets frequent today. If you remember, Paul quoted classical Stoic poets to his audience as a bridge to the hope they could find through God "in whom we live and move and have our being."

Mary: Well-said, Phil – and well-done. I hope what you're doing will encourage other Christian poets, writers, and performance artists to seek new ways to make the Gospel message come alive, so people can hear. May God continue to bless you and your good work.


© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.


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