Worshipping a creative God

by Shawna Bowman

Creative. 
Experimental. 
Curious. 
Bold. 
Inviting. 
Formative. 

These are the words I want folks who visit the church I serve to use when describing worship.

But … it’s a challenge when the dominate narrative about worship insists over and over again that we Presbyterians are the frozen chosen and that worship is boring — or at the very least predictable. How did we get here? How did we get from Jacob’s sun-rising poured out oil, Miriam’s seaside dancing and Joshua’s sacred art-installation of 12 stones in the midst of the Jordan to this safe and staid celebration of the Word and sacraments we call worship?

We often refer to God in prayer as Creator God, but rarely do we worship our Creative God. Our ancestors paint with vivid imagination about our origins in Genesis describing a divine creative being with imagination, curiosity and the heart of an artist. And isn’t that what we’re all called to be? Co-creators, artists, imaginers of a new way? A new kind of life?

So how do we emulate this God in worship? How do we integrate creativity, imagination and the arts into worship in a way that moves beyond illustration and into transformation?

We must begin by integrating the arts from the beginning of our worship planning process. Preachers and worship leaders (myself included!) sometimes fall into a rut, realizing partway through the week that the liturgy must be crafted and the music added in order to print the bulletin (often just in time!). Then, the sermon gets written. If there’s a creative element, it’s an afterthought. And it’s unsustainable. If we truly believe the transformative power of the Holy Spirit moves through all of our senses, if we truly believe in incarnational theology and embodied faith, how better to celebrate and engage it than with a multisensory worship experience?

Paintings for Holy Week

Practicing the creative process
What would it look like to invite creative types — whether artists, musicians, poets or crafters — to collaborate with us from the start? Don’t put them on a committee, but invite them to brainstorm on the Scripture and themes being cultivated for worship. Ask them to consider what words, images and music come to mind. Invite them to consider the space of worship. What colors, images, objects or art might deepen worshippers’ experience? Invite them to take on existing elements of worship and to add texture or layers of meaning through art.

Worship space windows painted for Advent
Worship space windows painted for Advent

One of the most transformative things that artists have to offer our congregations and in worship is the gift of the creative process. Anxiety around worship is high in so many congregations. We’ve come to believe that the future sustainability of our community lies within worship. What if it’s not perfect? What if the music is off-key? What if visitors don’t like the style? How do we get more folks to attend? How do we get them to stay? These questions plague pastors and leaders and make us afraid to take risks in worship.

Here’s the good news: While many of our churches are risk adverse, most artists aren’t. The artist knows that risk and failure are a necessary part of the process. In any artist studio — ceramic, painting, recording, weaving or otherwise — artists know they will make a lot of trash as they move towards success. In fact, the artist knows the only way forward is through failure — one must practice to learn the right tempo, the right key, the right consistency. And isn’t this the perfect metaphor for worship? Which is the key spiritual practice of God’s people?

During Lent, worshippers were invited to add words to the wall that reflected their expanding understanding.
During Lent, worshippers were invited to add words to the wall that reflected their expanding understanding.

What if we invited our congregations to a season of experimentation, a season of practice? What is one element of worship in your community that could be turned over to your creative types to play with? One of the simplest places to start is the communion table. The communion table is already a sacred art installation, often hidden in plain sight, central to the worshipping life of the community. Recently at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago, where I am the pastor, we collaborated on the theme of feasting. We worked our way through the stories of Jesus breaking bread with everyone from outcasts and sinners to Pharisees and friends. Each week for 10 weeks a different individual or family in the community brought their place settings and tableware from home and set the communion table to look like their dining room table. Then, instead of a traditional call to worship, we told table stories from our own lives. We heard funny stories about meals gone awry and unexpected guests; we heard poignant stories about last meals and treasured recipes. The table was transformed each week and we were invited into the kitchens and dining rooms of our members. We were invited into their homes through the simple act of setting the table.

Creation Lab
I know the words “experiment” and “risk” are scary ones in some settings. And for many of us there is a limit to what we can try — even in the most open congregations. Some of our ideas need fleshing out, and some are not the right fit for the context of our current call. There is a deep need for folks who want to deepen their own experience with art making, worship and theological ideas. There is a hunger in our communities and in our pastoral leadership for collaboration and a space to share ideas or work together on projects that inform our ministry and pastoral identities.

lab logo 2In Chicago we are creating a space for folks who want to experiment at the intersection of faith and art. We are calling it Creation Lab. Recently awarded a start up grant of $10,000 in the form of a Dream Grant from the PC(USA), we will be opening our doors in January of 2016.

Creation Lab is the outgrowth of gatherings in our living rooms for craft nights and shared meals. It is the dream of creative and justice-seeking pastors and our spouses on a quest for a space that will inspire and renew us in our ministries and give us the energy and courage to keep on trying new things. It is a laboratory space designed to invite experimentation, collaboration, community involvement and mutual teaching and learning. In its infancy, it will be a working studio located in the Kildair Studio building on Chicago’s west side where we will offer open studio times, workshops and opportunities to participate in art-making and creative projects. As it develops, we will experiment with a co-op model in order to utilize the space and collaborate with others.

Creation Lab founders include Jennie Martin, Alex Wirth, Megan Cochran, Shelley Donaldson, Tara Thompson and myself. We are artists, pastors, community organizers, theater and event directors, justice-seeking lawyers and youth leaders. Each of our professional contexts has given us insight into the life of the church. While we are serving vibrant, life-giving and growing congregations, we also know that for real and dramatic change to take place in the life of the church as whole there must be spaces where risk-taking and innovation can take root. At Creation Lab, we are creating a place for experimentation, for collaboration, for risking failure and for birthing new ideas that we can share with the communities we serve as well as the wider church.

Collaboration and experimentation are the marks of entrepreneurial and vibrant leadership in today’s society; the Creation Lab will be a place we can practice and hone these skills and invite our colleagues in ministry to do the same. The Dream Grant poses this question to applicants: How will this initiative venture connect to one of the DREAM Grant definitions (i.e. Developmental, Risky, Experimental, Adaptive Mission)? It was our favorite question!

We are using the idea of skunkworks as a model for our Creation Lab. A skunkworks project is one developed by a small, loosely structured group who research and develop the project primarily for the sake of radical innovation. One of the most important parts of a skunkworks project is the emphasis on experimentation. It is not a place where new ideas or products are perfected; it is the place of dreaming, trying and creating. That’s not to say nothing will come of our collaborative efforts, but it does mean that failure will not be the enemy. We may develop liturgy or music that falls flat when used in a worship setting. We may build an art installation for a communion service in a park that doesn’t get utilized the way we intended. We may develop an idea for publishing a zine and find that there’s another, better way to get resources in the hands of people in the process. These are great failures because they push us to be even more creative, even more innovative the next time around. Creation Lab is founded on the concepts of developmental, risky, experimental and adaptive mission!

Here is what we believe: Christians should be the best at seeing the impossible. But, here in the church in North America — specifically in institutions like ours — we’re not. At Creation Lab, we strive to be on that cutting edge. Instead of trying to catch up, we want to skip ahead. We want to become the church’s advanced research lab: a skunkworks.

A skunkworks functions fast and light with relative autonomy from the parent organization, pulling talented people out of corporate structures, giving them creative freedom and expecting radical innovation. Skunkworks labs have become so important to the way companies innovate that many are doing away with their special skunk works divisions and running their whole businesses on this model. (Creation Lab Manifesto, 2015)

What are the opportunities for creativity and experimentation in your community? Where do you go to nourish your own creative spirit? How can we at Creation Lab connect with you, share what we’re learning or collaborate together? Let us know at creationlabchicago@gmail.com or on Twitter at @createlabchi.

Shawna Bowman
Shawna Bowman

SHAWNA BOWMAN is an artist and pastor currently serving at the quirky and amazing Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago. She is also co-founder of Creation Lab, an experimental art collective trying lots of things at the intersection of faith and arts.

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