This blog exists to live out a life mission statement I’ve followed since I was a young student, frustrated with the esoteric language and symbols of the church. I have dedicated my career to helping the local church improve its ability to tell the story of Jesus. Here is why I do what I do and the core commitments I believe can make a difference.
Jesus is compelling, but church usually isn’t.
By the time I went to college, I had a love/hate relationship with the church. My father was a preacher. Church was a big part of my family’s life. I had accepted Christ and received a believer’s sprinkling at age nine. But even as a high school graduate, I barely understood church life.
I was around church all the time, but its language and symbols confused me.I had a family reputation for falling asleep in worship. My mother kept an arsenal of mints and Hot Wheels in her purse to keep me awake, but nothing worked. My disengagement was pavlovian. I loved creativity and artistic expression, though.
I was around church all the time, but its language and symbols confused me. Art captured meaning for me in ways that propositional thinking did not. I thought, why can’t church be like the stories I experience at the movies? It seemed to me that the church has the best story – the life and person of Jesus Christ – but often the worst delivery.
In spite of the “worship wars” and other church trends in my adult life, this has largely not changed. We, the church, still stink at telling the story of Jesus.
We are called to help people experience Jesus in meaningful ways.
A few years later, I was reading Solomon’s prayer for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. Inspired, I prayed a similar prayer, that I would use my passions not for selfish gain but for kingdom purposes. I wrote out what I thought might be a calling, or a “mission statement” of sorts:
To use oral, written and visual communication with equal effectiveness to tell the story of Jesus Christ and advance God’s kingdom.
Over the years, I came to realize what had happened. My “mission statement” is the how of a deeper why (this isn’t my three part plan, but the fundamental belief behind it, expressed in three statements):
a) Meaning (which I’d loosely define as some combination of clarity, understanding, and significance) is vital for people to follow Jesus in a sustained way;
b) People experience meaning first and foremost through art, not analysis (and not just when they are young or uninformed, but throughout life);
c) If the church is to change hearts and lives, it is necessary to create moments of beauty and art that live in their everyday experience.
I believe the communicative power of story and creative expression are crucial to helping people experience Jesus in meaningful ways.The sentence I wrote has three fundamental parts which over time became my three part plan for helping the church become more meaningful to hearers of the gospel.
Here’s my three part plan to help the church become more meaningful for people.
#1: Encourage creative expression.
No lightning struck when I first wrote my mission statement. A couple of years later, I read a book on television and society. I called the author and, soon, we’d moved to Ohio. I had found a space for me to I focus on the first of three parts of my calling:
To use oral, written and visual communication with equal effectiveness…
At the time, I was driven to tell the story of Jesus using vehicles that made sense to me, which meant film, video, computing and other new media. I wanted to bring these communication channels to the church, and I wanted to master the existing channels, too – to use every combination of oral, written and visual at our disposal.
Before graduation, I heard about a church up the road called Ginghamsburg that had put a large video screen in its new sanctuary. I joined the staff, and over the next five years, I designed worship with a team, created short films and video, and built organizational systems for sustainable storytelling. In 1998 I wrote a book called The Wired Church, and in 2008, a sequel, The Wired Church 2.0.
When it comes to creativity, some people like to focus on hard skills such as drawing, filmmaking, graphic design or marketing. These are good and necessary but they aren’t, by themselves, an end. It’s not about the skills or the technology. It’s about creativity as an expression of who we are. Any facet of church life, such as mission, can become more meaningful through creativity. We are each called to a set of good works with our lives. Creativity is more than something we do; it’s who we are, though many of us have lost sight of it (this is the subject of my new book, Think Like a Five Year Old.)
The first part of my plan is to encourage people to engage in the continually refreshing act of creative expression.
#2: Focus on storytelling, not propositions.
In my fourth year at Ginghamsburg, I discovered a new phrase that summarized my passion: “Art, not data.” As Walter Brueggemann has written, “the deep places in our lives—places of resistance and embrace—are not ultimately reached by instruction.”
Later, my friend Jason Moore and I started our own company to help other churches tell stories, create art and move past a dependency on propositions and analysis. We wrote a book called Digital Storytellers: The Art of Communicating the Gospel in Worship. I was angry at clergy pushback to the presence of story and technology in worship. At Midnight Oil, I had found a space to focus on the second of three parts of my calling:
…to tell the story of Jesus Christ…
The church has lost sight of our first and best means of communication, which is the embodiment of resonant stories, images and symbols that incarnate the living Christ in specific times and spaces. Storytelling in service to a larger cause can be tricky, because it often collapses into point-making. Good stories aren’t about an agenda; they’re simply about the happy ending of a changed heart and life.
The second part of my plan is to help churches fully understand how to tell a good story. For the most part, we have yet to figure it out. See the Acts television series for a recent high gloss example that misses the mark. Or, to be fair, here’s one example of what not to do from my current work at Peachtree.
#3: Build systems for sustainable storytelling in and through the local church.
During my Midnight Oil years, my ambivalence about church matured into a deep love and concern. I became convicted that the best way to advance God’s kingdom is through the work of the local church. Without knowing it, I was realizing the third part of my mission statement.
…and advance God’s kingdom.
While my passion is for the church to communicate in story, I eventually realized that many churches try and few succeed, because they don’t have systems in place to sustain creative work. The boring work of organizational development is equally as important as the first two – creating a sustainable organizational environment for storytelling to take place. This is why my logo has a tagline of “storyteller. strategist.”
Although I had enjoyed working with churches in a teaching and consultant role, God had different plans, and as I continued to seek direction, I came to realize that God was sending my family and I to Atlanta to “create a storytelling culture” at a church quite different than those of my past. I want churches not just to tell one or two good stories, or manage to keep a graphic designer around for 2 years on staff, but to foster the kind of places that storytellers, artists, and creative people want to join.
The third part of my plan is to help churches create environments that invite storytellers and artists to practice their craft in service to God’s kingdom.
This blog exists to help you – artist, communicator, preacher, leader – understand the power of creativity and storytelling in sustainable local church systems, in service to the life of following Jesus. Each post you read here relates in some way to this core commitment.
If you resonate with these ideas, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here, or subscribe to my future posts using this link:
Together, let’s help the church be creative and tell the compelling story of Jesus Christ.