Instead of just handing out goods and services to meet people’s needs, what if we were to give them dignity and self-sufficiency by helping them achieve the good things God gave them to do with their lives? I’d call such an approach creative mission, and there’s a church in Indianapolis doing it right now.
Here are 5 steps on how to use creativity to transform the mission work of the church.
Stop Helping People
Pastor Mike Mather of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis likes to advise his congregation to “stop helping people.”
“The church, and me in particular,” Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.” With that in mind, Broadway has — for more than a decade now — been reorienting itself. Rather than a bestower of blessings, the church is aiming to be something more humble. (source here)
With respect to the writer, I would have chosen a different word than “humble” to describe his congregation’s new mission. I think it’s both ambitious and noble. As church staffer De’Armon Harges is quoted in the article, what they are doing now is seeing people as children of God.
For a long time, the church has been doing mission based on a philosophy of consumption. It’s all wrong. It’s rooted in bad theology and bad ecclesiology and a poor understanding of human behavior. What’s more, it doesn’t work.
Look for Talents, Not Needs
In 2004, Mather hired a Harges to be a “roving listener.” His job is to spend time with the community. But here’s the trick, and what makes what Broadway does a mission of creativity.
His primary job isn’t to discover the community’s needs, but their talents.
There’s a well-researched philosophy behind it called “asset-based community development”, which is an academic way of saying it’s an approach for helping people build on what’s good in their lives rather than fixing what’s wrong.
Current literature on corporate innovation and on personal growth says the same thing – you grow not by fixing problems but by building on strengths. This doesn’t mean you ignore issues, but you instead look first to solutions within the community itself.
This is radically different than the old “charity” model which is based on a hand out and which has proven to be anything but transformative. As the article says,
A key to what’s going on now at Broadway, McKnight says, is the church’s brutally honest view of charity, which McKnight defines as “a one-way compensatory activity that never changes anything.” Instead of having people fill out forms that basically ask, “how poor are you?”, what if we ask people, “what are your gifts?”
Mather put aside the government form and, in a number of ways, began asking people new questions… Soon, the church was tapping into people who could repair cars, make quilts, paint, and cook some of the best Mexican food Mather had ever eaten. Through that, some neighbors found new livelihoods. More found a community.
If we had asked her when she showed up, tell us how poor you are, we would have all ended up poorer for it, and would missed a lot of great food.Mike Mather
Here are the three things Mather asks people to help identify talents:
- What three things do you do well enough that you could teach somebody else how to do it?
- What three things would you like to learn that you don’t already know?
- Who, besides God and me, is going with you along the way?
Mather tells the story of a woman named Adele (beginning at 2:39 in this video) who was working but didn’t have enough to feed everyone. She originally came to the food pantry for supplies for her family. Through some creative thinking on the part of the church, Adele ended up opening her own restaurant. Wow!
Help people realize they are children of God
Poverty can create deep psychological damage. A recent article on inter-class marriages highlights the lifelong scars that a welfare Christmas can create on a person’s sense of self-worth. A mission of creativity helps people understand that they are children of God.
As Christ followers, we believe that our story starts with God creating and then inviting us to create with him. God’s design is for each of us to create – to dream and construct, to do the things that we’re passionate about. He has given us a set of good things to do with our lives. And this creative calling, which isn’t work as the world shows it – dreary interference for weekend relaxation – but the thing that actually brings purpose and passion and life.
Further, to create isn’t just for a privileged few; it’s for everyone. God wants Adele, who loves food and cooking but has many mouths to feed, not just to receive cans from the church food pantry, which sustains her but does nothing to teach her that as a child of God she has been given a set of good things to do with her life. Instead, God wants this woman to live out her passion and pursue the vocational calling he has put in her heart, and for us to love her by helping her achieve this dream.
When Mike Mather and his church facilitate for Adele the means to open her own restaurant, then they have helped her achieve the same meaning that any of us who pursue a calling pursue. When we help people realize their passions, they experience God’s joy, the fantastic creative feeling that we are meant to know but have lost.
As Mike says, “She didn’t need life skills…she had them. She needed people who would recognize this.”
The world tells us that the joy of creating is a privilege only for those of status whose wealth affords them the opportunity to pursue their whims. But we know better. With such creative mission, a person like Adele discovers a sense of dignity and worth as God’s daughter and we experience the joy of loving her as Jesus said, and in so doing drawing her – and ourselves – closer to our Creator.
We have not given enough attention to the fundamental truth that God is Creator. God loves to create and God made us to be creative. When we create, we experience the intimacy of a relationship with God. We love God back. And the work that we do loves others.
Apply resources toward helping people pursue passions
Mather has since expanded Harges’s job from just roving listener to a trainer of listeners. Now the church has a platoon of young people whose job is to work with people in the community to realize creative dreams. They now have groups and projects in art, law, education, and more. For more detail, including some of the consequences of this kind of approach, read the article, which describes the story of Broadway in more detail.
But it doesn’t stop here. There’s more.
Guide their journey toward becoming a new creation in Christ
A commenter on the Ministry Matters version of my source article asked, but what about teaching them Jesus?
In the Scriptures, when Jesus is asked about the bottom line, he reminded us of what we’ve been told from the beginning: Life is very simple; it boils down to loving God and loving people.
John Wesley and the Methodists translated this into a simple rubric – that we would have personal holiness and social holiness. These phrases have gotten complicated over the years. Some think of personal holiness as the management of a moral code. But it’s actually quite simple – it is loving God, or seeking after God, which means surrendering our own preferences and allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us from the patterns of this world, which are patterns of consumption, by renewing our minds using patterns of creation. And some define social holiness in the same terms espoused by a particular political ideology. But it’s actually loving people, which begins with treating people as children of God and people who have unique gifts, designed by God, to share with the world.
Further, in the church, we still think linearly – we want people to begin with intellectual assent of Jesus as personal savior, when in reality most people discover Jesus on the road, experientially, like the friends on the walk to the town of Emmaus. In church life, we don’t start by trying to make people see Jesus. We start by encouraging them to get on the road. To saddle their donkey, as I like to say.
We become aware of the work God is doing in us, drawing us to him, not beforehand, but as it is happening. We don’t gain knowledge of Christ and then become a new creation; often what happens is that we know Christ as we are being made a new creation. The knowledge isn’t cerebral but experiential. God’s doing the work, not us – we only have to be willing to seek after God, even as we trade in our surface desires for comfort for the deeper desire to make something great.
Now it’s your turn! Put this into practice with this 5-part plan for unleashing your community’s creativity. Click below to download this free PDF file:
This is a theology of creativity.
I love to talk about creativity in the church. Some people think that means something artistic. But creativity is more than the arts. Designing more creative worship or producing compelling stories or branding a church with a logo is all rooted in a theology of creativity. My book Think Like a Five Year Old presents a theology of creativity, told in story form. It’s a prequel to everything I’ve ever done in ministry and I believe a basis for renewal in the church. We are creative people, made in the image of our Creator God. To create is what we’re made to do. If we can only understand this, it will transform the body of Christ and help change the world, one great project at a time.