The Creative Local Church

Our ministry began by including the arts in existing programs—from mission to worship to education. The results were remarkable, for we found that the arts touched us in all aspects of our community life: they engaged our senses, helped us build relationships among ourselves, and helped us respond to wider community needs; they expanded our theological vision, stirred our imaginations, and brought us to places where we experienced God in moving and profound ways.

       – Alice Z. Anderman “On the Cusp of a Great Adventure: One Church’s Ministry with the Arts.” ARTS 19:1

Now that we’re the better of part of a year into this blog, maybe it’s time some introductions of the bigger ideas motivating it were made. Homespun seeks to provide resources for the creative life of the local church. The idea that your local church requires a creative life may be a no-brainer or an entirely new concept for you. It may conjure up a precise image of what that could look like for your church or leave you feeling lost in abstraction. This blog is for people in the church who have an idea whose time has come and are looking for creative ways to live it into reality. It is for those who believe (or are willing to be subtly persuaded) that our churches should, by their very nature, foster creativity and beauty and who want some resources and ideas for getting started or going deeper. More fundamentally, it is for those who, in whatever capacity, feel called to help the church be the church and sense that this will require new ways of being and doing to bubble up amongst us.

Many posts on this blog will touch on the arts and worship because these are fundamental to creativity and church life, but the church’s creativity is neither tied to nor limited to “using the arts in worship.” In fact, I personally avoid the phrase, because I think that “using” the arts defeats their purpose. Artistic goods can be offered in worship by their creators, reflecting on art may assist us in presenting our whole selves before God, but “using the arts” sounds like appropriating something abstract out of context for our own ends. If you have ever been in a worship service where someone tried to use an artful good to do something it was never intended to do, then you know what I mean. Both true art and true worship resist this kind of hijacking and misuse. They work on us as we submit ourselves voluntarily to the other/ Other; they do not work for us on others. Semantics, some might say, but how we talk about what we are doing is indicative of the spirit of what we are doing. I understand the temptation to defend the inclusion and importance of the creative arts in the church by virtue of their utility, but the real reason we need the creative arts in the church is because of their power over us rather than our power over them.

Church by Hense

When creativity and artistic expression infuse the whole life of the church, not just worship, they move us toward wholeness and a holistic faith. I’ve avoided breaking down worship, spiritual formation, witness, and ministry into separate sections on separate topics on this blog, because I believe they’re not meant to be separated. Who can define the exact point where discipleship becomes Christian service? We strive to focus on God rather than ourselves in worship, and yet conversion and sanctification and all kinds of other terms we use for human transformation are natural consequences of our worship experiences. Our most mundane and non-musical ministries are tinged with worship if they’re done to the glory of God. Non-verbal actions carried out in Jesus’ name may be more evangelistic than preachments and crusades. The bane of the church’s institutional existence is that the more our activities precursor the realm of heaven, the less they’ll fit into tidy categories. They will grow like the kingdom to become more rangy and more overarching, defying definitions and requiring parables to describe. Order is by no means the enemy of originality, but isn’t it interesting that we tend to organize ourselves by dividing ourselves up when God’s hope seems to be bringing us all together? Creativity consists essentially of making new connections. Artistic expression necessarily involves mindful and heartfelt communication. Imagine a church known for the beauty of its internal and external connections and communication! Artists and their art instinctively work to dissolve false divisions which impede the coherent and creative life of the church and its members. Works of art, music, poetry, fiction and film all refuse to speak to us on only one level. They don’t work on just the emotional, rational, or spiritual side of us. We all wear many hats, but art doesn’t speak to us as roles, titles, or labels – only as complex persons. If you approach a piece of music and say “I would like to understand you… as a facilities administrator” or “…as an addict,” it will elude you until you take off all your funny hats and listen as a human being.

Creativity is not only about making art, not is it the sole purview of the practicing artist. As creatures created in the image of the Creator, we all have creative capacities, and we are not designed to function without them. Artists and artisans help the congregation by valuing and modeling the creative life, but they can’t do all the creative work of the church for us. For the church to be the church as Christ intended will require us all to walk in newness of life. Worship curator Mark Pierson describes creativity as a product of the tension between reality and desire, of dissatisfaction with what we see in light of a higher vision. I believe God does the best work on us in that tension and that we all need it to be a regular part of our lives, both individually and corporately, to fulfill our calling as the body of Christ. As we develop our creative faculties together we encourage and equip one another to respond faithfully to the realities around us with imagination rather than pretending that they fit into ideologies too rigid to accommodate them. Both the local church and the Church universal will be marked by creativity as they are empowered by God’s Spirit to act as the body of the One who is making all things new.

The Apostle’s Creed proclaims that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. That means God’s people are united in Christ (whether we acknowledge it or not), set apart for God’s purposes (whether we live into them or not), ultimately to be found in all times and cultures (i.e., “catholic,” whether Roman Catholic or not), and part of a tradition (whether we like it or not). Just as we are called individually to be members of a local body, all these local bodies are called to be members of the larger Body of Christ. As we discern and pursue our own callings within our local churches, our churches grow faithfully into their particular creative roles to do their part to help the Church body function properly as Christ’s representative throughout the whole world.

I believe to fulfill its task within the larger mission of God, each church needs freedom to embrace a unique corporate personality. This doesn’t mean forcing people into a hipper or holier-than-thou persona. It means pursuing ministry based on the gifts of all of those who have aligned themselves with our congregations. It assumes everyone in our midst is called to be a minister, but makes fewer assumptions about what ministry needs to look like to be called such. It doesn’t mean targeting your outreach and message to a narrow demographic and further dividing the Church along lines of race, gender, political leanings, age and income. It means you discern who you are as a congregation and what you’re to be about in fleshing out the realm of heaven together for your parishioners – the ones that attend your church and the ones who don’t. It means my church’s worship band has drum solos, yours has a clarinet and viola, our friend’s is alternating Youth Sunday with Old Fogey Sunday so they learn their hymns and give the organ a monthly workout, and another congregation is going a cappella for Lent. We can count on the Spirit working in and through any given church in common and disparate ways from the church down the street. Christ bids all incarnations of the Church to extend hospitality to all comers and make room for everyone who responds to what the Spirit is doing in our midst, but each of our churches will have different strangers to welcome in unique ways based on our resources and cultures. Our resultant personalities must be evolving and inclusive rather than exclusive and set in stone. The creative life is both constructive and playful. When we pursue it together we come to know one another more truly as we were created to be. Weaving creative practices into our common lives helps us know who we are together, equips us to regularly reimagine our communities for the sake of others, and keeps us all growing in and toward faith.

 

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