A recent special edition of Time Magazine was called “The Art of Optimism.” In an era of conflict, depressing news, and despair, the magazine’s reporters and editors and interviewed countless artists about how their work keeps them optimistic and collaboratively promotes optimism in others. Two things stood out to me in reading this hopeful, encouraging look at how art in all its forms helps us understand each other better, heal, and dream about the future: first, is the multi-generational nature of creativity, particularly the way it engages young people; and secondly, the sheer variety of ways the arts can enhance our community and connectivity.
It was a vast overview of the way the arts continue to create hope and new insights. I encourage you to read it and have your leadership teams read it and discuss it. Your creative teams should use it as a jumping off point for some vigorous discussion for sure. And if you don’t have a creative team, you should. Most of you, when you read that last line will immediately (and exclusively) think of your worship planning team if you have one. Bravo, if you do, and double-bravo if they are a creative bunch who incorporate various versions of the arts in their weekly work (since most of the time such teams still deal almost exclusively with music and liturgy, with a creative reading thrown in here and there and, of course, a video). But the world of possibilities for the arts in worship is unlimited. And the world of the arts (as we are reminded by the Time special edition) is expansive and can intersect with all phases, stages, and aspects of the human faith experience.
Churches have music, definitely music. They have written/spoken word: liturgy, Scripture, lots of quotations from books. Some have inspirational architecture. Many have some form of decorative arts (things that are sewn, like banners, robes, and stoles). Some have a couple of well-placed framed versions of Jesus in the garden, and many have a very nice floral arrangement.
Consider this list of artistic expressions covered in the Time interviews:
- Culinary Arts
A chef can bring skills to bear to bake fresh bread for communion (isn’t that a delicious idea that sets a community of faith apart?), start a pie ministry, teach impoverished people to cook appetizing, healthy meals for themselves. A photographer can document a community’s life of faith in intimate ways. A poet can spin words of comfort and inspiration.
Ava DuVernay, who guest-edited the special arts edition, wrote these words in explaining the role of art in helping us better understand one another and ourselves:
“To me, that is the job of art. To meet us where we are and to invite us in—to think, to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist, to roam, to imagine.”
Think about those words and their impact for people who have come to your place of worship to find meaning, comfort, challenge, and community. Embarked on their faith journey together, the arts can help them think, feel, wonder, dream, debate, laugh, resist, roam and imagine.
The church is, of course, no stranger to the arts. Throughout history, the church has often been a last-chance patron of many of the world’s great artists. But in an age in which there should arguably be the greatest explosion of expression ever, the very ease and ubiquity of technology has been responsible for a sameness that has overwhelmed many worship experiences: we’re all buying our PowerPoint packages, song lists, and video illustrations from the same, few main players. The generic Christian top-10 drowns out the uniquely independent spirit of local congregations.
Free your good people to do their own thing!
In most church organizations, a few select, featured performers grab all the glory and hog all the stage time (or print time, or screen time). That’s a natural outcome. We want to feature our most talented and competent leaders, and it is by far the easiest and least-time-consuming management strategy, but it also sends the clear message to the folks in the pews / chairs that “only our most talented and competent leaders” are worthy of public expressions of faith.
And that’s just worship. Most of us have a very, very, very hard time thinking of ways to move arts engagement beyond the worship setting. If we can make that leap, dramatic avenues for new expression and connections open up, because once we give people a clear opportunity to express themselves, we will find out these things:
- There is someone who has a creative idea they have been shy about sharing.
- There is someone in our community who had no idea that the church had any interest in their artistic voice.
- There are people in your congregation who feel stuck and are waiting to be moved by the insight of the arts (rather than just the words of your sermon or even the emotion of a song).
Here are some of the things the arts can make happen:
- They are the great way to stress the value of all generational perspectives. The arts are one of the best ways to cross the boundaries of age. Old people are still valued for the wisdom of their work, and young people are shown that their fresh perspectives are important.
- They are great way to process difficult and complex topics. Both theologically and contextually, there are moments when the themes at hand seem too weighty and difficult to understand, but giving people opportunities for artistic expression can help them process their own feelings and the feelings of others better.
- They reinforce the unique sense of community that is your congregation. If you want people to know who you are, how you are special, what binds you together, and what you stand for, your identity will burst forth naturally in artistic expression for all to see.
- The arts can heal. Whatever struggles are facing your community, artistic expression is a time-honored method for moving forward.
- The arts are just plain fun. We all need more fun. Just the fact that you endorse creative expression washes away the fear that people may have that the church is a stuffy follow-the-rules sort of place.
These principles are best realized if celebrated across all the different ministries in our church. It would be a worthy church-wide focus to stress the value of the arts and encourage their expression. But I would strongly encourage you to do a thing that almost no churches do: appoint a Chief Creativity Officer. Call this person a Creativity Czar of a Minister of Creativity or a Creativity Guru or whatever you want to call him or her, but have someone serve in this role. They can recruit and nurture creative players. They can head special arts projects. They can establish arts partnerships in the community where you live. Their most important job will be to inspire unlikely connections across ministry boundaries, suggesting ways that individual ministries can be more creative in their approaches. They can get people out of their ministry silos and working together on creative projects. They can serve as a resource for ministry people who feel stuck and uninspired.
Such a person, such a team, will be worth their weight in gold.