4 Models for the Creative Arts in Church

B efore Jimmy Swaggart and cable television, in the days when everyone watched the big three networks and PBS, the largest churches in the country ran broadcast television ministries. Some paid a television truck to come out and park by the church, capture a live or live-to-tape multiple camera production, and feed to air. The biggest churches built their own, in house production facilities, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the idea that broadcasting worship services directly into homes was a form of evangelism, or at least a legitimate service to church members who were too sick or tired to get up on Sunday.

My first exposure to media and church life came in a production truck outside one such large church, in Abilene, Texas, in 1991 and 1992. My annoyance at the whole scene played a part in my calling. I later derided the effectiveness of broadcast ministry in my first book, The Wired Church, saying we in the church try to shove round mouths into square screens and wonder why we don’t see much benefit. This was a flippant way of saying that every medium needs its own language, and it is impossible to translate a live worship event into a medium with a very different milieu for telling stories. I envisioned a magazine style show, producing a 30-minute program from a one hour service by cutting together various elements and segments from the service and adding a host or emcee.

This vision, first birthed in embryonic form while sitting on that television truck in Abilene, begged the question of a singular focus for worship. It formed part of my desire to push for a main thematic and visual idea or theme during my time at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in the late 90s, when our worship design team helped pave the way for what has now become standard large church practice.

Now twenty years after sitting in that production truck, I have taken over the creative and communication lead at another megachurch with a broadcast ministry, Peachtree Presbyterian Church. Like any longtime megachurch, Peachtree is an mishmash of programmatic artifacts and new trends in church leadership. One of the leftovers is the church’s broadcast ministry, which still airs on local television every week, and online as well.

Sharing this history and context with other Peachtree pastors and church leaders has provided fresh enthusiasm to outline the different models for how churches approach what is commonly called the creative arts. I list them here in increasing order of artistry and effectiveness.

 

1) Live Event

When I first visited Ginghamsburg Church as a prospective employee in March of 1995 and experienced a volunteer-led worship production, I watched a camera pan the congregation and capture someone picking their nose on the sixteen foot tall screen. Oops.

At worst, a live event production model leads to confusion and inappropriate imagery. Even at its best, it is a clean but creatively void representation of the worship event.

The descendant of the broadcast ministry, live event is the tactical and often philosophical basis for how many churches approach screens in worship. Although I associate this approach with traditional churches on Sunday morning television, worship style is irrelevant. In fact, many large, “contemporary” churches produce high end services with the latest in music and theatrical production and still live in this philosophical space, shooting IMAG (image magnification) to screens and adding little in the way of graphics or pre-produced film. The goal, as best as I can tell, is to add a visual layer of “enhancement” to the worship experience. Graphical imagery is mostly confined to lower thirds over cameras and song lyrics with random backgrounds.

If there is any creative element in this environment, it is usually confined to the announcements period of worship.

From what I can deduce, earlier, failed attempts to use screens in traditional worship at Peachtree held to this model. No wonder the old saints cried for mercy.

 

2) Television News

When I was in school I was briefly an Associate Producer for the evening news broadcast at my local CBS affiliate. Part of my job was to work with reporters on their daily “packages.” Perhaps you have seen one. Packages are two or three minute segments that air during the broadcast. A reporter arrives at the station, receives an assignment from a producer, heads into the field with a videographer, acquires some footage, composes a storyline, edits it together and prepares for air. Sometimes the package includes some introduction copy for the anchor to read, or some follow up dialogue between the anchor and field reporter. The entire workflow occurs within a six to eight hour window and is repeated the next day.

Many churches with IMAG eventually begin to explore other, creative possibilities. Often, their initial efforts take on a television news-like workflow and end product: with little pre-planning, producers and creative types work on the fly, throwing together quick pieces with rudimentary production values. There is some value in the efficiency of this model, and I have cited it as a way to encourage quicker production from teams. But it is also limiting, as usually the goal is media that supports the spoken word message. Having pre-produced videos in worship is better than having nothing but camera shots, of course, and is often initially well-received by the congregation. (I remember swelling with pride when the congregation at Ginghamburg clapped for my first worship package.) Eventually, though, worship planning hits a ceiling, as ideas and deliverables grow while production capacity remains the same.

Peachtree has made efforts to expand on its broadcast ministry beginnings over the years, but as with any church, without a strategic foundation for the creative arts, it has wavered in momentum, and lost talented staff along the way.

 

3) Ad Agency

Some churches that experience success with individual productions are able to graduate to a more organized creative process. This is akin to an ad agency, with pre-planning, collaboration, an appreciation of communication fundamentals such as audience, need and benefit, and a proper workflow such as this:

 

Analysis –> Creative Brief –> Communication Plan

 

The first is a studied evaluation of the storyteller, the story, and the storyreceiver; the second is the concept, copy and image that hooks the storyreceiver; and the third is the tactical means by which the message is delivered. After twenty years, I feel like I have finally mastered this process.

Most churches — shoot, most organizations — start with the end, and later wonder why all of their efforts had such little impact. Does anyone remember the company who made the herding cats Super Bowl video?

Many people think the key to strategic improvement is a talented visual specialist. While talent is vital, churches that achieve an ad agency approach require a pastor / preacher who plans ahead and is open to creative collaboration and a creative director who knows who to craft a message. Many churches have neither. Without this base, talent comes and goes.

This model is difficult to attain. Some churches avoid the challenge and develop relationships with outside creative firms. There are advantages to firms, of course, such as pooled talent, but the core disadvantage is the lack of lived knowledge of the church’s core stories.

It takes years, but once achieved the in house ad agency model brings clarity and power to the message, a half life for retention that extends far beyond its initial release, and a creative environment that attracts, and keeps, amazing talent. Over time it may grow exponentially in scope and output, but can also bring its share of challenges.

I have had the pleasure of experiencing this twice in my ministry career. A fuller exploration of this model is the subject of my next book. I may begin to introduce portions in this blog space soon. Any church that achieves this model has climbed a high mountain.

 

4) Studio

The Holy Grail of creative arts ministry is a church that is so integrated in its ability to deliver a core message and eliminate competing messages that it frees its creatives to explore fuller representations of its important ideas. A few local churches have explored next level production through a diversity of channels including new, artistic representations of worship; innovative, participatory and experiential mediums; and even feature-length film production.

 

The Peachtree I inherited lives somewhere between 1 and 2. My goal is 4.

Next I will share my five year plan for Peachtree.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).