Stewarding creativity in honor of Christ
There are ways of doing ministry that no one has thought of yet.
That core conviction is what gets me up early and keeps me up late. It’s the essence of incarnation, the quintessence of innovation. It’s also a stewardship issue. Creativity isn’t optional, not if we’re serious about conforming to the image of Christ. Creativity is the natural, supernatural byproduct of a Spirit-filled life.
I’ll get practical in a hurry because spirituality is practicality. But first, let me share a brief theology of creativity. God first reveals himself as Creator, and creativity is what He calls us to do six days a week. On the seventh day, we recalibrate. Creativity is one dimension of the image of God, and its epicenter is right-brain imagination.
Specific regions of the human brain are responsible for different neurological functions. The visual cortex handles all input from the optic nerve. The posterior hippocampus stores spatial memory. The medial ventral prefrontal cortex is the seat of humor. Whether you’re humming a hit from the 80s, solving a Sudoku or interpreting facial expressions, there is a unique part of the brain that is responsible for performing those tasks.
The church ought to be the most creative place on the planet.
The brain comprises two hemispheres: the right brain and left brain. Approximately 300 million nerve fibers that make up the corpus callosum connect those two hemispheres.
Think of the hemispheres of the brain as parallel processors. They overlap in function, but they also handle distinct tasks. This is a gross simplification of something that is divinely complex, but the left brain is the logical half, while the right brain is the creative half.
Now juxtapose brain topography with Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Loving God with half your mind doesn’t cut it. Half-minded is no better than half-hearted. God wants to sanctify your right-brain imagination so you can see visions and dream dreams. It will also take your leadership to another level.
Out of Imagination
Neuroimaging has shown that as we age, the center of cognitive gravity tends to shift from the imaginative right brain to the logical left brain. That neurological tendency presents a grave spiritual danger for leaders: At some point, most of us stop living out of imagination and start living out of memory. Instead of creating the future, we start repeating the past. Instead of living by faith, we start living by logic. Instead of going after our dreams, we do it the way it’s always been done. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it can’t be if we’re serious about reaching the next generation for Christ.
Did you know that there are 350,000 species of beetles? That’s about 349,999 too many for me! But that fact reveals something significant about our Creator: God loves variety! Your fingerprint is exhibit A. There never has been, and never will be, anyone else like you. But that isn’t a testament to you; it’s a testament to the God who created you. Uniqueness is God’s gift to you. Creativity is your gift back to God.
When I first started pastoring, I scoured the Bible looking for the order of service. I wanted a one-size-fits-all formula, but I didn’t find the magic bullet. Why? Because if God had given us a formula, every church would be a carbon copy of every other church! All churches have the same mission: the Great Commission. But, like people, churches have unique histories, unique destinies and unique personalities. We need lots of different kinds of churches because there are lots of different kinds of people.
Did you know that immediate family members share 99.5 percent of the same DNA? They are differentiated by one-half of one percent of their DNA, but that small distinction makes us unique. It’s true of people, and it’s true of churches. And it’s the key to creativity.
We have three core convictions at National Community Church. I think of them as the double helix in our DNA. Our core beliefs are the same as other churches, but our core convictions are our fingerprint — or churchprint.
The church ought to be the most creative place on the planet. The church belongs in the middle of the marketplace. And God will bless our church in proportion to how we give to missions and care for the poor in our city. Those three convictions drive everything we do at NCC.
Let me focus on the first one: the discipline of creativity. Psalm 96:1 says: “Sing to the Lord a new song.”
In fact, the Book of Psalms repeatedly talks about singing a new song. I love old songs and hymns. They touch a deep place in my soul. But God doesn’t just want His people to worship out of left-brain memory. When your love for God grows, you need to find new lyrics, new melodies. That’s how you worship God out of imagination.
According to one study, we no longer think about the lyrics of a song after singing it 30 times. In other words, we start lip-syncing. That’s why we take songwriting seriously at NCC. We try to write songs for sermon series. By the time we’re done, NCC Worship has produced a new album.
We also work hard at branding sermon series, producing short films and creating a free market system of small groups.
In The Anointing, author R.T. Kendall wrote these profoundly challenging words: “Sometimes the greatest opposition to what God wants to do next comes from those who were on the cutting edge of what God did last.”
I don’t want that to be me. I need the discipline of creativity. Let me share seven of my creativity maxims.
1. Change of pace + change of place = change of perspective. According to the law of requisite variety, if you work out the same muscles with the same exercises in the same sequence every time you go the gym, you will eventually hit a point of diminishing return. You’ve got to disrupt the routine, thereby confusing your muscles. The same is true spiritually. Spiritual growth requires spiritual discipline. But once the routine becomes routine, something needs to change.
NCC plans two staff retreats every year. In the summer, we take a Pray and Play Retreat where we combine prayer with recreation. That change of pace pays dividends in staff morale the rest of the year. In the fall, we have a Pray and Plan Retreat. That change of scenery fuels creativity. That’s where we begin to dream about the next year by putting together our strategic plan. One of the byproducts is a preaching calendar that our creative team brainstorms and prayer-storms. It gives us a head start, which is one key to creativity. It takes time to brand series, shoot trailers and prepare for messages.
2. Strategically manage your time. Ninety percent of my creativity happens in the morning. I know some people are larks while others are night owls, but the setting on your alarm is one of the most important daily decisions you make. I’m a lark by discipline. During writing seasons, I get up extra early so I can get in several hours of writing before I put on my pastoral hat. My productivity in the morning is double what it is in the afternoon.
Don’t waste the first hour of the day on email. Those emails will still be there at the end of the day. I steward my creativity by using the morning hours for devotions, sermon prep and writing. As the day goes on, my mind gets too cluttered to think creatively.
3. Take a nap. Jesus did it (Mark 4:38). That’s all the biblical substantiation I need. Productive people throughout history — including Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison and Ronald Reagan — found time for naps.
We’re all wired differently, but a 10-minute power nap gives me a second window of creativity. And if I can’t get a nap, I get some caffeine! Of course, my office happens to be above our coffeehouse on Capitol Hill, so I’m never more than a few steps from caffeine.
4. It takes a team. There are two kinds of people: internal processors and intra-personal processors. Let me explain the difference. I’m an internal processor. In other words, I get most of my ideas by myself. I rabbit trail in Scripture, or I take a prayer walk. That’s how I get God ideas. But I’ve come to appreciate the synergy of creativity, which can only happen with a team. You need sounding boards — not only to discern between good ideas and bad ideas, but also to turn good ideas into great ideas.
Our creative team meets every Tuesday to plan for the weekend. Some weeks, it’s not so creative; we simply produce a run sheet. Other weeks, the creative juices flow, and the service takes on a whole new dimension.
The team consists of our creative director, teaching team, worship director, pastor of prayer and media pastor. That combination of gifts yields far more creativity than any one of us could produce alone.
5. You can’t schedule creativity. My calendar is divided into meeting days and study days. Needless to say, meeting days aren’t my most creative times. But those days buy me study days, when I can rabbit trail in God’s Word and spend time in prayer — and even take extra time to pray through. Those are the days when I daydream.
Creativity doesn’t happen on a schedule. It happens in wide-open spaces, which means you need some margin in your schedule. And don’t make apologies for it. The more margins you have, the more creative you’ll be. That will pay dividends in everything else you do!
6. Criticize by creating. People should know the church more for what we’re for than what we’re against. Instead of taking potshots at culture, we should be creating culture. We need to write better books, start better businesses, draft better legislation and produce better films. Criticism is a cop-out. It’s the easy way out. I subscribe to what Michelangelo said: “Criticize by creating.”
A lack of creativity is actually a lack of effort. It takes effort to design our weekend program or film a trailer or update our Web page, but excellence in the little things honors God.
7. Get a life. If your sermons are boring, it’s probably because your life is boring. You need to get a life outside the pulpit, outside the church. The best way to preach more interesting sermons is to live a more interesting life — a Spirit-led life. Start taking some risks. Or at least take a vacation. If you want to heighten creativity, you’ve got to recreate. It’s called the Sabbath. Or better yet, take a sabbatical.
I learned an interesting lesson a number of years ago. When I quote Scripture, I gain credibility with believers. When I quote extra-biblical sources, from Aristotle to Gladwell, I gain credibility with non-believers. You can’t bury your head in the sand. You must exegete culture and Scripture. And when you do, you gain credibility via creativity. Of course, Scripture is the final authority!
Crafting Creative Communications
In John 12:49, Jesus said, “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”
What to say is content. How to say it is creativity. Part of my calling as a writer and as a preacher is to say old things in new ways. I think that’s precisely what Jesus did with the parables. Most of them are no more than 250 words, but hear them once and you’ll remember them forever. Jesus was the master of metaphors. And the key to discovering modern-day metaphors is cross-pollination.
I believe that every “ology” is a branch of theology. So when I study neurology, it supplements my theology. The healing of the man born blind is a good example. Jesus didn’t simply restore his sight. The man was born blind, which means there were no synaptic connections between the optic nerve and the visual cortex. This wasn’t astigmatism, as amazing as that would be. It’s a miracle of synaptogenesis. Jesus installs a new synaptic pathway. A little understanding of neurology heightens my appreciation of that miracle.
A lack of creativity is actually a lack of effort. It takes effort to design our weekend program or film a trailer or update our Web page, but excellence in the little things honors God.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind stretched by a new idea never returns to its original shape.”
One way to stretch our minds is by reading books and listening to podcasts. I have a steady diet of both because I need new ideas. I beg, borrow and steal as many ideas as I possibly can — giving credit, of course.
Before I wrote my first book, I read 3,000 books. Part of what inspired me is that I lacked experience, and I heard that the average author took about two years to write a book. So I figured I was gaining two years of life experience with each book I read. Early on in ministry, I read about 200 books per year. So each year, I gained 400 years of life experience. When people ask how old I am, I often tell them my book age. I’m nearly 7,000 years old. My point? Leaders are readers!
For hundreds of years, preachers have stood behind pulpits and preached something called sermons. And I’m no different. But I also know that preaching a message audibly is the least effective form of communication.
The brain processes print on a page at 100 bits per second, but it processes pictures at a billion bits per second. That means that a picture isn’t worth a thousand words; it’s worth 10 million!
NCC meets in eight theater locations, and we steward those screens. When we started meeting in movie theaters, I had an idea: Why don’t we produce trailers for our series the way movie companies do? It takes about 40 hours to produce a 60-second trailer, but that 60 seconds sets me up!
The medieval church used stained glass to tell the gospel story to an illiterate generation. We use moving pictures on a screen to tell the gospel story to a post-literate generation. If you visit theaterchurch.com, you can watch some of our series trailers.
The greatest message deserves the greatest marketing. It certainly doesn’t mean we dumb down or water down the gospel. Nothing is a bigger turn-off than a marketing gimmick. But I have a problem with beer companies producing more compelling ads than the church!
Marketers know that the sequence of cognition is critical in a white-noise culture. The brain recognizes shapes first, colors second and content third. Don’t misinterpret me; content is still king. If you don’t rightly divide the Word of God, it doesn’t matter how well you market. But if we want people to get to our content, we must shape it and color it the right way. That’s precisely what Jesus did with the parables. Most of them are agrarian because He lived in an agricultural society.
Cultivating a Creative Culture
Our first five years, NCC was in survival mode, not creative mode. We weren’t focused on right-brain stewardship. We were just trying to make it from week to week without losing our minds. But if you want to reach people no one is reaching, you have to do things no one is doing. So we started pushing the creative envelope. Over time, we have cultivated a culture of creativity. Here are seven best practices.
1. Everything is an experiment. If the kingdom of God had departments, NCC would work in research and development. We treat everything as an experiment, and that allows us to fail. In fact, we celebrate mistakes. We don’t want people to make the same mistake over and over again. But we encourage new mistakes. If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t taking enough risks.
2. Share wins. We share wins at the beginning of every staff meeting. That’s how we’ve created a culture of positivity, and that culture of positivity has led to a culture of creativity. You’ve got to celebrate what you want to see more of. The positive energy from those wins helps us overcome the mistakes we’re bound to make. If you want to see more creativity, celebrate it.
3. Maturity doesn’t equal conformity. In one sense, our differences disappear in Christ. There is no more Jew or Greek, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. (Well, that’s how we say it since we’re in D.C.) But in another sense, we celebrate our differences. We try to treat everyone as invaluable and irreplaceable. We let leaders get a vision from God and go for it. A command-and-control leader stifles creativity. Give permission — dare people to be different.
4. Know yourself. Before we hire new employees, we give them a battery of personality tests. We want to know the way our staff is wired so we can play to their strengths. So we give them the Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder assessments. It not only helps employees know themselves better, but it also fosters synergy among our team.
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. We take God seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. When we hire new staff, a sense of humor is at the top of the list. Ministry is too hard not to have a little bit of fun. The healthiest, happiest people on the planet are those who laugh at themselves the most. Those are the kind of people I want to work with. And it’s a key to creativity!
6. Faithfulness is not a matter of holding the fort. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).
Gates are defensive measures. So by definition, we’re called to play offense. In the Parable of the Talents, breaking even is no good. If you don’t take a step forward, you take a step back. One of the reasons I love the multi-site model is that we’re always thinking about what’s next. In a culture of creativity, you’re always pushing the envelope.
7. Get a God idea. I’d rather have one God idea than a thousand good ideas. Good ideas are good, but God ideas change the course of history. You don’t get God ideas at conferences. You get them in the presence of God, the Word of God. You’ve got to press in and press on. You’ve got to make sacrifices and take risks. You’ve got to stay humble, stay hungry. And if you do, there is nothing God cannot do in your or through you.
C.S. Lewis once referred to himself as the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom. The night before his conversion, he had a long conversation with fellow writer and friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien tried to convince him of the credibility of Christ, but Lewis was full of objections. Then, at a critical moment in the conversation, Tolkien countered Lewis’s objections with a profound statement: “Your inability to understand stems from a failure of imagination on your part.”
A half-formed imagination is the greatest threat to the future of the church. After all, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. And let’s not forget that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.
I’d rather have one God idea than a thousand good ideas. Good ideas are good, but God ideas change the course of history.
In his book The Celtic Way, Ian Bradley notes the celebration of imagination in the Celtic tradition. Their ancient approach to faith is a lifeline for those who have lost their imaginative moorings. Bradley says, “Too many Christians today, brought up on the penny plain prose favored by Rome and even more the Reformers, have half-formed imaginations.”
A half-formed imagination results in half-hearted churches. If we are going to have an eternal impact on our culture, we can’t just criticize it or copy it. We have to create it. If we are going to reach our generation with the gospel, we can’t just appeal to logic. We must capture their imagination.
C. S. Lewis is a great example of both. Can you think of anyone more left-brain logical than Lewis? His theological writings, from Mere Christianity to The Problem of Pain, are as logical as logic can be. But Lewis combined left-brain logic with right-brain creativity. The Chronicles of Narnia continues to capture the imagination of new generations.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t creative. You are created in the image of God. Creativity is your birthright. You have to claim it. Then you have to fan it into flame. And when you do, the gospel will spread like wildfire.
Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC and is author of several books, including The Circle Maker and most recently, The Grave Robber. This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Influence. For more print content, subscribe here.