September 15th, 2011

I’m currently reading my friend Gary Molander‘s new book Pursuing Christ. Creating Art. It could alternately be titled Devotions for Right-Brained People. It names all the greatness and all of the misery of being an artist at heart.

One of his reflections is about what happens when you expose your new creation to other people, and how the need to get approval obscures the process and robs joy from what should be a celebration of new art.

As a producer, I used to take offense at people’s criticisms. I was so anxious for approval that for the first several years of my professional life I wasn’t very teachable. I remember making a video clip for worship at Ginghamsburg Church in the mid 1990s, feeling pride in my work, then getting deflated and personally wounded at the criticism or confusion or indifference of my colleague or the congregation’s response.

It’s an exchange, really, initiated by the artist. We invite others to participate in the creative work through their response. What right do we have then, if they don’t react how we want? Is it their fault, or are we projecting our needs on to them? If we don’t want a negative reaction, then maybe we shouldn’t ask. Or, even better, maybe we shouldn’t try to control this exchange, but learn from it.

Here’s what I have come to learn from this exchange: The essential truth of any story is in the mind of the receiver of that story, not the storyteller.

People like to quiz musicians about lyrics or filmmakers about endings. Artists, of course, tend to be hesitant about offering definitive answers. This is partly because they don’t know, and partly because they don’t want half formed ideas to limit the experience. It is also partly because artists have no control over their art. This is paradoxical, really, because in one sense, the artist is in total control of the art through the creative act. Yet, art needs receivers, too, and ultimately, any meaning that comes from art comes from the receiver, not the artist. In this sense, the artist has no control whatsoever.

It doesn’t matter if the storyteller believes it, or knows it to be true; if the receiver is not moved by the story’s essential truth, then that truth is obscured. The received must participate in the teller’s truth.

This is the essence of craft.

When I lead workshops and conferences on creativity and worship, I often get a volley from an indignant attendee that worship is a “production”. It’s meant as a pejorative. The person, who is often a worship leader or pastor, derides the planning process and puts meaning in spontaneity. While sometimes these arguments have a theological wrapper, I think the motivation is the same as that of any artist. The worship leader wants to be moved in the moment, to feel the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is the conviction that says, it is when I am moved by the divine glimpse that the congregation or audience is moved. And yes, these moments happen. They are a joy to experience.

Yet, to insist that this must happen exclusively in the live setting as the basis for authentic worship is basically narcissistic. It is placing personal experience as the primary barometer for God’s work through worship. The congregation’s experience of the Holy Spirit may have nothing to do with the worship leader’s experience, or the preacher’s, or the artist’s, or the producer’s. It is misguided to confuse the two. An experienced preacher or musician knows to keep emotion in check when conveying a critical moment. The emotion is offline for the worship planner and musician and artist. We feel it in private so that we may facilitate others to feel it in worship.

The challenge for the leader of worship is to constantly be aware, as an artist jumping out of bed at two in the morning, of the divine glimpse, and to use these moments as the basis for what later becomes the moment of worship for others. In these moments, even though sometimes we are blessed, our primary job as worship leaders isn’t to feel. It is to do our jobs and use our craft so that others may feel and know the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Yet, even as the artist should focus on technique over emotion, he or she must also act on conviction. I have to constantly remind myself: If it doesn’t move me, how can I expect it to move anyone else? I have to believe what I create. I have to have faith in its truth. Any creative person must embrace this essential prerequisite. Without it our efforts are phony and ineffective. We must start first from that which moves us. You can only speak from your own spiritual journey. But if you’re honest about your own spiritual journey, then you will create opportunities for others to connect with your story and in it, to find their own story.

When you create, don’t try to visualize the “audience”, whether it’s a words, music, video, drama, whatever. There is no such large group. To reach everyone is an illusion that leads to reaching no one. We speak of them in the collective but in reality they are individuals, with individual preferences and needs and tastes. Don’t worry about whether or not someone will “get it” – this takes courage, but if it speaks to you, put it in. You can always take it out later if it doesn’t work, but if you don’t put it in, it will be lost. The more you “put it in” the clearer your own style will emerge over time.

At the same time, you cannot become lost in your esoteric world. What you do must connect with others.

This advice is conflicting and difficult. It may sound contradictory and paradoxical, to create for yourself and for others. The difference is a difference between craft and spirit. If you are not connecting with your congregation or audience, it is because of either a failure at craft or a failure of spirit. We have all seen well-produced, empty-headed films, or heard precise, vapid sermons. These are failures of spirit – all the technical skill in the world, and no story to tell. Many say this is Hollywood’s problem. On the other hand, we have all known—or been—young artists who are blubbering mess of passion, full of spirit, in desperate need of craft to hone a story.

Your craft must exist within the larger creative culture. If a designer, it must have a symbiotic relationship to the basic rules for design, either adhering to them or breaking them out of intent. If a preacher, it must have some relationship to the principles of homiletics. Craft is essential. If the audience disconnects to your story because of your own inability to execute your craft, the fault is yours alone.

Craft has rules. Think of craft as the technical aspects of what you do – having the skills and experience to express your visions. There are some, in fact, who revel in the craft, gearheads who love the very process of breathing a story to life. A good filmmaker knows the value of technical proficiency, and the need to surround himself or herself with people full of passion for the tools of the trade. But technicians, as valuable as they are, depend on creative vision. They must have the story to tell. This is the spirit.

The spirit is the easy part, and yet the most difficult part. It requires honesty. It is the act of expressing the source of your inspiration, articulating what moves you and why. Often this only comes through experience. No mater how crude and stumbling, every act of expression, and the response it elicits, is a teacher for improving the means by which we communicate the spirit that moves us.

As a storyteller, especially in the early stages, you need to garner both craft and spirit.

The essential truth of any story is in the mind of the storyreceiver, not the storyteller. The key for any artist is to master both craft and spirit in order to let the essential truth emerge.

Len is Senior Leadership Editor for Abingdon Press. He blogs at

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