The Limits of Creativity in Corporate Worship

At WorshipGod09, CJ Mahaney and I were interviewed by Jeff Purswell on various things we’ve learned over the years about worship. I posted the entire clip of the interview in a previous post.

One of the topics we touched on was the place of creativity and excellence when we gather to sing God’s praise. The world around us proclaims unceasingly that God is a creative God. Melodies, harmonies, and  rhythms can be combined in a seemingly endless number of ways to create new tunes to sing to the Savior. Technology has enabled us to do much more, more quickly, and much more effectively for the glory of God and the good of his church.

But if creativity and excellence become the objects of our focus, we’ve moved into idolatry. Here’s an 8 minute clip from the interview where we touch on how to think about creativity when we approach Sunday morning.

30 Responses to The Limits of Creativity in Corporate Worship

  1. KC Clark October 5, 2009 at 8:40 AM #

    THe video is set to private. Can you set it to public so we can view it. I’m very interested in this clip.

    Thanks again,
    KC

  2. William October 5, 2009 at 11:46 AM #

    Attempting to view the video brings up a message that it is a private video requiring the acceptance of the sender’s friend request. Is there a work around? I’d really like to view it.

    Thank you

  3. Tom October 5, 2009 at 12:11 PM #

    seems to have been posted as a private video…?

  4. Kyle October 5, 2009 at 12:17 PM #

    I clicked on the video, and it gives me a message saying it’s a private video, and won’t allow me to see it. Just a heads up that there may be some difficulty for others as well in playing the vid.

  5. Brance Gillihan October 5, 2009 at 3:49 PM #

    Bob,

    The video is set to private, so we can’t watch it.

    What a tease!

    • Bob Kauflin October 5, 2009 at 4:56 PM #

      Sorry about that. It’s public now.

  6. Josue October 6, 2009 at 1:23 AM #

    Love the phrase “Creativity, must serve the congregational singing” That is it…If it is the Goal then it becomes our god…Our only goal is God

  7. JP October 6, 2009 at 9:52 AM #

    Is congregational singing the only way to worship? Sounds like what is being suggested here. How can that be?

    • Bob Kauflin October 6, 2009 at 11:04 AM #

      JP, great question. We were at a conference that focused on the musical worship that takes place in a meeting. We don’t believe for a second, nor does Scripture teach, that the only way to worship God is through singing. But when we DO sing, the goal is that “the word of Christ dwell in our hearts richly” (Col. 3:16), not that creative arrangements dwell in our hearts. Creativity is only helpful in the corporate context as it helps us focus on what we’ve gathered to do – bring glory to God by remembering the gospel and its implications. Feel free to follow up.

  8. JP October 6, 2009 at 11:44 AM #

    Thanks for the reply. I liked your response. I agree that creativity should always help to bring focus to the intended purpose…worship. I have seen expressions of worship other than singing (but done in a corporate setting) that seem to bring about the same desired result. That is, bringing glory to God and leading those around into a deeper desire to see God glorified.

    Thanks for clarifying.

  9. Thomas Clay October 6, 2009 at 1:02 PM #

    I’ve have found that part of the problem with Music Ministers turning their church’s music department into an art display is that they are still hearing their college professors’ voices in their heads. This is especially the challenge in guys who are not that far removed from college (especially if they went to a secular university where classical music reigns supreme). Church music departments are NOT collegiate music programs.

    Don’t get me wrong–church music should be excellent and presented to assist a congregation with as little distraction as possible. But there is a fundamental flaw in making the artistry of church music primary. It must be secondary.

  10. Joshua Smith October 7, 2009 at 1:03 PM #

    Mr. Kauflin,

    I wonder if someone might push back on your assessment of creativity as merely a medium. I have many times heard worship leaders say that as creatures in the image of the Creator, our sub-creations are a good in themselves simply because they reflect that aspect of God’s person. How would you respond?

    • Bob Kauflin October 10, 2009 at 12:46 PM #

      Joshua,

      Thanks for the question. I’d say that outside the corporate gathering of the church our creativity can and should reflect God as the ultimate Creator. But when I’m leading a congregation, I’m responsible to make sure that people are glorifying God and not my creativity. That just means I have to be careful in the way I present things and make sure people are informed, always emphasizing the goal of what I’m seeking to do. Is that helpful?

  11. Jared Ransom October 7, 2009 at 2:07 PM #

    This was very powerful for me.
    “Creativity is not something you do, it’s a way you do something.”
    “[creativity] must be subordinate to the [gospel].”

    It really drove home that the priority of our positions is to preach the gospel through the songs that we as the church sing. For me I know this means that I must be more critical in the songs that I choose. Simply picking a song because it fits stylistically or is and easy transition or has a keyword from the sermon in it, isn’t good enough. What we are doing is too important to simply let temporal things be decisive about the church body responds to the revelation of God.

    These clips have been such a blessing. Thank you for sharing them with us.

    -Jared

  12. Brance Gillihan October 8, 2009 at 10:05 AM #

    Thanks for sharing this Bob.

    The discussion was a great reminder of how easy it is for us to slip into the “let’s be creative” mindset. Keeping the focus on the content/person of the gospel and the purpose of affecting people with the gospel, is something we need to be reminded of often.

    That applies well beyond just the singing in the church, but also to the preaching, the graphic design, and every other aspect of the “things” we do as a church.

    Constant and consistent gospel intentionality.

  13. Matt Stephens October 10, 2009 at 1:06 AM #

    Bob,

    Thanks for the post. I tend strongly toward creativity and get bored very quickly with songs if there is not a significant diet of variety programmed in. I agree that creativity for creativity’s sake is worshipping created things (or abilities) rather than our Creator, and that everything we do in church must exalt God and edify those present. That said, more churches than not (in my experience) err on the side of safety, security, and comfort. Worship becomes a cozy, familiar, and self-soothing experience that ends up predictable and trite. I think there is a balance between worship that is so “transcendent” that it is inaccessible and worship that is so “imminent” that it produces over-comfort in God’s presence. One of the things I learned from the Passion guys years back is that worship leaders/teams/planners have to keep worshippers on their toes, expectant of surprise, confident of God’s love for them, but awestruck by His majesty… rejoicing with trembling.

    Another issue re: creativity that I’ve noticed is that the amount of creativity that is edifying depends on the congregation. If your church is full of creative, adventurous people, they’re going to be deflated by static artistic expression and “top 75″ song lists. If they’re older and more inclined toward the familiar/traditional, obviously you have to take that into account (while still challenging them!).

    Anyhow, I’m certain none of this is fresh insight to you! You’re the man!

    • Bob Kauflin October 10, 2009 at 12:44 PM #

      Matt, thanks for the good thoughts. Whether a church is made up of non-creative or creative people, our goal is still be the same – to make the glory of God in Christ bigger in people’s hearts, minds, and wills. That requires knowing your people well and preaching and applying the gospel consistently.

  14. Thomas Clay October 12, 2009 at 12:38 PM #

    Bob, in response to Joshua’s question, you hit the nail on the head in that there is a difference between individual worship (worship in private) and corporate worship. Each has unique characteristics and I don’t see or hear of many who are teaching on them.

  15. Mark Pettigrew October 12, 2009 at 9:05 PM #

    I thought that Matt Stephens’ comments were very insightful.

    I’m personally inclined to think that creativity is one of the means with which we make a strong spiritual statement. We Christians of all people ought to be more creative than anyone else, inasmuch as we have a greater awareness of the fact that we are created in the image of the Creator! Instead, the phrase “Christian music” is still a synonym for “second rate music” in the minds of many unbelievers, who have observed with great accuracy that many believers see music as something which has little or no value in itself.

    Music is treated by some believers as if its only value is its utilitarian value for the purpose of making verbal statements (in the form of lyrics) more memorable. This affects the types of music which are allowed or encouraged.

    Allowing Christian instrumental musicians to take solos is considered by some to be a distraction which takes people’s minds off of God because they don’t happen to be singing at the time. I don’t see it that way. When a superb Christian instrumentalist such as Phil Keaggy or Kerry Livgren performs a beautiful solo, I think that glorifies God every bit as much as a vocal solo or a great performance by a vocal group like Glad. The scriptures say that Jesus wanted people to see our good works and thereby glorify God in heaven. Whatever we do, we are to do to the glory of God. If you were invited to give a command performance for the Lord, would you give it anything less than your all? I know that I wouldn’t! I don’t believe that glorifying God and appreciating the special gifts of creativity with which God has endowed some of his people are mutually exclusive. And I think that we get into real trouble when pastors and other Christian leaders start judging Christians as “anointed” or “not anointed” based on their extremely subjective impressions regarding whether or not those musicians seem to enjoy the fact that congregational members appreciate the excellence of their musical contributions. We will never regain the cultural ground which we as Christians have lost until we stop equating mediocrity with spirituality.

    None of this is to say that Christian musicians shouldn’t seek to be humble and to keep the primary focus on God during worship services. But I think that it’s presumptuous for others to think that they can judge musicians’ hearts based on the form which their presentations take, and potentially damaging inasmuch as such attitudes serve as a strong disincentive for musicians to do their very best.

  16. Kyle Campos October 14, 2009 at 12:18 PM #

    Bob,

    I really appreciated CJ and your comments on this topic and I think you guys were spot on. One thing I would add though is I think we have to show the same wisdom and thought on simplicity as we do for creativity.

    Creativity and simplicity are both utilities in communicating the gospel. Both have the potential to be effective or ineffective. Both are equally dangerous when used inappropriately or haphazardly. The dangers may be unique for both ends of the spectrum but they are common in that they either clarify or confuse, magnify or mute the message.

    Those are my $0.02, again appreciate you, your ministry and your wisdom on this topic.

    God bless.

    • Bob Kauflin October 14, 2009 at 1:57 PM #

      Great point, Kyle. Simplicity, in a different way, can be unhelpful to effective communication or even become an idol.

  17. Ted Vaughn October 21, 2009 at 12:15 AM #

    I think creativity is more critical to the gathered worshipping community than I’m hearing expressed in your responses. While content and gospel proclamation are significant, I put the demonstration of the creative beauty of God on just as high a level for corporate worship. Creativity should be one of the metrics that we measure success by. Creativity is core to our gatherings because we are co-creators with God – because He is more diverse and beautiful than any one cultural setting might ever be able to express – and many who attend our services connect with God through the creative bridges much more than the intellectual (which content and doctrine suggest). It sounds rather limiting and doctrinally restrictive to marginalize creativity under the banner of content/doctrinal soundness….as if creativity is more prone to becoming and idol. Frankly, I believe many churches have elevated doctrine and content interpretation to idolatry. Perhaps it sounds uber liberal to say this, but often I find our concerns with doctrine and content to be limiting more than freeing.

  18. Danielle March 25, 2010 at 8:16 PM #

    Just found this today–great post and feedback. I fully agree with what Mark P. and others had to say about the importance of creativity. If we lack creativity (whether in music, art, thought, etc) we have the potential to reflect a God who is stale, dull, and lacking creativity Himself. When in reality we (who are created in His image) serve the ultimate creator. Our worship should reflect this creativity and in doing so bring glory to God. “stop equating mediocrity with spirituality.”

    I think it’s possible to sing a song on a Sunday morning, that is creative, has content, and is still accessible for the congregation. Creativity does not have to equal complexity. Not to say that our primary goal should simply be to do something creative, but I believe it should be an important aspect. God is not boring, why should our worship of Him be? Ultimately, everyone has differing levels of talent, skill, and creativity, but we can all move forward from where we are at now. I think God loves when we look to Him for inspiration. I think He’s just waiting to speak a new lyric to us that hasn’t been written and re-written a thousand times, and a melody that strikes at the heart of believers and unbelievers alike. He makes ALL things new:)

  19. Samuel Ajose June 4, 2010 at 8:24 AM #

    Just got this link today and I find it very educative and expository. Creativity should not only be our focus in worship, however its a vital factor in making the songs we use during worship more participatory to the congregation. A song that is poorly done may have its message stuck by the wayside as today’s worshippers have high tatse for the kind of music that encourages them to participate in worship.

  20. Darby Hughes July 21, 2010 at 9:57 AM #

    Thought this video was very helpful, especially for musicians who bring their artistic standards and expectations into the church. I admit that I struggled with an over-focus on creativity greatly until I was challenged to rethink my view of the church… not as a place where my standards and ideals can be expressed, but where God’s truth is set forth and believed. I did have one concern, though… at the end of the video, I think it was CJ who said that the idea that we must be creative is a cultural, non-essential idea. It seems to me that since creativity is an attribute of God the Creator, it is a quality that is part of being God-like or godly. It seems to me that we are to be imitators of God in whatever ways we can, so creativity is essential. The mistake would be to say that in church services, creativity is of greater importance than other things… proportion (like CJ said)

  21. Kimberly Brown March 3, 2011 at 12:27 PM #

    This is awesome!!!!!…very clear and very pointed!

  22. kurtdavidf March 20, 2012 at 5:58 PM #

    Bob, just found this while trying to gather some thoughts and ideas for my own blog.
    I have questions and thoughts running through my head about what I just listened to, maybe it is partly due to it only being a small clip and it being at a Worship conference focused on Musical part of it.

    But I was almost thrown off my chair when I heard the saying,” it must be focused on congregational singing. “(and I have read the comments)
    My current struggle is this… we worship an outrageously creative God. (look around)
    And I feel like the only creativity we tend to see on a Sunday morning in most churches is how many different ways we can “revamp” a hymn.

    I agree with a lot of what was said, about how we don’t want people to walk away going on about how creative we were, but rather the text and God’s glory and goodness.

    The struggle I am having is, I am a musician. I love music, and it does amazing things for my soul. I connect with God in a special way in music.
    However, I have a wife, who is a dancer and loves movement… and does not connect with music the way I do. She would rather dance her heart out in the aisles or see more movement from the front.

    How do we create or allow for the use of all the sense (and then some) in out worship?
    To just do music, or just do prayer… seems like we are putting our worship into this box, that limits us and others.
    I have a friend who loves to paint, I know other people can connect with pictures and paintings, but we still sing every Sunday.
    How do we balance?
    Should we balance?
    I feel like it is my calling and my privilege to work to provide spaces for the community, that allow them to experience God and worship God in different ways.
    Because the way I connect may not be the way they connect.
    Maybe I am driving myself mad, but I feel like 4-5 song every week becomes a cop-out.

    I want people to become open to the idea that there are sooo many ways to worship God, it does not have to be this one way.

    Thoughts?

    • Bob Kauflin March 20, 2012 at 10:27 PM #

      Kurt, thanks for stopping by. I’m not going to be able to do justice to your question, which is an excellent one, but here are some thoughts.

      In Scripture, Whenever God’s people the emphasis is never on our own creativity or expression so much as on the greatness and glory of God and his saving work and our response to it. For a long time that involved primarily sacrifices and prayers. When David came along he introduced the element of music. In the New Testament the emphasis is on the word of Christ, singing being one means by which we communicate that word to each other (Col. 3:16). God’s creativity can be seen in art, dance, creation, musical innovation, technology, etc., but when the church gathers, our aim is to re-present the gospel in the presence of God and each other for his glory and our good. Too much creativity and we lose the focus of what we’ve gathered to do.

      We sing because God has told us to sing over 50 times in Scripture. It’s not a matter of competing with the arts. If that were the case, we’d have people writing novels during the meeting, making pots, working on house plans, etc. These are all valid artistic expressions. But God has chosen music, and particularly singing, as the primary artistic expression that takes place when we gather as his people. Of course, music is always meant to serve the Word, which has been central to God meeting with his people from the very beginning.

      That’s a start. Feel free to follow up with more thoughts. These are invigorating conversations.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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