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Building Bridges through Ballet

Discovering common ground in community arts
  • Jeremy Slager
  • September 29, 2023

Moody Bible Institute Jeremy Slager


After graduating from Moody and serving at a Chicago church for six years, I found myself with a surprising problem—I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Christian. More surprisingly, the answer came from an unlikely source, the world of professional ballet.

As a youth pastor, my life revolved around church activities. I led worship, taught Sunday school and Bible studies, and engaged in preaching and playing games with the youth group. All of this work was good, but it wasn’t helping me connect with an outside world that needed Jesus. I saw people walking their dogs, hosting barbecues, and watching TV. I felt convicted by Jesus’ words in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” All were welcome, but the lost were outside the doors of the church, and I remained inside.

I began to feel a burning desire to push beyond the stained glass and into a world that desperately needed Jesus. But I had a problem. The culture was changing and the shared spaces where we could interact were diminishing. I wanted a space where I could interact and have conversations with those who weren’t Christians.

During my time at Moody, I read John Stott’s classic blook Between Two Worlds. The preacher’s role is to “study both the Word and the world in order to relate the one to the other with honesty, conviction, courage, and meekness,” he wrote.

The preacher acts as a bridge between the Word and the world. However, I realized my bridge led nowhere. As I served within the increasingly isolated realm of the church, I lost touch with the lives of those unconnected to sanctuaries and steeples. C. T. Studd’s quote flashed into my memory: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.” As I stood by that open door Sunday morning, I needed to make a change.

My life in ballet

Soon I found myself serving as an usher in Ballet 5:8, a faith-based ballet company founded by my wife. As the music gradually faded out and the lights brightened, I made my way to the rear of the theater and opened the exit doors for our guests. The performance of “The Space in Between,” a reimagining of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, had just concluded.

Jeremy in front of Chicago’s Harris Theater before Ballet 5:8’s 10 Fold in 2022. The ballet performed encores from a decade of storytelling and dance.

Jeremy in front of Chicago’s Harris Theater before Ballet 5:8’s 10 Fold in 2022. The ballet performed encores from a decade of storytelling and dance.

I thanked each person for attending, greeting friends from church as well as unfamiliar faces. An older gentleman named Johnny, who writes for an online dance review magazine, introduced himself to me. He made it clear he was not a Christian but that he attended any ballet performance in the city of Chicago. Mentioning his Catholic upbringing, he admitted he had not set foot inside a church in years due to disillusionment and the scandals he had heard about. Naturally he was also skeptical about a faith-based ballet company.

Yet in the serene moments of the theater, as he witnessed the heavenly narratives unfold through the artists’ expressions, a spark of longing for the divine ignited within him. He said he was going to try church again, remembering something of his childhood that he had lost.

Although Johnny’s mind seemed closed to the truth, the art and this shared experience that embodied the essence of our faith served as a bridge that allowed us to engage in a conversation about God’s nature and His concerns.

As a friendship began to form, I discovered a rare space where believers and nonbelievers could gather around a shared interest and engage in profound discussions about the real world.

Managing the company

After a string of successful productions, the ballet company that began 11 years ago grew quickly and Julianna needed help with the growing administrative tasks. Soon I found myself pushing open the gilded doors of the Carbon and Carbide building, where the press preview for Ballet 5:8’s latest ballet was about to begin. This marked my first event as the executive director of Ballet 5:8.

Jeremy talking to a crew member backstage a Ballet 5:8


As I entered the ballroom, I marveled at the diverse gathering before me. A TikTok influencer in a splashy pink suit captured video for his next post. Down the aisle, I recognized a respected New York Times reviewer. I turned to converse with Mark Jobe, the president of Moody Bible Institute, discussing why the ballet world required voices rooted in faith to present their work at the highest level. I connected with local pastors, exploring how ballet could serve as an outreach opportunity for church members, fostering conversations with friends and family about profound truths concerning God. I talked with local dancers who found solace in knowing that other believers existed in this space. It was an extraordinary and improbable gathering where church leaders and Chicago tastemakers could intermingle.

Doubtless, the lost were there. Many were rejecting the truths about God—not based on who He is—but sidetracked by presuppositions and negative experiences with the church. Some had heard that the church was misogynistic, racist, uncaring, and abusive. Their beliefs were further reinforced by unpleasant encounters with individuals who professed to follow Jesus, quickly shutting down any conversation about Him.

Artistic director and choreographer Julianna Rubio Slager teaches the dancers of Ballet 5:8, named for God’s demonstration of love in Romans 5:8.

Artistic director and choreographer Julianna Rubio Slager teaches the dancers of Ballet 5:8, named for God’s demonstration of love in Romans 5:8.

As the performance drew to a close, Julianna stepped onto the stage for one of my favorite Ballet 5:8 traditions: the TalkBack. As she shared insights about the ballet she had created, she opened the floor to a conversation between the audience and the performers. For ballet dancers, whose careers are devoted to non-verbal communication, to suddenly hold a microphone and articulate their experiences could be uncomfortable. However, witnessing the transformation in the room’s atmosphere after the performance was remarkable.

Any hostility towards differences disappeared as audience members engaged in the shared experience and listened to the choreographer and performers discussing the ballet’s significance. While the front doors of people’s minds are often locked to the truth about Jesus, the TalkBack provided a humble and gentle platform for sharing the gospel, built upon excellence and the deeply held beliefs that goodness, truth, and beauty awaken the affections of the heart, leading us to seek God.

Ballet as a bridge to ministry

This space, it turns out, was the bridge I had been seeking. It brought together people from diverse backgrounds, while the artwork itself beckoned discussion and enabled individuals to let down their guard and interact with truth.

Jeremy and Juliana with dancers at Ballet 5:8


As the guests exited the banquet hall, their laughter filling the air as they took selfies with the Ballet 5:8 artists, I realized that art provided the common ground I had yearned for. It was a space brimming with meaning and dialogue, yet open for others to participate. Great art evoked emotions and offered a fresh perspective on the truths of the world.

Ballet 5:8 derives its name from Romans 5:8, which speaks of God’s love extended to us as sinners, even before we’ve done anything good or bad. It’s a love that compelled the Son of God to assume human form, becoming one with humanity so that we could become one with God. He didn’t remain in heaven but opened the door and dwelled among us. The Word didn’t rely solely on words; He became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. On that evening it was a joy to witness the good news being presented in the heart of Chicago.

About the Author

  • Jeremy Slager

Jeremy Slager is a Moody Bible Institute alum and the executive director of Ballet 5:8.