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The church as creative space

For Outlook's May 2023 issue, Editor/Publisher Teri McDowell Ott thinks about innovation.

When I need some creative inspiration, I often pull The Writer’s Desk off my shelf. It’s an old book, full of black- and-white photographs of famous writers at work. Toni Morrison sits on a couch with a spiral-bound notebook and pen. Kurt Vonnegut is barefoot and crouched over some sort of atlas. Nikki Giovanni sits before her typewriter and a wall of photographs of family and friends. Joan Didion’s desk is set up in her bedroom because she has to sleep in the same room with the book she’s writing.

Space is important to creatives. My desk – which must always face a window – holds some special objects that ground me: an old pincushion of my mother’s and a small, unopened bottle of Irish Whiskey labeled “Writers’ Tears.”

As I recruited articles for this Outlook issue on innovative and adaptive ministries, I considered how the church makes space for creatives and creative ideas. Often, those who feel called to non-traditional ministries outside of the parish are made to feel as if they don’t fit, that their ministries are not valid, and sometimes unfortunately referred to as “not real ministry.” Pushed to the parachurch margins, individuals whom God has called to serve as chaplains, camp and conference directors, religious educators, or faith-based entrepreneurs often feel isolated and ignored by the broader church.

But the church would be wise to pay attention to people doing ministry differently. If the institutional church is to survive the changing religious landscape of our new, post-Christendom era, we will need a church reimagined, a systemic overhaul that taps into an entrepreneurial, imaginative and creative spirit. In his book Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World, Dustin D. Benac studies Christian communities in the Pacific Northwest — a region of the country researchers have named the “None Zone” because of its lack of religious identification. Unlike other parts of the country, where churches can still get by on old models, Christian communities in the Pacific Northwest are experimenting, collaborating and innovating within a secular landscape. Through Adaptive Church, Benac encourages an ecclesial imagination and offers examples of collaborative Christian partnerships, or “hubs,” that create new space and structures for “God’s ongoing creative and recreative work.”

This issue of the Outlook not only features Benac’s writing, but a host of innovators seeking new models of ministry. God’s creative and re-creative spirit is alive and at work through a youth ministry program prioritizing marginalized young people, a church building converted into affordable housing, Presbyterians organizing to give land back to its Indigenous community, and a church built within a video game.

In The Writer’s Desk, Toni Morrison described how she approached the creative process. She awakened while it was still dark to make a cup of coffee, then sat with her notebook to “watch the light come.” This was Morrison’s ritual, her preparation to enter a space that she called “nonsecular.” It’s a mysterious process, she confessed, but if she was present for the dawn’s transition from night to day, she felt herself becoming a conduit for the light.

By attending to the transitions of our world and our religious landscape, the church can continue to be a conduit for the light of Christ. But we must rise to the occasion, encourage the creatives among us, and attend to the new ways the light can shine through us.