That title is just my opinion.
It's probably not a humble opinion, either, so I'll go ahead and confess that and apologize right now! It's one of those topics I can easily get started on and then before I know it I've railroaded everyone else in the conversation. I have to be very careful with the passion I feel about creativity in worship and worship planning because sometimes my sense of passion for the subject robs me of my compassion for other people. My excitement over this ongoing discussion is like a bright light shining down on a stage - it has the power to block out the faces of everybody else in the room so that I can only see it . . . and am only aware of myself.
That's what happens to us when our passion turns into anger and our anger or bitterness seethes and boils for a long time - it robs us of compassion.
There's a principle called fierce compassion I heard about a few years ago while listening to NPR on a Sunday afternoon. Hearing about this emotional/spiritual practice really convicted me - especially that particular Sunday afternoon. You see, I'd just left a meeting with my heart racing and my head pounding - anger welling up in me because I disagreed so vehemently with something someone else had proposed in relationship to the structure of worship.
Yes. Sometimes our passion robs us of our understanding and compassion.
So we have to turn our anger into a fierce and energetic awareness of our feelings as they relate to other people. And you know what? We can turn that into a creative endeavor rather than a destructive and passive internal conversation - destructive, passive anger? It always explodes. There is no "if." There is only "when."
I have only ever been a part of one church community that wasn't somehow marketing itself. Chilhowie UMC way up in Chilhowie, VA is a small church with a thriving little choir and a wonderful relationship with its local community. The folks in that church bake bread, make apple butter, feed visitors, and welcome strangers like no other church I've ever worked for or attended. That's not to say that I've not attended and worked for other good churches - I've been a part of other wonderful congregations! But Chilhowie was a unique experience for me because never once did I hear anybody talk about making it a "cooler" place to be. I heard a lot of talk about welcoming. But I heard no talk about "aesthetic" or "look" or "vibe." I also never heard anybody there talk about bigger churches with hushed tones of glory. Nobody ever spoke to me about making the worship seem more like the worship in another community . . . I think it was that way mostly because they were so focused on their community and that particular place that they didn't need to think about how to look more like something else. They were happy just being themselves. And it was working for them!
My husband works for big evangelical conferences and youth revivals, etc. He meets folks like The City Harmonic and Rend Collective and gets to see just how human all of our famous people are (yes, even our Christian famous people). He also interacts with some of those giant church entities that we whisper about in meetings (and buy books and music and resources from). Recently he made an observation that I felt was profound.
He said, "Those giant places like Willow Creek probably aren't trying to pattern their house of worship or their services after somebody else. When they do something off the wall they're doing it because it works for something related to their particular community and its situation. They're probably not doing it because an even bigger church did it. But lots of our littler churches are looking at those mega churches and are buying their stuff thinking that if they could just have a pattern like that . . . if they could just look like that or sound like that . . . then they'd have better attendance or more new members. But really what we all need is a closer connection to whatever is 'home' and the particular people we're serving there."
Took me a second to digest that.
Studies have been done with this topic - and new ones are popping up all the time. Today I'm not writing about studies - just opinions. So please don't think I've got anything empirical to back this up. I just have some personal observations and feelings.
Everybody is different. Every place is different. Church communities need different things and should be doing different things. The body of Christ needs all its parts. A body made up only of eyes or ears or noses isn't a body at all. Creativity = making something new. Sometimes that means we pick up the old, dry bones of something already made and revive it. God does that for us every day, doesn't He? But very rarely does creativity = lusting after someone else's numbers or followers or swag.
So, sure. It breaks my heart when we get bogged down in the "cool" conversation. I don't care how young or hip a church band is. I don't care how deeply traditional the traditional worship is. If there isn't a strong, abiding love and understanding of the particular people and place being served, everything else will come out empty. If God isn't in the middle of it all, what are we doing it for?
And people can feel that. They can spot it a mile away. And they might get carried along with that current of popularity for a short time, but popularity is a very shallow and changeful thing. Eventually "popular" is the "new old."
Out of fierce compassion . . . out of my old anger and my new awareness came my songwriting.
One of my dear friends and mentors has often arranged pieces of music or even entire great works for orchestra and choir so that his own church music community could celebrate things like Christmas in a way that fit themselves. They weren't trying to stuff themselves into a Handel shaped box or a Britten shaped box (although if you can do the Messiah or Ceremony of Carols, why not?!?) - before I'd been able to really set any of my songs down with music this friend took one of my poems and turned it into a choral piece. I sat in the audience and watched the choir that basically raised my little church music self singing these words I'd written . . . with this tune my teacher had written. And I felt a deep sense of connectedness. Creativity does that.
So, in the midst of my own frustration and boredom, God started to whisper in my ear about practicing the creative process of songwriting. And after lots of practice there were some beautiful, meaningful songs.
Fierce Compassion is anger or frustration turned into something useful - a weapon turned into a plow so that new things can be grown.
All of that leads me here. To the most difficult question I ever have cause to ask myself. And I've had to ask myself about this many times in the past: Should I keep trying or should I stop? Just stop?
The answer always comes back: Try harder, Sarah.
But sometimes with the "try harder" also comes: And if you'll follow Me, I'll show you where to try next.
Every time I have accepted an invitation to play or sing for someone else's faith community I face the same fear about "will they think I'm cool?" and then I have to beat it back and shut the door on it - that ugly thought. Who cares if a human being thinks I'm cool?!?
The thing that really matters is whether or not I walk into those situations carrying the Spirit of the Living God in my heart, intending to create because of the Creator. So I have to turn my fierce compassion back onto myself, then, and use it to banish the fear I carry heavy on my own shoulders half the time.
I told you in the beginning that I should confess before tackling this topic.
Friends, when we are creative there will be no reason for us to fear - we won't have to fear the opinions of others. We will be able to hear them and accept them with calm and openness. When we are creative there will be no reason for jealousy or pride. Hey - this is NOT me saying I never struggle with any of that junk. I struggle with it 9 days out of 10. I'm just saying . . . creativity leaves no room for those things.
All of this is food for thought.
God created. And when we are creative, we are connected to God in a whole new way. We learn from it. We learn from each other. And we find that we can talk ourselves out of those corners we're so fond of.
Don't go out there into the world trying to pit yourself against everybody else, dear one. Go out there hoping to figure out a way to give everybody a place at the table. Boy - that's going to need to be a big table. I guess we'll need some creative people to figure out how to build it . . .