There are two ways I am going to address the tension between art, or perhaps creativity is a better word, and worship. The first is for the sake of artists and musicians who are serving on worship teams, and the second is for the sake of the congregation. I have to separate these two groups because I have opposing opinions on this subject for each group. In some cases, the argument may seem like semantics, but the difference between the two is vast, and it comes down to the motive. Ultimately it is a matter of the heart. If the motive is pure (getting people to worship), and the vision is clear, I am all about doing anything to get people to worship and connecting with God. If it is not, and it becomes a blind move toward artistic expression, the danger is that creativity can become a selfish exercise, which is the exact opposite of true worship, and art and worship become antithetical. If we are focusing on worshiping God, and leading people to do the same, our artistic expression will always be bent towards getting people to have increasingly focused and impactful times of worship. If we are focusing on art, we can sometimes forget that our charge is to lead others, and our artistic expression can easily hinder the congregation’s ability to worship.
As an artist, or a creative person, there is always a desire to push into new artistic expression as often as possible. There is an inherent need for unique expression among artists. Redundancy can be a killer for some people, and monotonous repetition can wear on the mind. For a worship leader, or musician, this can happen pretty quickly from a music perspective. Most worship songs are extraordinarily simple, and this is by design. They are written for the express purpose to get everyone in a congregation singing. The musical parts are oftentimes also simple. While there are exceptions, the idea is to create the proper space for the congregation to sing, not highlight the instrumentalists’ talents. What this leads to are fairly easy songs, with fairly easy parts, that musicians and artists can become bored with.
But it is not about the musicians. On the list of who we do what we do for, the worship team falls dead last, except maybe the worship leader who should be the last of the last. We worship because God deserves it, and we do so simply and repetitively for the sake of leading others to worship. This is sometimes a sacrifice of artistic expression, and I have had plenty of conversations with musicians who lament not being able to stray too far from the arrangements, or try some crazy stuff within a song. My constant refrain is that we sacrifice for others to get them to worship. The motto for my team is this; “We love it when believers worship, but we exist to get non-believers to do so.” I try and imbibe my team with as much sacrificial understanding as possible. If I am bored with something, then my heart is not in the right spot. As a leader, I have to make sure I keep that in check personally as well as with my teams. If I begin to push into creativity because I am bored, in some small way, I have allowed music or worship to become about me. It may seem small, but it is a huge issue of the heart, and it takes a lot of work to maintain the proper focus at all times. So we have to be vigilant!
I have met plenty of people who have said things like, “If we don’t allow our creatives to be creative, then they will burn out or loose interest…” I cannot stress enough that this is feeding into a cycle of consumerist Christianity that is the opposite of the character of Jesus. I am sure Jesus was not happy with the cross, but He did it anyway. We don’t have to love a style, or feel creative in worship, or even feel satisfied. We are called to serve the body of Christ by getting others to worship. To stand in front of people and model a Christ-like attitude and posture before the Father, and to pull people into the same. And yet still the best part is God has already graciously provided us with music and other creative ways to do this! But we have a responsibility to serve others, and guard with vigor and tenacity against the pull to do things because we want to. As Christ followers, how can we even begin to be discouraged if the “cross” we have to bear is to sacrifice a little creativity for the sake of getting as many people to worship as possible? If for any reason we feel we need to help our teams by allowing them to be creative for creativity’s sake, then we are failing in leading our teams to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a servant and to minister.
I am not saying that allowing a team to be creative is a bad thing, but I want my focus, and therefore the focus of my team, to be to worship God for His sake, not ours. And to serve the local body for its sake, not ours. By ever conceding to the notion of self-service for our teams, we are starting a process that is part of a larger overall issue that I believe we have the obligation to curtail in many of our churches, which is assuming we are owed something for what we do. The brutal truth is if we have team members that only want to serve to scratch a creative itch, they are not really serving, but taking. To add a wrinkle to this is the idea that new members of our teams may not be seasoned Christians and sometimes not even Christians at all. So it is hard to hold some to a standard of self-sacrificing service. But as the spiritual leader of my teams it is my responsibility to get them there! We lead our teams to become self-sacrificing worshipers so they can in-turn lead the congregation in becoming them also.
Okay. Now that I have said all of that, I want to ease up a bit, because I am not against pushing creativity for the sake of engagement from the congregation. I believe it is part of the human condition to get bored with repetition. While it can be comforting to repeat the familiar, it is not very dynamic. When it comes to making a connection with God, this is no different. Like any relationship, there is often a need to have new experiences together and to approach engagement differently. We serve a dynamic God, whose desire for relationship with us is so strong that he sent his Son Jesus to die for us to be able to commune with Him. Therefore, our relationship with Him is worth cultivating and shifting in ever-increasing ways, in order to deepen it. From the standpoint of worship within a congregation, this often means changing things up, being creative, and finding new ways to engage the human mind and heart to point them both to God. This is not being creative for art’s sake, it is artfully and skillfully curating a worship experience for the church’s sake.
I love being creative. I believe God created each one of us to be so. After all we are made in the image of the Creator. I also believe art is a gift that God has given us. It is for our enjoyment and also a tool to help us grasp the unknowable. I also believe He has given us the ability to use art in worship to capture and communicate things words alone cannot express. And so all of these things are very good things. But when I reflect on art and worship, like so many other things, I believe the starting point must be a selfless motive. If art is used to enhance the worship experience for others, then I believe it is a godly pursuit. I would get behind the use of all kinds of crazy stuff if I believed it would help people connect with God and worship Him well (We have to remember to be smart about it though). For me it is not a matter of if we should use lots of artistic expression, or if there should be a balance. The issue goes back to the heart. If we truly want to ascribe worth to Jesus, then we should follow in his footsteps and sacrifice ourselves wholeheartedly for the sake of others. If that means giving up a little creativity, then so be it. But if creative expression is used as a tool to help others worship, bring on the lasers (I know lasers aren’t necessarily the highest form of creativity we have going in the church right now, but they are just so stinking cool).