“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
In the beginning, God—the Master Artist—created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep. Then God spoke LIGHT and there was. He breathed and stars hung in their place. In the first four days, God’s creativity exploded as He gave permission for time to start and commanded molecules to form and fall in line. Color began, breath breathed, feathered aviators traced the sky and roots dug down deep in cool dirt, looking for a drink. And God saw that all of it was good.
But on the sixth day, God made something—someone—and said “Very good.” Nothing else on earth was like it because it was Imago Dei – formed in the image of God. You and I are made in the likeness of the One who is not only infinitely creative, but who dreamed up creativity. And as we worship and adore the One who made us for relationship with Him, our design is to discover God through creativity – His, and ours.
My observation is that in the Church we are hesitant to invite our congregations to be overly creative in our worship. We often seem to avoid sensory expressions, and we are unimaginative with the ways we corporately engage. We prioritize intellectual understanding, and we have limited congregational engagement to musical expression alone. Singing is an absolute must, and we need to be fully present in that. But beyond our singing there are many more ways to encounter God together. Do we prefer function over beauty?
At the very beginning of the Church, the believers were a visual culture. They were a people of symbol and a people of story. Specific signs were used to connect one believer to another, often covertly, as these believers met to worship in secret. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, there was no longer need to hide their art. As time progressed, emphasis was placed on telling the grand story of God in such a way that all senses were captivated by its majesty, such that even those who could not read could be enveloped. In sculpture, stained glass, music and incense, art became recognized as an important language for communicating grace.
With the language of technology emerging as a primary way we communicate, art and design have moved front and center in the world of education, marketing and communication. Where once school rooms had blackboards and textbooks, they now have sensory stations, Smartboards and interactive centers. Where we once read print ads, we now more often interact with video. Rather than motto, we are now more likely to be swayed by metaphor.
Many of our churches are understanding this shift, and are catching up with it, with branding, social media communication, video testimonies and announcements. And these are all good moves for helping people to connect to the heart of who we are. But branding and video are things only to be observed. They are not things in which the general congregation gets to participate and to create. And corporate worship must draw people in to participate. When God created man and woman in His creative image, He didn’t then ask them to sit back and watch. He gave them animals to name, gardens to tend, and beauty to cultivate. But today, we offer very few opportunities for people to get their hands dirty in worship.
The Image of God in Us
When I was little, my favorite art activity was when my mom let me finger paint with chocolate pudding. All of my senses were all in! Kids naturally seem to love to imagine, to create, to sift among the messy to find the jewel. Somewhere along the way, many of us learn that the artworks we once proudly displayed on our refrigerators were not really masterpieces after all. For some, it was when scribble boundaries were imposed. For others, it was the moment the music teacher asked them to simply mouth the words. Many of us eventually absolve ourselves of even trying to be artistic anymore. We determine that we are simply not creative types. Our churches are filled with people who have lost their imagination – who leave art to the professionals, and are happy to simply observe in worship. And I would challenge that when we observe in worship, rather than creatively participate, we lose touch with a significant part of ourselves that was designed to connect us with our Maker.
If the church is a hospital, intended to draw broken people in to restoration, then the sick, the wounded, and the weary must not just be permitted to observe treatment being shown to them. The patient must be invited to participate in the healing.
So we’ve got to be brave. We must be okay with a messy church. We must cultivate a desire to be inclusive, and not exclusive, in our worship offerings. We must search people out, discover their gifts. We must let them try, stumble and fall, and walk along with them as they try again offer their gifts to the Lord and His people. We must help people to find their inner artist. We must think more about how our people are growing as worshipers than how we are presenting ourselves.
For the final project of my MA in Ministry, I actually studied the creative arts in worship. I chose this topic because I have felt inept in it, and strangely burdened to learn about it so that I can shepherd God’s people and teach worship differently. Along the way as I studied, I learned some things that I want to share with you:
In the worlds of psychology and psychotherapy, participation in the creative arts is seen as an incredible healing agent. Taking part in the tangible creation of art can actually help people to heal if they are open to transform difficulties into creative expression. I read the data of two studies conducted in mental health wards of hospitals in the United Kingdom. One was an eight-week program, the other two-years. Both were designed to allow the patients to participate on a regular basis with a variety of arts like drama, music, props and costume, knitting, jewelry-making, glass painting, collage and drawing and painting with numerous materials. Almost universally, patients showed very positive results in body language, attitude, conversation and a sense of dignity and value from being consistently involved in the arts, and many were able to begin to positively anticipate their futures.
The creative arts have also found their way into the world of behavioral therapy when dealing with attachment issues brought on by trauma. Multi-sensory experiences can help participants socialize, heal emotionally and eventually develop healthy attachments to others.
I believe a big part of our Kingdom purpose is helping broken people to build a healthy attachment to God and His people.
The areas of the brain that are involved with relationship-building or rebuilding are the identical parts involved with sensory processing, and are best accessed and expressed in nonverbal forms, like seeing and creating images. For those patients that have hyperactive emotional responses based on childhood trauma or abuse (whether to lash out, or to completely withdraw), participation in art-making in one form or another can increase feelings of comfort, relaxation and safety. As the art engages the brain, it is simultaneously stimulating the area of the brain that builds and rebuilds trust. That is the Master Artist at work. “As an act of the imagination, the visual arts can enable us to see the world, not as opaque to God’s presence but as charged with it.” (W. David O. Taylor, “Discipling the Eyes Through Art in Worship”).
Back to the Dust
The creative arts hold the possibility of uncovering realities deep within the human soul that words could never express. Because of the way Christianity encapsulates all of the color of life, from despair to hope, aching to healing, death to life, there is no end to the possibility of what might be created, and to the ways in which people can connect to it. The creative arts, if used prayerfully, carefully and intentionally, can be a significant catalyst in helping us to become who we were made to be: More like Christ.
As we endeavor to pick people up and dust them off, as Picasso says, let’s not do the work of worship for them—let’s invite them into it. Let them sing, yes. But let them also speak, let them testify, paint and dramatize their story, let them hear God’s Word on their own tongue, to feel the rough edge of the broken pottery, to taste the coolness of water, to pound that nail into the tree, to hear the comforting hum of the potter’s wheel and smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. Let’s not just leave them quietly in their seats, let’s invite them to move, to journey, to dance, to posture themselves before the Lord. Let’s find ways to help them make beautiful things, to encounter the magnificence of color and symbol. Let’s be okay with an unpolished and messy environment. Let them know their creations ARE masterpieces, because they help connect them to the Master Artist.
There’s a significant case for creativity as God recreates His people.