4 Guidelines for Leading Creatives

Christianity has a rich history in the arts, and if there is one encouraging trend in our age, it is that many leaders have embraced the calling God has placed on the church to be the visible sign of God’s Kingdom on earth through culture making. Though the creation of a Christ-like culture most definitely extends to multiple facets of church life, the worship gathering remains a seedbed for the cultivation of a creative environment where innovation can flourish.

This reality brings forth a challenge, and that is the identification, training, shepherding, raising up, and encouraging of creative leaders. Through the creative arts, these leaders have the ability to capture our imaginations, ignite our hearts, and inspire us to follow Jesus in profound ways. Though every person has been given a unique blend of creative gifts as one created in the image of God, there are those in our midst who have been given the responsibility of using their gifts as leaders within the church community, much like Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31, whom God gave gifts for the construction of the Tabernacle.

Stated differently, the church needs creative leaders to help unleash the God-given creative potential latent in each one of us. And one of the best moments within the life of the church where this can occur takes place during our worship gatherings.

So how do church leaders foster a creative environment, identify and empower creative leaders, and ensure that those with creative gifts are able to use their talents to the glory of God? Planning a worship encounter or experience can be like mad science, but here are a few helpful guidelines for those leading a group of creatives to effectuate an innovative worship experience.

1. Negotiable Boundaries
“Creatives need room to breathe and processes they can design and inform,” says Nick Nave, Creative Arts Director of Heartland Community Church of Olathe, Kansas. Nave emphasizes that in leading creatives, you must have structure, but that there must also be flexibility to work with artists in a fashion that is conducive to their creative style.

Flexibility applies not only to the systems within which creative leaders work, but also within the context of conversations about important concepts and ideas that are to be implemented within worship or the broader life of the congregation. Dave Ronne, Pastor of Redemptive Arts at 12Stone© Church, provides a helpful question, saying, “Does the artist have an appropriate sense of freedom that they can leverage their gifts, and that they can press back on ideas?”

In any organization, one of the greatest stonewalls to creativity is attaining a level of success that invites complacency or comfort to set in. But in order for creativity to flourish, there must be an openness to changing those elements that can be changed. Of course, some constants exist. But musical style and preference, incorporation of different creative elements, and slight changes in the order of liturgy are up for negotiation.

Again, Ronne captures this well by saying, “What happens in churches is that there becomes this one way of doing something that it becomes very difficult to be vocal and voice other ideas and opinions. What we have said is that the way worship is done today is not the way worship is done ten years from now.”

Again and again, those who lead creative people stressed the need for boundaries, but those boundaries must constantly be open for renegotiation. Among highly successful teams, there are high expectations, deadlines, and an emphasis on excellence. The myth that creative people have creative ideas, concepts, and works of art simply flow out of them needs to be busted. Creatives work. Hard. And the best art comes from persistent, dedicated effort within a structured, yet flexible environment.

To some, this appears paradoxical. How can structure and flexibility be held in an appropriate tension? Admittedly, it is a balance. To lead creatives well, freedom cannot be divorced from standards and expectations. Artists want to be held to high standards of excellence, be given the space to express their creativity, and then to be appreciated as the people God has created them to be. There is a fine line here, requiring wisdom, discernment, and sound judgment.

2. Patience, Vision, Craft, and Permission to Fail
A friend of mine named Joey Wilson once recounted a story of his days as a student in the field of graphic design. As part of the learning experience, each creation was laid bare before fellow classmates and artists. When the art was excellent, it was uplifted, but when it was lacking, criticism was given. It was expected. And while there was a great deal of personal and emotional energy invested in the creation, without the give and take of thoughtful criticism, the full potential of the artist could not be realized. This exercise was meant to enhance the artist’s mastery of their craft. There is a lesson here for those who lead and inspire creatives.

Leading creatives who apply their gifts towards the worship experience requires the fostering of an environment where patience, vision, excellence in craftsmanship, and a permission to fail are put on display. If you are seeking to enhance the way the creative gifts in your congregation are being used by your leaders, each of these attributes is essential.

David Arcos of Mosaic relayed an incredibly helpful anecdote regarding the fostering of a creative environment. He told a story of a conversation he had recently with a leader of a very large church with several thousand members, where he had asked this person if they opened up their facility for use by the creative artists currently in their midst. Arcos was shocked when this person replied that within their church “they did not have that kind of talent.”

Arcos went on to say that, surely, within such a large congregation there was a multitude of God-given skills and abilities waiting to be unleashed. If the leaders were able to cast vision for a creative community where people were encouraged to discover and use their gifts, if patience with that process was put on display, and people were given permission to experiment and to fail, then over time those with creative gifts and passions would be able to develop their craft to the glory of God. Sure, Arcos said, initially it may look like “kids art that you put on your refrigerator,” but over time and by God’s grace, growth will take place.

3. Wheresoever the Wind Blows: Attunement to the Holy Spirit
Shawn Wood of Seacoast Church says, “As far as innovation, I feel as though it comes from desperation, when we are desperate to see God move, when we are desperate to see more people changed and connected innovation comes naturally.” When leading creatives, it is critical to shepherd them in their spiritual life, help them to grow, and instill in them a passion for those who have yet to put their faith in Jesus, connect with a church, and commit themselves to a life of Christian discipleship.

Wood and other leaders were all sure to emphasize the importance of a well grounded and vibrant spiritual life when conducting creative leadership and ministry. It was seen as absolutely essential that the Holy Spirit be at work in the lives of the leaders, and that the overflow of what God was doing in the life of the individual could be a boon for creativity within the life of the Body.

4. Every Good and Perfect Gift Comes From Above
In the midst of all the emphasis on innovation, change, and creativity, one thing should not be forgotten–when the church gathers, we do so as a community that has been called to worship God the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. It is by grace that when we assemble, Jesus has given us the assurance that he is among us (Matt. 18:20). This can never be casually overlooked.

Every encounter, every experience, every space we create wherein God is worshipped should be cause for rejoicing. We should never allow ourselves, or the creative people we lead, to lose sight of this reality while planning, executing, and evaluating our gatherings.

Fostering an environment where creative leaders can flourished that is structured, yet flexible, allows space for all to develop their gifts, and is deeply in tune with what God is doing in the midst of the community is a challenge. But the fruit that can result is worth the effort. And the more leaders we have that encourage creative expression inside and outside of the church community, the more opportunities we will have to see the Kingdom of God revealed within our midst.  

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Ben Simpson is a thinker and writer living in the Kansas City area. He’s also a regular contributor to COLLIDE. Follow him on Twitter: @bsimpson.