Creativity is good! The birth of the new, the unveiling of emotions, the renovation of ideas, the recycling of resources, the retelling of stories, the restoration of the broken, the rewriting of wrongs... whatever you want to call it, whatever form it takes, creativity out of love is all good.
I rejoice when the Church champions creativity. I rejoice when She’s prophetically at the very precipice of the new. I rejoice too at Her heritage and at Her rich diversity. I rejoice also when the Church celebrates and engages with good ideas brewing elsewhere in culture. I rejoice when I see worship teams leading creatively. I rejoice even more when a worship team recognises that the wider church body do the vast majority of the creating. Essentially, I rejoice when people empower the others to create as they were created to.
Of late, I have tried to approach leading worship as a gracious curator. As one of my arty peers puts it, “Curating is about unearthing the work of the artist.” Why am I keen to lead this way? It’s because our lives are “the manifestation of the imagination of God” (Erwin McManus, The Artisan Soul). So, when I look out at our wonderful congregation I think, “What a gifted bunch of artists you truly are! How can we kindle that gift today?” I have found this posture a much more inclusive and appreciative way of understanding and practicing leadership. As one church leader puts it, “Art changes the world, which is why art cannot be left in the hands of the elite few” (Erwin McManus, The Artisan Soul). This takes the pressure off the worship team having to deliver all the spiritual and creative input in order to provide dynamic worship that other people latch onto. It instead gives the team the much more important responsibility of listening well to the congregation, serving them, and honouring what God is doing in and through them (cf. Proverbs 23:23-24; Matthew 10:42-45; John 13:13-17; Philippians 2:3).
We can clearly see this style of leadership in the life of Jesus. Notice how Jesus celebrates and honours the woman who lavishes oil and tears on his feet (Luke 7:36-50). Notice how undefended he is with his disciples. He encourages holy curiosity, giving them permission to ask him for anything (John 14:13-14). Notice how often Jesus asks questions. For he wants to hear the very heart of his people and he calls out the best in people by enabling them to discern and understand for themselves. Notice how much Jesus trusts his disciples. If I were there at the great commissioning, hearing how much authority Jesus gave to his disciples would have made me incredibly nervous (Matthew 28:16-20). Notice how far and how low Jesus is willing to go to serve his friends (John 13:1-17; 19).
I recently had a conversation with a worship leader who said “James, sometimes you have to put the vision before the people.” I knew what he was trying to say, which is that you cannot make decisions that will make everyone happy. But there was a part of me that wanted to give him a slap around the face. We are first called to love God, and second to love one another. That’s the vision. We are all priests of the servant variety, ministering the God of love to one another. God’s vision heavily involves the loving of people. So, “Worship Leaders: We are called to lead people above songs, to invest in people above products and serve people above being creative” (Chris Sayburn).
Similarly, as worship teams and leaders, we can never allow ourselves to assume that we have a superior vision to those we serve. The President of Pixar, Ed Catmull makes it his business to encourage those in the trenches to speak up. Why? He says, "Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas… [Ergo] If there are people in your organisation who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose" (Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.). If the whole body are not empowered to speak, those who lead will end up with now power. “Leaders who refuse to listen will be surrounded by people who have nothing to say” (Andy Stanley).
I think part of the reason why I like the curator-metaphor is because I feel gathered worship could be more “congregation-led” than sometimes it is articulated, or perhaps appears to be. As a group of artists, the church brings all the key worship elements into the room. They bring the stories, the laments, the cries, the joys, the tears, the hopes, the fears, the burdens, the questions, the dreams (Eph 5:17-18; Col 3:16). My role as the worship leader is: to listen like a curator would research; to discern like a curator would infer; to dance, mourn and weep just as a gifted curator would empathise (Romans 12:15). Sung-worship leading is, in part, about giving voice to the song in the room.
A good curator identifies the key themes that tie all the art together. They take all the stories shared and draw them into a wider metanarrative. They find an appropriate place for each piece of art, so that it can be rightly valued and engaged with. Sometimes as worship leaders, we might need to give programme notes, reposition an idea or frame things differently. For instance, we might need to teach on lament, tell the story behind a song, or explain the theology behind tongues. Sometimes should name and fight the culture of consumerism. Sometimes we will need to proactively help people to share their stories in the public space. This kind of leadership is still an art in and of itself. It is still an anointing. It is still a gift to be practiced and a responsibility that often costs. This curating reminds me of St Paul’s passion to see gathered worship in the early Church grow in reverence, togetherness and revelation (1 Corinthians 14).
I find it’s helpful to look for common threads in the testimonies of our church; to discover the key things that God is revealing through the everyday lives of His people. I want to help people journey with what God is saying to them, through the whole church body, rather than just through a few key leaders up the front. Equally, I aspire to help people genuinely bring there all before God. I am intolerant to the idea that we leave our problems and worries at the door, so that they no longer distract us and we can focus on Jesus. Yes, Jesus eclipses any idol we can possibly have. They are so dull and empty in comparison to Him. But at the same time, the things of life can also be wonderful icons; post-it notes of God’s goodness in our everyday (C. J. Mahaney). What good news it is that we can lay down our stuff at the feet of Jesus and trust Him with it. We are all for Him. It is all for Him. What good news it also is that as we lay our lives at His feet, we can spot His reflection in them.
Every metaphor has its limitations. In this case, talking about our worship/lives as displayed art can sound a lot like “showing off” to God, or perhaps to others. However, what we are really doing is boasting of God at work in our lives. And if we are honest with ourselves, bringing our genuine stories into a gathered worship requires the courage to be open and to show our vulnerabilities. As Henri Matisse says, “Creativity takes courage.” It requires a well-built culture of trust, patience, kindness and encouragement (Heb 10:24-25). “To love at all is to be vulnerable” (C. S. Lewis).
As painter, I get very nervous when it came to hanging my work up on a wall. To be honest, I get very self-conscious when people watch me paint, or even simply ask me questions about my work. I’m afraid of whether others will like my work, will understand my work and, by extension, will like and understand me. Creative, brave worship-offerings are sometimes going to be messy and risky. That’s part and part of the parcel. “To make our lives a creative act is to marry ourselves to risk and failure” (Erwin McManus, The Artisan Soul). So, the worship leader must fight the urge to quality-control everything. This would be a horrendously disempowering approach. As John Cleese puts it, “If you want creative workers, you have to give them enough time to play.”
To fully understand your role as curator, you must first understand the heart of the audience. Thankfully, God is not testing us on the “standard” of our worship. Sure, He is calling us to receive well the gifts He has given us (1 Corinthians 12:1-31; cf. Exodus 31:3-5; Ephesians 4:10-13; 1 Peter 4:10; James 1:17). He is calling us to practice and nurture them. But more importantly, He looks at our creative acts of worship through the lens of Fatherly love. God is not looking for a grandly-framed offering with meticulously thought-out programme notes. He loves to see us pin up our many beautiful, infantile pictures of Him on the wall. It is a glorious thing when the church actively surrenders to Him with everything She’s got, even with all the imperfections that come attached. Scripture tells us that all of creation eagerly waits for that exhibition of glory (Romans 8:19; cf. Matthew 5:14-16).
“So you’ll go out in joy, you’ll be led into a whole and complete life. The mountains and hills will lead the parade, bursting with song. All the trees of the forest will join the procession, exuberant with applause. No more thistles, but giant sequoias, no more thornbushes, but stately pines— Monuments to me, to GOD, living and lasting evidence of GOD.” Isaiah 55:8-13 MSG
So, rejoice with me that right now all over the world people are creating: a habit they’ve picked up from their heavenly Father; a habit that is at the core of God’s coming Kingdom, a habit that is worth cherishing.