Someone emailed my blog recently with a very interesting question. She asked, The leadership of my church is not clear on the purpose of a creative element in worship. Does it primarily serve the sermon? Does it prepare people for the sermon? Is it just something “special” we have to keep things interesting? Should it function completely separately from everything else or tie it all together?
What is the purpose of a “creative” element in worship?
First, to clarify: by “creative” element, I think the questioner’s colleagues are referring to something besides the usual worship components of sermon, songs and prayer. So perhaps a video or a participatory element, something like that. (Yes, all parts of worship should be creative, but let’s go with this colloquial definition, as in my experience it’s the most common use of the term.)
She went on to write:
This is challenging for my creative process because I want to make sure that what we choose to create has the impact we intend for it to have. As a result of this ambiguity, I may create something that I desire to be used to set-up the sermon, but the teaching pastor has a totally different idea and they end up not connected, therefore undermining the creative element. Does that make sense?
This is a common problem. Creative personnel, volunteer and paid both, can struggle with spending time on projects only to see them go unused or not fit with other portions of the service.
Here’s what I wrote:
Thanks for your note. Several good questions here, with many answers. First, assume your colleagues are open but just need to be educated. I try to always stay positive, which can be hard. The “purpose” of a creative element. A very utilitarian question.
First consider how people form meaning
It’s my conviction that people form an understanding of what is true based first on immediate, embodied, sensory experience, not through analysis.
- Consider: Jesus said to Thomas, “touch and believe”.
- The Psalmist writes, “taste and see that the Lord is good”.
- The Holy Spirit appears at Pentecost like the rush of a mighty wind.
All sensory experiences. The Bible is full of such stories.
Science also supports the effect of sensory experience on meaning. I have posts on my site about how brain research shows that all knowledge originates from the five senses and returns to the five senses.
Creativity helps us engage with the whole self.
Look for ways to incite the mind, stir the soul, and move the body. I like some kind of “wow” factor each week that delights and surprises. Images cause people to think in new ways about religious language they’ve heard their entire life, or help people come to what in my book Digital Storytellers I called “emotional truth.”
Now, of course, the highlight of worship in our Protestant tradition (as opposed to the Catholic tradition) is the sermon, which in and of itself is a sensory experience – hearing the Word. So creative experiences lead to this end, to be sure. In the act of worship, creative works prepare people for the sermon.
If done well, creativity in worship puts the preacher at the 2-yard line, so all the preacher has to do is trip over the goal line. He or she is not having to march all the way down the field to score. The work has been done.
All creative elements point to the same goal.
A single scripture. common theme. A clear take-away or call to action. When you know where you’re going in worship, and you’ve got all elements of worship aligned in that same direction (songs, scripture, prayer, videos, spoken word and other liturgies, interactive elements, set pieces, images, stories, etc.), then the sermon builds upon what has come before and culminates in a clear, powerful and effective understanding of the Word.
To be clear, I’m not recommending all Christian art be so directed. I am speaking of what in my experience “serves” worship, to answer the question. In other contexts, art with Christian themes “serves” people well when it raises questions rather than answers them.
Creating works that serve worship means PLANNING! You’ve got to get way in front of things to line them up, so your creative work, the preacher’s work, the musicians’ work – everything works in concert.
You clearly understand this with your comments. Don’t give up the fight! Culture change is a 24-month process, minimum. Find little wins. If not the entire series in alignment, then at least a few parts. Look for feedback to help the cause – what you need is a good experience that moves the congregation, so that you have credibility to say, this actually matters. Show how your work affects people.
Ultimately, my dream is for artists to have the same freedom in worship to create works that a preacher or a musician enjoys today. But equality doesn’t mean autonomy.
Creative elements work best when woven together with other works – aural, written, tactile, and visual – to create a single communication event, like a beautiful thread composed of multiple colors and experiences, each working with one another to illuminate a shared concept.
What questions have you faced with creativity in worship?