Creativity and Faith

January 22nd, 2014

Inspired Disciple or Bored Christian?

It’s easy to argue that in order to value the Christian tradition, one must also value creativity. In fact, to have faith is in itself an imaginative process. As followers of Christ, we are proclaiming things that are unseen as eternal truth (2 Corinthians 4:18). Our message is one of hope, grace, peace, forgiveness, and love. We talk in similes (the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, yeast, salt, and light) and metaphors (one must be born again, Jesus is the bread of life, and become fishers of men). We often open our prayers with an address to our “Creator God.” A typical modern worship service involves the use of singers, musical instruments, choirs, bands, and multimedia productions. We worship in environments filled with art, fresh flower arrangements, stained glass, liturgical banners, and altar presentations. Our pastors have almost 4,000 years worth of stories, history, poetry, characters, and symbolism upon which to draw as resources for sermons. Children are allowed to color and draw during the service. We sing, pray, read responsively, and partake of Communion.

All this creativity raises the question, how could church ever be boring? Why do our personal faith journeys often feel dry and uninspired? For many of us, worship is typically a passive process. We aren’t the ones creating songs, sermons, or videos. Most of us are in the pews listening or observing, not creating. How, then, can our Christian faith, and in particular our faith community, inspire and nurture creativity?

What Is Creativity?

Creativity can be hard to define. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines it as “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.” The website’s encyclopedia expands the definition and states creativity is the “ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking.” But do novelty and originality capture the whole idea of creativity? Writers at the Shepherd Project, a Christian resource website, argue that something can be new without being particularly creative. The “new” detergent might have an updated formula, but it’s not a creative way of washing laundry. These writers also ask if purpose plays a role in determining whether or not something is creative. Consider two musicians who tune their instruments differently but play simultaneously, creating a cacophony. “This might be novel, but on its own, it wouldn’t necessarily be creative,” their blog states. “However, label one musician as a Republican and one as a Democrat and suddenly the discord says something significant about the U.S. government.”

And determining whether something is creative is subjective. My kids think modern mashups (combining several musical artists into one song) are original and creative. I find these songs boring and imitative. Sometimes I agree with the writer of Ecclesiastes that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (1:9). And how does intent factor into creativity? If a person is intentionally trying to be creative or “think outside of the box,” do they get points even if others don’t like their work?

We often hear people say, “Well, I’m just not the creative type.” But creativity doesn’t have to be confined to fine arts such as music and painting, or even to hobbies such as scrapbooking and woodworking. Isn’t the mathematician who solves a complex formula or the engineer who has to design a multilane highway employing creativity? What about the scientist who discovers a cure for a rare disease? And how about that plumber who found a creative way to fix your kitchen sink leak without having to rip out the entire countertop?

Perhaps a simple way to define creativity can be borrowed from Krista Tippett’s (radio host/author) definition of an artist: someone or something that offers you a fresh perspective on the world and your place in it.

Creativity in Education and Work

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” On the website, you can find talks on a variety of subjects from leaders who are considered to be some of the most innovative, respected, and creative in their fields. Several years ago, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson gave a talk on how our education system is draining our children of their natural creative instincts. He relates the story of a child who tells her teacher she is going to draw a picture of God. The teacher replies, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The child replies, “They will in a minute.” Robinson says that our current educational curriculum teaches children that mistakes are the worst thing you can make, which diminishes creativity. Robinson states, “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.” He believes that schools should educate children in arts, not just academic subjects, because intelligence itself is diverse and dynamic.

Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, discusses the “fourth grade slump” in a National Public Radio interview. He says teachers notice kids lose interest in art projects at this age because they are suddenly aware that you can draw the wrong line or put the brush in the wrong place. Children begin to realize their works of art don’t live up to their expectations of what they were trying to draw, so their self-awareness and fear of mistakes get in the way of innovation. Lehrer believes we stop trusting our brains to create something beautiful and overthink the process.

Lehrer also discusses the importance of creativity in the workplace. Leaders at 3M, a company that for decades has been known for innovation, understand that workers who are relaxed and in a good mood have more insights and epiphanies. Every engineer at 3M gets an hour of every workday to do what they want—engage in a hobby, play a game, take a walk, or even take a nap. Looking productive isn’t the same thing as being productive. “In fact, that’s one of the defining features of moments of insight, that they only arrive after we stop looking for them,” Lehrer states.

Conflict can also be a catalyst for creativity. Researchers have found that dissent and debate actually lead to better ideas than do collaboration and brainstorming. Lehrer claims that there is something about criticism that causes us to dig deeper and listen better. If this is true, what applications does this have for creativity and conflict in churches? How can we approach problems in a way that will produce creative solutions? And how do churches stop educating creativity out of our children and adults?

The Exit of Creatives From the Church

In his book You Lost Me. Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . And Rethinking Faith, author and Barna Group researcher David Kinnaman seeks to find out why “millions of young adults leave active involvement in church as they exit their teen years.” During his research, he discovered that young adults (often referred to as millennials or mosaics) feel the church has become overprotective and insulated, separating itself too much from the world Christ desires to redeem. This generation does not see a divide between sacred and secular in the same way their parents do.

The result is that many of these “exiles” who are leaving the church are also creative types—artists, musicians, entertainers, and filmmakers—who think the church doesn’t know what to do with creatives like them. They want to follow Jesus in a way that connects with the world they live in, partnering with God outside of church walls. For them, a song on mainstream radio can be just as spiritual as one on Christian radio.

At the end of his book, Kinnaman offers ideas to reach this generation, which actually come from young adults themselves. One musician, Charlie Peacock, states, “There’s a reason the Bible begins with creativity, anthropology, and vocation—because these are what it means to be human. . . . Why Christians fail to emphasize imagination and creativity when God’s Book about being human clearly does is a great mystery to me.” Peacock describes a Jesus who is inviting us to “come alongside him as his kind of imaginative, loving person in the creative life of caring for earth and people.”

Another songwriter, Sara Groves, urges churches to invite participation. Rather than just sitting in the pews, congregants should engage and contribute. Groves explains, “Art at its purest is not a commodity or a performance, and the church is alive when we are problem-solving, studying and serving together, and engaging our local communities and the issues facing them with the kingdom creativity of the gospel.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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