At breakfast recently, my two-year-old, Maggie, was having an animated conversation with a sausage. When I asked her with whom she was talking, she held up the link and told me it was Olivia, the precocious pig who is the subject of her favorite books. While the irony of pretending that a sausage was a pig was lost on Maggie, the joy of imagination was not. Her “Olivia” went on an adventure around her plate, chatting with strawberries, playing in the oatmeal, and finally suffering a tragic end, eaten by a “Maggie-monster.”
We are hopelessly imaginative creatures. It’s an impulse that’s been hard-wired into humanity since creation. It’s an echo of the way God made us. The Bible tells us that God took the dust of creation, shaped it, breathed life and meaning into it, and transformed it into something new and transcendent (Gen. 2:7). It’s a foreshadowing of our redemption, wherein God finds us once again in the dust of death, breathes new life into us, and transforms us into something new and beautiful. Paul refers to this when he says we are God’s poema—his workmanship (Eph. 2:10).
Creativity, then, is an echo of God’s own creative work. We live in God’s world, taking what he’s made, shaping it, and making it into something new. Creation is raw material for imagination, transforming oil paints and canvases into portraits and landscapes, silk and cotton into wedding gowns and work clothes, and more complex amalgams into cars, skyscrapers, and iPhones.
All of life is shaped by our creative impulse, including worship. Whether we’re talking about language, architecture, visual culture, or music, it all flows from the creative spark God has given us as imagebearers.
So how can worship leaders and pastors tap into that spark? How can creativity serve the local church? Here are a few ideas.
Creativity in Worship is Inevitable
When thinking about creativity and worship, it’s not a question of whether we’ll be creative, but how we’ll be creative. Since creativity is a universal human attribute, your church is already full of creativity. The question to ask is, how are we tapping into that creativity? Is the visual culture, language, and music of our congregation flowing naturally from who we are, or from something we’ve imported from somewhere else?
It’s easy, in our commercialized soci ety, to simply buy a whole worship culture off the shelf. Megachurches export their music, art, and video. A whole cottage industry of church resources thrives on selling everything associated with worship, from candles to banners to vestments to bow ties. Some churches, wary of hollow contemporary commercialism, are guilty of simply buying into the culture of a previous generation.
The alternative is to look for opportunities to empower the “creatives” in our own context—the people who create music, art, dance, liturgy, and more. Let the body of Christ within our local congregations use their gifts to serve one another with the whole range of arts in worship.
It’s About Discipleship
Developing a creative culture requires mature, servant-minded, and gospel-loving creative people. Pastors and leaders should focus on good old-fashioned discipleship, helping people to identify their gifts and equipping them with the theological vision to use them to serve the church. Develop the creative leaders you have, rather than pining for the leaders you don’t have.
Not all of our churches have world-class dancers, painters, actors, sculptors, or musicians, but God does not desire that only those with extraordinary talent serve him. We all have creative people in our pews. It may take some imagination to figure out how some of their gifts can be used to serve, but it’s worth the effort.
It’s About Service
In the world outside the church, artists are taught to be shamelessly self-promoting. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to succeed vocationally as an artist without blowing one’s own horn to a certain extent.
But inside the church, the arts are meant to be a servant of something greater. In worship they serve the liturgy, helping to awaken imaginations and affections as the gospel is held out in word, prayer, water, bread, and wine.
Creativity is a wonderful servant and a wretched master. When worship becomes centered on creativity, or when pastors and worship leaders begin to treat the gathered church as a concert or lecture hall, disaster ensues.
There are few who’ve better articulated the need for servant-minded artistry than Michael Card, who, in his book Scribbling in the Sand (InterVarsity), likens the work of artists who serve the church to footwashing. Jesus’ own act of footwashing was an act of utter humility. Artists can follow his lead, seeking to bless the church with their gifts while remaining servants.
It’s About Opportunity
If we want to cultivate a vibrant culture of creativity, we have to be willing to give opportunities for creatives to serve in meaningful and significant ways. Creative work is time-and energy-consuming, and inviting artists to use their gifts to decorate the dusty corners of an annex won’t result in enthusiastic participation.
Instead, invite creatives into long-range planning. Let them know about upcoming sermon series or events on your church calendar, and ask them to dream up ways of serving. You don’t have to mimic what’s been done at other churches. You don’t have to put painters in the front corners of your room. You don’t have to start an art gallery. Instead, put five or six creative people in a room together, invite them to dream of how they might serve, and then . . . just listen. Good pastoral leadership doesn’t require you to originate all the ideas, but to shepherd them in helpful ways.
What a Creative Culture Looks Like
In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out a vision for what the church looks like when it gathers. God has variously gifted each of us, and calls us to come together as brothers and sisters, building up and encouraging one another with the profound hope of the gospel. Creatives have a role to play in that gathering and encouraging.
While the gospel is a transcultural message, the actual worship of the local church is inevitably enculturated in the language, music, and visual art of a given time and place. Even as a congregation might be stretched to embrace those who differ from them, they nonetheless do so as people from a particular context. Their cultural diversity is itself a part of their own enculturation.
When pastors learn to empower creatives (as opposed to importing creativity), it allows the congregation to lead worship through word, symbol, music, visual art, and architecture that reflects our “tribe”—our unique local context. This is contextualizing in the best possible sense: the gospel has impacted our lives, and we respond with our own celebration and proclamation of that changeless gospel. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that we don’t participate in the works of the historical, global, or contemporary church. Rather, along with that participation, we empower our creatives to make their own contributions.
When the culture of a given context is made to serve the liturgy (through the creative work of the local church), it says to both the church and the world, “The kingdom of God is among us. Our tribe and tongue have joined the many around the throne, worshiping the Lamb who was slain.”