Unleashing the power of honest creativity in your church community.
Sho Baraka is author of He Saw That It Was Good: Reimagining Your Creative Life to Repair a Broken World (WaterBrook), and a globally recognized recording artist, performer, culture curator, activist and writer. He also is a co-founder of Forth District and the AND Campaign, and has served as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Here he explores the vital role of creative expression in the life of the church and in service to the mission.
When people talk about Christian creativity, we often speak as if the church is a monolithic, homogeneous body of people. That’s not the case. I myself am a hybrid, formed by many different traditions and Christian spaces. Because of this reality, our various Christian subcultures have different challenges related to creativity.
So one church’s challenges may be irrelevant in another, something like how Paul’s epistles varied in their messaging, though they all came from the same gospel. Galatia’s challenges were not those of Corinth. One church stands in need of grace, another in need of much more structure. Similarly, some churches today need a much greater framework of justice. Others may be doing fine in that area, but need more biblical fidelity. Some churches need to understand how to liberate their creative spirit, others need to rein it in a bit—asking how to make their expressions more honest and connected to their church identity, not just trusting others to execute creative work for the congregation. We need to give room to artists, but they also need to be grounded—they can’t just make art that is engaging but not rooted in good doctrine. There is a different call for different churches, and it is wisdom to recognize that.
“We need to give room to artists, but they also need to be grounded—they can’t just make art that is engaging but not rooted in good doctrine.”
We need to be nuanced in thinking what particular churches need and how we can assess that need. So often, churches go wrong when they begin acting like one size fits every congregation.
THE CREATIVITY CHALLENGE
One thing most churches have in common is struggling in some way with creativity and art. Some misvalue it. Others appropriate it in a way that is not beneficial. Many don’t understand what art is, like a child playing with matches—the flame is interesting, but we don’t realize that it can set the world on fire—in a good way or a bad way. Our creative life is more than a diversion.
We try to contain that fire—we light candles. But our often small dealings with creative expression lead us to use it in ways that are bland or even putrid. And that’s why so often Christian art seems stale. We know Christians want good art. We know they want good music, good movies, good stage plays, good literature. But there is often confusion about how we are supposed to engage the world. What does it mean to be truly free to create?
“We are too afraid of glorifying things we feel we should be ashamed about. But telling the truth about the world is not the same as glorifying darkness.”
Jesus prays in John 17 that God would give his people differentiation from this world and protection from the Evil One. He does not ask for our removal. But the response of many Christians is to remove ourselves from places of honest expression and artistic engagement. This is related to a misappropriation of art, an inability to engage it on its own terms as believers.
In my own life, I’ve often felt this friction. My personal story of becoming a Christian points this out. As a young man, I knew I wanted to work in some sort of entertainment or creative space. As a child I loved narratives, watching movies and TV hosts, taking in shows and novels, writing adventure stories. As I matured I developed more specific skills and interests, began to find my space and my voice. I hoped that I could excel in some sort of creative vocation. Then, like most of us, I began to start asking deeper questions about the world.
I began to question my purpose and who I was. I had very influential people in my life who had become Christians. But they did not know how to disciple or cultivate the creativity within me. Most of them were vocational ministers—their only path for discipleship was Bible study. Rather than being taught how to surrender all the unique assets of my life unto the Lord, I began to be taught to become more like them—a preacher. I remember being in college, debating if I should pursue a creative career or instead turn toward campus ministry. I changed my major to pursue the latter. But it quickly became clear that it wasn’t the right fit. I felt constrained.
WHERE ARE THE HONEST STORIES?
A question we must ask is if we have space in our churches to tell honest stories. Stories of violence or drug addiction, of love or lust or reclamation. Are there spaces to create the true and the beautiful? Often there are not. We are too afraid of glorifying things we feel we should be ashamed about. But telling the truth about the world is not the same as glorifying darkness. To be people of the truth we must tell the truth about the things the world loves. Our question must become how we can do it so well that people will see sin and redemption standing in the full light. In order to do that, you have to engage the reality of whole stories, like when a great actor—like Denzel Washington or Daniel Day-Lewis—truly becomes their role.
“How do we reengineer the bad theology that seems to have buried creativity so deep in the basements of so many Christian minds?”
Often the church doesn’t allow her Christian artists to embody their art. We hold our creatively gifted back from using their full gifts—even before they start—because we are afraid of what might come out. (As a somewhat provocative thought experiment, just imagine Song of Solomon filmed by a stereotypical Christian production company. After the expected edits, it would end up being quite unbiblical.)
As a young man I was introduced into a Christian culture that seemed to have no real place for an artist. Art was not seen as something the Lord actually needs—just sort of an extra, something good to have around in case we need somebody to sing a song during an altar call. With that background, I’ve long been studying what the Bible says about creativity. We can find so much to draw from in the Scriptures, beginning with the very first story in Genesis. But our question then becomes, how do we reengineer the bad theology that seems to have buried creativity so deep in the basements of so many Christian minds?
We need to reconsider not only the expressions of our creativity but the stories that undergird it. And to begin that, in keeping with the first words from Genesis, we need to ask ourselves what is actually good, and how we find it today. We were made and called “good” by our Creator. But we have become corrupted. We are all both heroes and villains, with both gold and shadow within us. What I want us to do is evaluate ourselves so that we can tell our stories and create honestly. This honesty must begin in humility. We cannot be too certain of our ideological views. When we are extremely certain and extremely prideful, we can do an incalculable amount of damage. Humility goes hand in hand with grace.
To get to these honest stories we all need to ask ourselves if it is possible we are off target a little bit. We can support true creativity by recalling our vision for vocation. I believe there needs to be a redistribution of vision in the life of our churches. Too many congregations ebb and flow at the whims of their pastor. Leadership is important, but if a church is gathering to support the vision of one person instead of a pastor empowering the diverse gifts and callings of the congregation, then hasn’t something gone wrong?
BEYOND PASTOR-CENTRIC COMMUNITY
If the vision of the community is limited to whatever its pastor deems important, then how will people truly be set free to spread the infectious gospel according to their diverse abilities? We all have to ask, whose vision is being taught in our churches? What is being communicated? Is it the full gifting of the community, or the understandings and calling of one person?
“We are all both heroes and villains, with both gold and shadow within us. What I want us to do is evaluate ourselves, so that we can tell our stories and create honestly.”
If you’re a pastor, you’ve likely spent three to eight years studying theology. Excellent. Has that prepared you to understand civics? How about the creative process of a filmmaker or painter? Can you speak definitively about engineering? How about policing? Mental health? It is not enough to simply preach platitudes from the pulpit—a pastor must empower the various callings in the community to do things that the pastor could never do, and should never have to try. Are we empowering those in our churches to live out the vision of the community? I would love pastors to ask what they have at their disposal in the church. And instead of asking what the church can do to empower solely their vision, to ask how they can empower the vision of the church members. How can they empower people to do life at an excellent level Monday through Saturday? People like me spend so much time in the marketplace and creative settings—how can we be discipled well in those contexts? But much of our theology is framed as if we spend every waking hour in a church building.
I want to see churches empower people. They can do that by giving people a say. From government on down, we are growing distrustful of our institutions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. How can we give the people back the voice in a community vision that is rightfully theirs? I would love to see pastors relinquish some of the power that comes with being the main repository of community vision. I would like to see us build more communal trust in discerning what is best for a church. When we invite voices to speak to the vision and direction of the church, we must invite the whole spectrum of our church: artists, politicians, and all the vocations represented in our pews. This gives space for real creativity to begin to take root.
“People like me spend so much time in the marketplace and creative settings—how can we be discipled well in those contexts?”
Churches can begin by asking this question: When the artist, activist, parent or plumber comes back home from church, do they feel equipped to do great work in their space? If the pastor, even if very subtly, is telling the artist how to create art, that’s a scary place to be. The pastor is called to support the mission and vision of the body of Christ, not the other way around. Part of the problem is a culture of celebrity pastors, where building the platform of the church and preacher becomes the silent mission of the congregation.
MANY CHALLENGES, ONE HOPE
There is not one single answer to the church’s challenges with creative life. But there is one hope—to recapture an honest and compelling story. If we truly live into this story, here’s what I think we will see: The world will still be a messed-up place. People will still hate each other. There will still be wars, famines, destruction, pain and pessimism. However, the church will be more unified, more honest, more able to see and feel where its true power comes from, to whom it is loyal and to whom it retreats when it needs respite and encouragement. Right now, the world is a mess, but those despairing people who should be running to the church are not, because church is often seen dishing out just as much pain, division and despair as anyone else.
“When we invite voices to speak to the vision and direction of the church, we must invite the whole spectrum of our church. This gives space for real creativity to begin to take root.”
Ever since Eden, we’ve all been trying to figure out where our home is. Until we can come together as believers in Jesus, how can we care for the wounds of those in our culture? Setting the arts free can expand our vision, give us more synergy and charity to exist in a deeply broken world. The church could become a garden, not of Eden, but of Gethsemane, a place of respite in the midst of great suffering and difficulty. It will be a long time before we will see Eden again, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot see why God has called this world of imagination good. And it doesn’t mean we have to live out anything less than our creative calling in Christ.