John O’Keefe’s latest, The Church Creative, is a welcome addition to the growing titles seeking to address the changing culture with the message of Christ and how the church can change to effectively share that message. About a year ago, I read Boneyard: creatives will change how we lead in the church and found his distinctions of industrial and conceptual approaches most helpful, i.e., I also recommend that book. Much of what John spoke of, the qualities of creatives, in Boneyard resonated with me. I am a creative engaged in drawing, painting and woodturning yet my leadership in churches has been limited or at least not in the forefront. When I heard that John was writing a book titled, The Church Creative, I looked forward to reading it.
Like Boneyard, The Church Creative, asks the questions that need to be asked of churches in America today. Granted the questions will not sit well with some (or most) but those gatherings seeking to move beyond the status quo will benefit by working through the questions raised. I knew this book would start well when I saw the Celtic goose (wild goose) at the top of the table of contents. The wild goose was a symbol of the Holy Spirit among the Celtic Christians. The story has it, the wild goose is unpredictable in its flight much like the work (and leading) of the Holy Spirit. I believe John’s work here touches on the work the Spirit is doing among gatherings of Christ followers. He invites the (often uncomfortable) questions that will lead followers of Christ and those gatherings to see what the Spirit is already doing and allows for the church to participate in that work. Like anyone writing of creative and organic approaches to church life and ministry, this will not look like church as usual. It might even be the church as unusual, but nevertheless seeking to be and express the Body of Christ.
John also addresses early on the need for the creativity to expand beyond the typical approaches of churches toward creatives. Any mention of music leads to the worship team and any mention of drawing or painting leads to restrained (trite?) murals or illustrations for the church news letter. This type of response by church leadership toward creatives does neither any good, for church or local community. Instead of limiting creatives to the typical, he calls for leadership to release them and learn from them.
Throughout the book, John touches on the creative process and creatives, those who create, be it prose, poetry, paintings, sculpture or song. Creativity and those who embody that way of seeing the world, can be beneficial to the mission of the church. The creatives will see things from a different perspective, provide different answers to problems, connect dots that look like they could not be connected. Part of the creative process is working with certain limits, framing limits if you will. The limits of canvas size, medium, length of poem or story, style, meter, material and so on. The other part for the creative is pushing against those limits in such a way that truth and beauty are revealed or even the ugliness and brokenness of the world is exposed and calls one to do something. John encourages those gatherings seeking creative engagement, internally and externally, to embrace the tension of creativity and not fear failure. Fear of failure may be one of the greatest hindrances to creative life. All it takes is one thinking, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ or ‘What if no one likes it?’ These are the wrong types of ‘what ifs’ to focus on. Courage and boldness are needed among the gathering of followers of Christ. Stepping out in faith-filled creativity may lead one on a wild goose chase, yet when the wild goose is the Spirit of the Living God, no telling where the adventure may lead.
Those involved in creative work require a certain space for the work to get done. This varies a great deal between the type of work done. The painter requires the canvas. The sculptor needs the marble or clay. The writer needs the blank page whether in the notebook or on the computer. et even those not engaged in artistic work, a space is needed for creativity. For some it is a garden, others a kitchen and another a wood shop. Whatever place one makes to pursue one’s passions is a creative space.
Now what does one need to pursue those passions given the space set aside for the creation of it?
Freedom – This is foundational for any creative act; the choice to begin and the courage to put paint to canvas or words to paper. Within this choice is also the responsibility for the work created. This is the standing up and saying, ‘I did this!’ For good or ill, you take ownership of what has been created.
Limitations – These are the limitations placed by the medium chosen. Yet even within these limits, an infinite variation is possible. The writer is limited by words yet how those words are arranged opens a horizon of possibility. The painter is limited by paint, line form and color; yet the application to canvas can bring forth both landscape and abstract paintings and myriad other expressions.
Imagination – This is how one uses the limits and freedom to express the personal passion in one’s art. This is the seeing things in new ways within the confines of the medium. This is the never thought of it that way before expressions in pictures or words. This is the contrasting, juxtaposing and transformative nature of the creative process.
Grace – Sometimes in the process, mistakes are made. Some require a complete redo. Others require working with the mistake made. Yet in this process, the wisdom is to learn from the mistake, make it work for you and continue on in the work. Self-criticism and self-editing are essential to the process of perfecting one’s craft. The problem arises when the editing and criticism weigh you down to the point of stopping the work entirely or even preventing it from starting. Balance is necessary to continue moving forward.
So, with these four elements for pursuing the passions of one’s life, embrace the freedom, limits, imagination and grace extended to you. If your life is pursued with the passion that has pursued you, a life of creativity, newness and transformation awaits….
The blank page stares back. I’m trying out figure out what to write. This is agony but I write nonetheless. The blockage, the obstacle or as Steve Pressfield in The War of Art calls it, resistance, tries to stop me. I press on. I write even though I have no clear idea. It slowly becomes a matter of discipline.
Disciplines, the developing of habits, doing something religiously, all lead you to the place of kicking resistance in the teeth. Peace is not an option in this one place. The struggle can lead to a place of peace even in the fight. The struggle is life long and ever persistent. Resistance is insidious. I’m beginning to think it is part of our fallen nature.
Fear is the greatest resistance in my life. I’m getting to a place of not caring any more. I will write and fail. Some of it will be profound much may be drivel. Regardless, I face my fear, get my ideas written and move on to the next thing. I do not fear judgment but I’m open for constructive criticism. I do not fear rejection but embrace failing and learning from it. I do not fear others’ opinions but rest in the opinion my Creator has of me.
I ultimately seek to tap into the divine creative Spirit. This is a high challenge for Christians in the creative realm. A great deal of Christian art does no justice to the God of creation because it takes the creative act too lightly. Much too often the creative work done is superficial, preachy and insipid. When salt loses its flavor…This might be the reasons so many roll their eyes at ‘Christian’ movies and so on. The creative act is an act of passion. Creativity must embrace that passion and the unexpected ways the Spirit will lead. You and those around you might be surprised at how it turns out. The grace of God is a wild and marvelous gift.
Grace and peace,
A few years back I had the privilege of standing before Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ at the Getty Center. It is the one painting there that I will surely see any time I visit. Yet this last time that I saw it, it brought me to tears. Here is this painting, by a tormented soul of a man, now considered a genius years after his death. His paintings are priceless. How is it that paint on a canvas can bring someone to tears or evoke awe? Seeing the paint strokes, the colors, the composition and all the elements comprising the work provide a medium for communication that carries one over to a higher place. I consider Van Gogh a genius because his work still touches people. So much of his life is tied up in his paintings, it was the one thing he had to do, his passion.
The Pauline letter written to the church in Ephesus echoes the passion God has for us. The letter states:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph2.10.NIV (italics mine)
The NASB speaks of ‘workmanship’ and many other translation state, ‘God makes us what we are…’ We are His works of creation, His passion. The Greek word for handiwork is poema. A work of art invested with the very life of God, we have His fingerprints all over us, so to speak. The passion of God, while exemplified in the cross of Christ, is not limited to the cross but encompasses the totality of creation that was and will be redeemed. We are part of that beautifully crafted work and we have the privilege of participating in that work.
I firmly believe every brother or sister in Christ has a work that is potentially a profound work of staggering genius. It is their passion. One aspect of the unrelenting and wild passion of God they can reflect. We all need to find that in ourselves and recognize it others and encourage one another to fulfill that passion. Whether it is painting, poetry, woodworking, teaching, serving the poor, challenging government or whatever that passion might be, pursue it. In addition, do not think about it. Do it.
Grace and peace,