Creativity in Worship: A Matrix (1 of 2)

We just launched a new website called Unleashing Creativity here at Imago Dei. Definitely check it out (and great job Paul Ramey & the Worship & Arts crew!) It's paired with a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of last year’s Good Friday service, intended to help spark conversations on how we as churches can encourage, equip and unleash artists, in both church and culture, and meaningfully integrate the arts in our life as the body of Christ. In honor of the launch I wanted to reflect here on creativity in the particular context of worship.
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Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of writing some of our worship songs at Imago Dei and spearheading one of our worship teams. I’ve often been asked what my goals are when crafting these for the life of our church body. While I by no means have it all figured out, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here.

First off, a caveat: I know, I know, worship is much more than the music we sing on Sunday morning. Worship is a posture and it involves the fullness of our life before God. But we shouldn’t minimize music: it holds something significant in the life of God’s people, as the centrality of the Psalms in Israel’s worshipping life attests to.

So, when writing a song or preparing creative elements for a service, there’s a grid I’m running things through, a matrix of three different values I have in mind. While I by no means hit them perfectly, they’re the target I’m aiming for, the bar I’m trying to raise, the goal I’m striving to reach.

These three values are:

  • Theological depth
  • Poetic imagination
  • Congregational accessibility

Let’s take a look at each

Theological Depth

Our music should give us a rich vision of the God we are gathered to worship. Contemporary worship music, I’ve found, can often tend to be very “me-centered”: focused on my experience and emotions. We’ll express how God makes us feel, ask God to show up in our endeavors, declare what we’re going to do for God.

While I don’t want to deny a personal aspect to worship, I think this can be very lopsided. Especially when our music frequently tells us little to nothing about who God is: the very character, quality and actions that would inspire us to worship.

So when orchestrating creative elements for our worship services, one of my goals is to swing the pendulum from “me-centered” to “God-centered”: to landing a heavier emphasis on declaring who God is, exploring God’s character and celebrating what God’s done.

The target, in other words, is to infuse our vocabulary with theological depth, a rich vision of the One we’ve come to worship.

Musical Icons

Back in the Middle Ages, icons played an important role that was not only aesthetic but also educational. Most folks were illiterate and, though they might not be able to read, they could look upon the pictures. And the pictures were rich with meaning, loaded with deep theological symbols.

  • That picture of Abraham’s three visitors? That’s actually a window into the nature of the Trinity, and it’s significant because . . .
  • That resurrection image? Those are actually Adam and Eve being lifted out of their graves, and it means this . . .
  • Does Jesus’ face in this one seem to have two different expressions going on? It does, and here’s why . . .

Without ever going to seminary, the common person could carry these pictures in their mental imagination as a window to look through, to learn, remember and understand about God. The theology embedded in some of these icons, I’ve found, can run deeper than many popular understandings of Christianity today.

And it was accessible to everyone.

I would suggest music can function somewhat similarly today: furnishing the architecture of our imagination with a vocabulary of God. Our people may not read deep theological tomes, and should not need to, but they carry songs with them through the week, and our Creator can creatively empower a rich vision of himself through the music of his people.

A Rich Vision of God

There is a tremendous opportunity here, in my opinion, to saturate our collective life in a rich vision of God. I remember once hearing Rich Mullins say to the effect,

How many of Wesley’s sermons do you remember? For most of us it’s none. How many of Wesley’s hymns do you know? Most folks recognize a ton. And we’ve learned a lot about God through them.

Music has force. Now, Mullins’ comment could be taken too far if it’s taken to subvert the centrality of the Word. There’s something powerful that happens in the preaching and proclamation of the Word, through the power of the Spirit, week-in & week-out as we saturate ourselves in the story of God–even if we don’t remember the words a year later. And this something comes prior to our response in worship.

Yet Mullins’ observation is significant: there’s a powerful opportunity in our music to give us a collective voice as the people of God in response and adoration, and a rich vision of the God we adore. And there’s something lamentable when we miss this chance.

Our music is more than a vehicle for personal expression, it is an opportunity to encounter afresh our Creator.

Diving Deep

So when I feel stuck with creative elements, here’s an exercise I’ve used in the past to stir my imagination. I pull out the pad & paper and begin to brainstorm around: “Who is God?” Pretty quickly, a long list can emerge: Creator, Father, Redeemer, Resurrection and the Life, Shepherd, the Way, Groom, Pursuer, Bread of Life, Water of Life, King, Lamb, Deliverer . . . the list goes on.

Then I’ll pick one that seems pertinent to where I’m at in life or where our church is at in this season, and ask, “If this is who God is, what does this say about our relationship with him?” God as Father evokes the image of us as his children. God as Deliverer evokes us in slavery and bondage. God as Creator evokes awe and dignity in his image. Shepherd places us as his sheep. Resurrection finds us in the grave of death . . . and so on.

Then (and here’s the important part) pick one. Songs and creative elements are much more powerful when they dive deep into one theme, rather than skim across the surface of many. To use an extreme example, a weak song would go, “God you are my Father, the Lamb, the Resurrection and the Bread, the Water and the Way…” There is a flood of images rushing past you, but no time to enter into and engage the significance of what they mean.

Don’t be like a skipping stone flitting across the surface on the ocean of who God is, touching points of entry but never actually sinking down into the depths and riches of his goodness. Instead, consider yourself a deep sea diver, putting on your scuba gear and settling in on one location, then jump head-first, dive down deep and explore that particular area of the sea until you hit the ocean floor (which, by the way, you never actually hit).

And as you dive down, swim around, and explore the depths, try and do so with poetic imagination . . . which brings me to the second point on my “creativity matrix” for worship services. Since this post became longer than expected, I’ll save that for a next post, where we’ll look at poetic imagination and congregational accessibility.

Until then, be sure to check out the new Unleashing Creativity website and documentary here.

Author: "The Skeletons in God's Closet." Pastor: Imago Dei Community. Husband, Father, Foster Parent.

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