5 Ways Creativity Will Make Your Worship More Meaningful

Lessons on creativity in worship from the time weekend worship tripled to over 3000 a weekend in 2 years.

Ididn’t know it at the time, but for five years I was blessed to be part of a singular experience designing worship. We didn’t think what we were doing at our church, called Ginghamsburg, was special; we were just having fun and making stuff. But the impact was far reaching. Here are five lessons from my first experience as a church creative that are more relevant today than ever.

When You’re Thinking Creatively, You’ll…

  • 01

    Take The Necessary Risks to Ignite Innovation.

  • 02

    Release The Energy of Your Co-Planners.

  • 03

    Experiment, Even If You Lack Existing Means.

  • 04

    Encourage people to participate in the creative process.

  • 05

    Create divergent paths for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts.

Get Started with the Essential Elements of a Creative Worship Session.

At the bottom of this page is a link to get started with six core ideas every worship planning session needs.

Excerpted from my book, co-written with Jason Moore, Taking Flight with Creativity: Worship Design Teams That Work (Abingdon Press).

1. When You’re Thinking Creatively,
You’ll Take The Necessary Risks to Ignite Innovation

The problem was that once it had been installed, the new technology was unavoidable. For several months, the presence of a video screen in worship was minimally helpful at best and a disaster at worst.

Senior Pastor Mike Slaughter had made it a last-minute addition to the new building. Volunteer video directors learned under fire. Amid song lyrics and scripture verses and the occasional sermon illustration image, they projected live camera shots of out of focus, sleeping or green people. It was distracting, to say the least. Many members complained or just left.

One night while addressing a group of disgruntled members, Mike recounted the story of the Exodus. Explaining his decision to stick with the technology, he said, “If you put it up for a vote, the people will always vote to go back to Egypt.”

By installing the screen before understanding the full implications, Mike had dived into the deep end. Like the executives at Kutol, he had signed on to something he couldn’t yet deliver. While it could have ended badly, his risk forced a new thing in worship.

What became once-in-a-generation growth was at least in part fueled by what many thought was a reckless decision.

Our preferences skew toward comfort. We want to ride the old thing as long as possible… Leaving town, literally or metaphorically, upsets the status quo and forces risk, which ignites the new thing. New things are dry kindling, the source of the creative spark.Len Wilson, Think Like a Five Year Old

Innovation is creativity that delivers substantive change and growth, and it’s made possible by risk. God is waiting, desperately, for us to have a little faith.

Take away: Your worship experience is waiting on a reckless decision. What has inspired you? And what would it take to get a first draft online? Get a prototype, even if it’s barely working.

2. When You’re Thinking Creatively, You’ll Release The Energy of Your Co-Planners

The temptation is to attribute greatness to a single visionary. The myth is a lone genius with the blinding flash, but the reality is that every innovator operates in a team.

We had our own skunkworks at Ginghamsburg. The team was too big – nine people – and prone to what I later described as Knights of the Round Table disease, a condition in which the lords at the table, such as the lord over education, were more interested in protecting their castle than in advancing the kingdom.

Over time, we learned that every person on the team needed to be a part of the development and execution. Part-timers and peanut galleries weren’t helpful. Everyone on the team was required to dream, develop and deploy together. If you didn’t have a role, you became a liability.

This only worked because Mike intentionally empowered each person. Congregations are supposed to practice a “priesthood of all believers” – a flat organizational structure, with Christ at the head – but they are often the most leader-dependent of organizations. As Senior Pastor, Mike didn’t want a trophy club of talent as evidence of his greatness. Our team purpose wasn’t to serve an ego; it was to create great things.

He consistently downplayed his own role in the creative process and assigned leadership tasks to others on the team in order to put meat on the buzzword bone that we were all collaborators.

Because of our shared tasks, we realized the team needed to be smaller, a lean unit of the fully committed. The picture above was after our team shrank to seven. Later, the team shrank to four.

Big teams skew toward a diversity of viewpoints that have difficulty coming together. Consensus, not compromise, is vital in a team.Len Wilson and Jason Moore, Taking Flight with Creativity

Take away: Your creative ideas won’t survive if you’re working alone. Put a team together now, even if it’s less than ideal. But, remember, you must release them. It only works if everyone in the room has a role and a voice.

3. When You’re Thinking Creatively, You’ll Experiment, Even If You Lack Resources.

One of our first big moments in the use of the worship screens at Ginghamsburg was when we had the unexpected opportunity to interview Otis Moss, Jr. about racial reconciliation.

The scary / great thing was that we didn’t know what we’d get or how we were going to use it. Yet the result was a game-changing weekend, when the congregation and we as designers first began to see the power of the screen to tell stories that could change hearts and lives.

While greatness may seem to fall as pixie dust, it actually rises from a new combination of existing ideas. The Moss weekend worked because:

  1. a risk to incorporate visual technology in worship, which created an environment for storytelling;
  2. an opportunity of access to a key figure and his story;
  3. a willingness to experiment by pursuing the creative idea first, rather than force it into an existing plan or a plug-and-play liturgy.

A similar experience has happened several years later as I have served on a large church staff in Atlanta. Our senior pastor had read Unbroken, the book on Olympic and World War II hero Louis Zamperini. At the time, Zamperini was 95 years old and still public speaking, so we called his people. Once we secured his visit, we re-arranged our Sunday morning schedule and installed new technology that allowed us to simulcast him from one live venue to another on our campus. The result was the first game-changing weekend. It was an electric experience and had a dramatic effect on the congregation’s approval of the screens in worship.

While the context was very different, the sequence and lesson from each story is quite similar.

As leaders and as people, we’re prone to management – to polishing and refining existing ideas rather than thinking of new ones. It’s the same psychological tendency that causes us to lose our creativity; it feels safer, and less prone to rejection. If your highest concern is knowing something will be great or even adequate before you commit resources, you’ll never be able to harness the new life that creativity offers.

The value of trying new things and the value of being flawless are pretty much mutually exclusive. You’ve got to be willing to try something without knowing if you can pull it off. This isn’t to say that we put out mediocre stuff. On the contrary, you’ve got to work hard to give your best. But, as with the story of Thomas Branwell Welch, new life won’t happen without a little experimentation.

Take away: Pursue possibilities first and worry about polish later. God rewards such faith-full thinking.

4. When you’re thinking creatively, you’ll encourage people to participate in the creative process.

As we began to get more comfortable with new ideas at Ginghamsburg, we pushed more toward participation. Consider:

  • We asked people to draw their prayer.
  • We handed out objects, and even perfume scents on cards.
  • We created moments where people would get out of their seats and walk around.

Beyond the presence of the screens, these were the real mind blowers, because we were redefining the experience of worship as most people had always known it.

Perhaps the reason the words “creativity” and “worship” are seen as a new combination is because creativity is participatory by nature, and worship for the last several hundred years hasn’t been participatory, but representational. Aside from singing and the moments we take communion, we don’t DO much. When you’re creative, you do stuff. So creative worship seems so … strange.

We’ve made worship into a spectator sport when from the beginning God’s design is for us to co-create. Worship is meant to be participatory.

If a pastor only talks at a congregation all morning long, and never gives the congregation the chance to share in what he or she is talking about, then there may be no reference for when trying to incorporate the message into their daily routine.Len Wilson and Jason Moore, Digitial Storytellers

Brain researcher Iain McGilchrist has identified steps to the cognitive process. Participation starts with our senses. We first engage with something.  That’s the right-brain at work. After we sense something, then we make sense of it. We move from presentation to re-presentation. We use our right-brain to experience and our left-brain to label and categorize.

When we stop there, all we have are a series of unrelated categories. I see this in worship all the time. Maybe you can name them: call to worship. song. prayer. sermon. announcement. response. Worship is not a series of pieces. It’s a single entity, a whole. We need the right to left shift we have already, but then we need to return to the right-brain to re-connect, to re-unify the division and parts of the left mind’s need to categorize.

I believe that is best accomplished with a common story or metaphor that weaves all of the elements together and creates a singular gestalt. I’ve been talking about metaphor in worship for many years, including in several books that my partner Jason Moore and I wrote. But my thoughts on it have evolved. Click here for my 2015 take on what happens when we use metaphors as a basis for participation in worship.

Take away: Be intentional about dreaming of ways to extend the core concept of your worship service. In your meetings, start asking “why not?” and “what if?” If they are powered to actually speak their mind, your team will come up with all sorts of crazy ideas.

5. When You’re thinking creatively, you’ll Create Divergent Paths For the holy spirit to work in people’s hearts.

In my last couple of years at Ginghamsburg, we’d developed to the point of using  our process and our tools with real confidence. We had the personal authority we needed to really push toward new creative expression.

One of those weekends, we told the parable of the Prodigal Son, and as way to help the congregation experience the story, we cut a video of a man running down a hill in slow motion to hug his son, while our band live-covered Natalie Merchant’s song, Kind and Generous.

I remember its power to this day, and attribute at least part of it to the divergent qualities of the parable itself. Contrary to the opinion that parables only have one point, the Prodigal Son is a story with three primary characters, each of whom offers great meaning, depending on your life stage and spiritual place.

In the church world, we like to rush to the point. What if we just tell the story, and let God’s Holy Spirit do the work?

The key to this is to push away form the tendency toward convergent thought and toward divergence.

It’s not possible to wrap up all the answers in 25 minutes, like a TV sitcom. Instead by finding narratives in digital culture that articulate the pastor’s personal journey, the congregation is invited to participate in their own stories, which gives the entire community deeper insight into the ongoing movement of God and comfort of the Holy Spirit.Digital Storytellers

Most worship is built like rhetoric, with a series of propositions that we explain, illustrate, and defend. The sermon is a subset of the same framework, also with propositions, illustrations and closing directives. It’s hard to create divergence and intrigue when our entire event is built on the opposite premise.

There is a level of knowing we don’t learn by propositions. It’s about art, not data. Creativity is a whole-body deal. Our Hebrew brothers and sisters were holistic. It was the Greeks who persuaded us to eschew the body (and gave us the heresy of Gnosticism). The story of the prodigal son is powerful because of its divergent possibilities. There’s more than one point to a parable.

Take away: Don’t wrap every service up in a bow. Leave people in suspense, and give them room to respond after the fact. What if you were to program some dialogue and response time, right into worship, after a sermon?

Download the Essential Elements of a Creative Worship Session.

Get started with this free PDF of six core ideas every worship planning session needs, excerpted from Taking Flight with Creativity: Worship Design Teams That Work (Abingdon Press, 2009)

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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).