There’s a joke that inevitably follows my introduction to new people, especially pastors in large churches. “Herding cats,” they say. I laugh. It’s kind of true. I’m a pastor of worship and arts, which means I work with the church’s musicians to prepare for worship each week, and with visual artists in a variety of aspects of church life.
Why Artists Get Marginalized
Artists - especially vocational artists - get a bad reputation in the church. Vocational artists often are educated in liberal arts environments or progressive subcultures, and their tastes and politics lean leftward of the mainstream evangelical church. Most city’s arts scenes (especially thriving art scenes) are part of a wider progressive community, and folks who live and work in that community find themselves sympathetic to political issues like poverty and LGBT rights. For them, these folks are their neighbors. Most evangelical churches lean right, and in far too many cases, the lines between doctrine and political policy are so blurred as to be nonexistent.
Artists are also often marginalized for their temperament. In the church, much of our culture of leadership and many of our organizational structures have been adapted from the business world, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These thrive on efficiency, effectiveness, and quick results. Organizing leadership committees, making big decisions, and keeping track of members and attendees requires this kind of structure, especially when the church gets big. I'd argue that it's absolutely necessary to establish this kind of structure in areas like building maintenance or financial management.
Structures that Inhibit Creativity
But these same structures don't foster creativity. In fact, they're designed not to. You don't want your accountant, your maintenance crew, or your pastoral search committee getting too creative. You want them to show up on time, accomplish the work they're assigned, and be held accountable.
But these structures often get applied to community life, leadership development, and discipleship too. These areas become more and more programmatic and institutional, and that can be a turnoff for creatives. I don’t think it’s a moral issue either way – some people are more inclined to structure and some aren’t, but we should be wary of one-size-fits-all paths to leadership and discipleship in the church.
This is just as true when it comes to church staff. If you structure the job description and expectations of a creative on the staff (be they a designer, a musician, or someone who develops creative content for communications) in the same way you structure the job of a custodian or an accountant, you’ll probably create conflict. What’s required to do creative work well is very different from what’s required to do administrative and manual work well.
With that in mind, here are three things that can help make working with creatives a joy, both for you and for them.
Shifting Expectations and Building Relationships
I have a friend that’s a graphic designer, and nothing drives him more crazy than narrow expectations. Clients will come to him with another brand or organization’s logo, saying, “We want this, with our name instead.” They don’t actually want a creative; they want someone good with photoshop.
Often, artists get treated just this way in the church:
“Could you sound a little more like Gungor.”
“We want a painting in the lobby that looks like this.” [Motions to a picture on the web.]
“We want a song like this one, only Christian.”
Artists thrive on originality. They have dedicated themselves to their work not because they want to imitate other successful artists, but because they feel like they have something to say. Something original. An original vision or an original sound.
Their work flows directly from their story, from where they’ve been and what they tasted, seen, and experienced. The church is a part of their story, and most Christian artists want their faith to effect and influence their work. But rarely do they want someone to show up and tell them, “Make this.”
Instead, I would challenge you to build a relationship with artists. Get to know what they’re already doing. If you need graphic design work, get to know designer’s portfolios. If you’re working with a musician and you want to commission songwriting, make sure you get to know the music they’ve already written. The same goes for visual artists and videographers. Go to a concert or an art opening.
Making Space for Creativity
Most artists do their work thoughtfully, making connections between their lives, their beliefs, and their inspirations that come from thoughtful reflection. If you want the best they can offer, let the experience of working with them be a conversation: “Here’s what’s happening with the church, here’s how you’re gifts might be able to serve the church, here’s what we’re trying to communicate. Now, what do you think?”
This provides the most important thing creatives need when working with the church: space. Space to reflect and respond. Space to be themselves. Space for their own original ideas and creativity. With space and time, artists can do their best work.
This, of course, invites risk too. Who knows what they might create. I’ve actually heard (and experienced) some really comical horror stories; artists coming up with bizarre and strange work that is conceptually in the right ballpark, but functionally bizarre.
Shepherding Creativity, Cultivating Humility
But here, too, the effort is worth it. A misguided work by an artist provides a teaching opportunity. Artists are often so immersed in their world, with complicated metaphors and nuanced references, that they need help communicating with people who are outside, which most of their congregation will be. Pastorally, it’s an opportunity to help teach artists how to use their gifts effectively to serve others, which will call them to lay down some of their preferences.
Which brings me to the other side of this discussion: speaking to artists. Like anyone else in the church, artists are called to use their gifts to serve others. That requires humility, and in most cases, a willingness to make work accessible. With musicians, it means making songs that are singable and lyrics that are comprehensible. With visual artists, comprehensibility is just as important.
Artists are trained to stand out, to shine, to call attention to themselves, but in the church, it isn’t time to shine: it’s time to serve. And if we trust what the scriptures tell us, then we should believe that this is actually a better way: the way of humility and generosity. Being generous with our time and creativity – doing work for the love of the work and for the love of others – does wonders for our creative energy.
Likewise, pastors are called to work humbly with artists, and this might mean shifting our expectations, inviting them to lead and contribute, carrying out their vision instead of our own. It demands that we lay down our preference for instant results and for imitation of others, choosing instead to do the long, slow work of pastoring in order to build a creative culture in our churches. The results, given time and a willingness to empower and shepherd others, can be truly beautiful.