5 Guidelines to Creative Expression in Church

In Part 1, I gave some Biblical and practical context as to why we would use lights creatively in our worship environment. In this post, I want to address some of the questions and concerns we’ve received, as well as some of the helpful guidelines we’ve chosen to follow while experimenting with lighting. The quotes I use are not all direct quotes, but will communicate the heart behind the questions and concerns.

n-TEEN-PLAYING-GUITAR-628x314Do we really need this?
“But wait, Daniel! We don’t need any of these things to encounter Jesus, do we?!? We don’t even need electricity or a building.” You’re exactly right. We don’t need any of this stuff to experience Jesus in powerful ways. We never want to lose sight of that. However, I don’t believe God needed all of his lights to communicate what He did. Or did He? We’ll never know for sure, but that’s how he chose to do it. Again, our God loves creative expression and as image-bearers, we are destined to be the same.

Can’t you take this too far?
Of course, but our goal is not to see how far we can go. Have we gone too far with lighting? Unfortunately, sometimes we have. There are times when our intent was to communicate and enhance the message of a song, and instead, we distracted people and pulled them out of the very experience we were trying to help them have. We’ve learned from these experiences, listened to feedback, and adjusted along the way. There’s also immense subjectivity when it comes to lighting…well, when it comes to most things actually. You can always find strong opinions on every side of the spectrum. See what I did there? Spectrum? Light? Ok. 🙂

20150404Sat-2We have had many people come up and say,  “Wow, when you did that with the lights, it helped me connect with God in a way I haven’t before. I was in awe of God! And those words have a deeper meaning to me now.” Others have shared it was distracting and made them disconnect. So what do we do? Take a poll? Majority rules? Is there a way to balance this? 🙂

This is where the challenge I mentioned in Part 1 comes in. Subjectivity. If we try to tailor to everyone’s preference, we wouldn’t be able to do anything new because everyone believes and wants something different. So here are some guidelines that have helped us on this journey of exploring creativity:

1. Unite With Leadership

Since we can’t accommodate everyone’s preferences, we’ve decided to work closely with our executive leadership team and other pastors. If we’re all in agreement or at least have understanding, then we can move forward. Jesus has put us in these roles for a reason and we must trust that if he wants to move us somewhere, he’s going to move us together.  Of course, there are outside influences that help us, but ultimately, it’s our decision. Our leadership likes the direction we’ve been going in music, stage design, lighting, etc., but they also have the freedom to share constructive feedback, which is key to real unity.

We also seek Jesus together, ask him how to navigate these new waters, and then experiment with what we believe will enhance people’s encounter with him. When we go too far, we adjust. We’re not going for a rock ‘n roll light show, we’re attempting to enhance a message and help people encounter the truth (Jesus) at a deeper and more profound level. When we write a song that’s too hard for people sing, we take it back and simplify it. Similarly, when a lighting design distracts rather than engages, we simplify.

2. Embrace Feedback

Feedback is our friend. A strong value for us is to remain open to feedback, and not just from our executive leadership team, but from everyone. For example, in worship, I like to hear from three groups of people: the worshiper/musicians (they love to worship and they play/sing and lead), the worshiper/non-musicians (they love to worship, but can’t play/sing), and the non-worshiper/non-musician (they appreciate worship but don’t necessarily get very excited about it). Obviously, not every voice has the same weight, but every voice has value. There are many people that suggest all kinds of music that we should sing, from country, to gospel, to you name it. This is a challenge, for sure. However, we always want to listen and weigh what people are saying and the experience they’re having, and then decide as a team what to do or not do.

In our lighting, we carry this same value. Feedback is our friend. We take this feedback to the team and ultimately, Jesus, and see if it is something we need to consider. For me, constructive feedback has really helped me clarify the why.

3. Focus on the Why (Vision/Values)

Every decision is important, but answering why is up near the top of the list. As we’ve delved into more creative expressions on our stage and in our worship, we’ve had to wrestle with why. In this process, opposition can actually be very helpful, if you’re open to it. For instance, some of our Vineyard values involve simplicity, genuineness, and authenticity. As you might think, when we start to design our stage and orchestrate lighting to help communicate the powerful message in the songs, it can come up against simplicity and maybe even authenticity. What are we trying to accomplish? Are we drawing attention to ourselves or to Jesus? Although the answer to this is very subjective, it actually caused me to look throughout scripture. Is this biblical in any way?

Copy of DSC_4371Obviously, I’ve mentioned two examples in the New Testament, but the Old Testament also has many examples of creative expression that glorifies God. Although they didn’t have lights like we do, Solomon’s Temple was adorned with gold, gems, pearls, etc. Today, it would cost 57 million to build. Is that extravagant? You bet it is! New Testament churches throughout the centuries have been adorned with art, stained glass, and are housed in massive cathedrals. But the big question is…why? I believe one answer is to inspire; to leave us in awe and wonder of our amazing God, to glorify Him. Can that be turned to point toward the created thing rather than the Creator? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we don’t explore new ways to exalt Him.

The executive pastor from Church On The Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma explained his why at a conference once. He said, “if you can go to concerts and performances and be wowed and inspired by all that they do creatively, why can’t we inspire with the same creativity in church and for Jesus? I wanted to create a place where the best things people see and experience are coming out of church, not a rock concert.” Now that’s paraphrased, but once I heard that explanation, I understood his why and everything they do made more sense. For his kids, the coolest things they’ve ever seen creatively have come from Church On The Move’s Christmas Eve services. Is that why for me and for our church? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the call on our church, even though there are some elements we may incorporate into our worship experience. But focusing your why is imperative and leads you into your calling.

4. Steward Your Calling

The why intimately connects with your calling. Who has God called us to be and what has He called us to do? It comes down to stewardship. What is in you to be released? I know when I stepped into this role, I didn’t have a vision to have lights, haze, cameras, streaming live, etc. Jesus said something very simple to me when I first started in this role: “I just want you to worship me, and I’ll take care of the rest.” At the time, I knew he meant to not change team members or worry about the worship environment. He would take care of it. This was really good for me as I had very strong opinions and wanted to change things right away. 🙂  Jesus was so right and for my first year, that’s what I did. Of course, with any calling, you’re always unpacking the next steps with him relationally.

For us, I believe Jesus is calling us to embrace the arts and different creative expressions of worship in order to help people more fully and more deeply connect with the Father. Initially, I wasn’t completely open to this because as you can imagine, there are many ways that the arts can go wrong.

IMG_3529Here’s one lovely example when we started experimenting with lights 3 years ago. 😉 We affectionately call this our “saw blades of death” phase. Um, yeah. Moment of silence.

Even though this was rough, I believed Jesus was asking us to explore this area, although it could potentially put some of our values at risk. As we dialogued with the senior leadership, they loved the idea. Of course, our high value for excellence was there, but we probably have a higher value to explore what Jesus is calling us to be and do. Obviously, we’ve come a long way thanks to our production crew, led by Chris Ratcliff and Jonathan Rasch.

DSC_3506

In 2013, this direction was further clarified when we welcomed Bob Hazlett in for a conference, a very gifted person in the prophetic. In one of the leaders’ meetings, Bob prophesied over everyone and one of the things he said to me was, “Daniel, God is allowing you to implement dreams that you have had for a long time. I see a studio being built that will release new songs. And some are things on video, some of it choreographed. I see dance and colors and lights.

The first part of the word was right on. However, the second part, dance, colors, and lights, I wasn’t sure about. But hey, prophesy is an invitation to prayer. You take words like that, continue to pray about them, and wait for Jesus to show you more. He has to make it happen anyway, right? Without even pursuing it, IMG_9980organically things began to fall into place. Our creative director came on board. We began to explore dance and worship movement in our Creative Nights. I’m still not sure where we will end up, but we’re experimenting and exploring our expression of worship and definitely adjusting as we go.

One thing I do want to say about this though. If we’ve jarred you out of worship one weekend, we are sincerely sorry. I can’t promise you that it won’t happen again. What I can promise is that we’re taking your feedback seriously, weighing and discussing it, and asking Jesus to guide us through this creative process, and trying again. 🙂

5. Take the best and go

You must know this is not the first discussion on this topic.  Every generation is looking for deeper connection with Jesus. What works for one generation doesn’t always work for the next, as we saw in the “worship wars” of the 90s. If we learn anything from history though, we know that Jesus is for new expressions of worship. From hymns to worship songs, from incense to haze and lights, every generation explores and connects with Jesus differently. Unfortunately, many can become so attached with the way they connect and worship, they can become critical of other expressions.

savebestandgo“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43) We must remember that religious tradition is different than relationship. John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard, said a powerful phrase, “Take the best and go.” Meaning, don’t get stuck in your tradition or the way you’ve always done something. But take the things that really matter (your values) and move forward. We never want to leave behind our values of authenticity and genuineness for the sake of a lighting expression. On the opposite side, we can’t be afraid to express worship in a new way for fear of losing authenticity. Our God is relational, dynamic, and we’re always discovering new and amazing wonders as we interact with Him.

Thanks for reading. I hope these two posts have been helpful in giving you some of the context for why and the guidelines we’re using to explore new expressions of worship. It’s amazing to co-create with a creative God!

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