I was traveling in Colorado recently and noticed a roadside stop that sold carved wooden bears. I’d seen them a hundred other places, but this time I watched a guy actually turn a tree stump into a bear. Without hesitation he plunged his rusty chainsaw into the rough-cut log. At no point did he hold up his thumb to carefully measure his next move. Instead, he blew through the stump, making very deliberate slashing cuts while I choked on clouds of smoke. I was amused as the deafening squeal of the chainsaw trimmed the wood down to its bear essentials. Over his shoulder I noticed about 40 other bears completely identical to the one I had just seen him cut. The bear he had created was not unique. Before long he was on to the next bear, like he was simply folding clothes or stacking chairs. He seemingly cut into the log as if it were the shrubs in front of his house, trying to hurry so he could catch his tee time in 15 minutes.
Later on my trip I saw more bear cutting, chainsaw-wielding men at other roadside shops, and again every bear looked identical. Someone somewhere had created a template or formula that they all knew by heart in order to carve bears. Maybe somewhere you can get your bear-cutting diploma and become a C.C.S.C.M. (Certified Chainsaw Cutting Machine). The guy I had seen had it down cold, and after watching for a while I realized that it was less like art, and more like a cut-by-number process. Each bear was carved without passion and in the exact same manner as the bear before it. Ingenious, but I don’t know that I can consider it art.
I’ve been involved in the arts my entire career in one form or the other. From time to time I stop and look at what’s being done in the church, and I wonder if it is art. Is it a unique creation that is an expression of the artist’s passion for God? Or are we just trying to establish the formula that carves a bear. We get better projectors and better lighting, and have access to all kinds of great content, but at the end of the day I have to wonder, “What’s the impact?”
I grew up in the church and was one of those odd kids who knew from the start I wanted to be a producer/director. Knowing I loved Christ, I felt compelled to serve Him, but had almost nowhere to go with this passionate call on my life. Instead I served with great joy as a Minister to Students while directing film projects on the side. During the early days of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, my pastor came to me and asked me to go check out this new and growing church. I had heard it was big, but at the time I was serving in a big church, so I was not impressed with their numbers. Meanwhile, I was personally experiencing an unsettled discontentment with the church at large. I loved God, but I knew the church was not equipped to relate to the culture that surrounded me. I was on the verge of leaving the church and diving into commercial film and theatre, because other than rare moments, the church at large did not seem to be in the creative communication business.
These thoughts occupied my mind as I traveled to Chicago and walked into Willow Creek for the first time. As an actor I had performed in some large venues, so my initial focus was on the light grid, the seating capacity, etc. Then the service started and I had an experience that would literally change my life. I sat on the fourth row at Willow Creek and found myself beginning to weep almost immediately. My pastor leaned over and asked, “Are you OK?” With some embarrassment, I was surprised at how the service had moved me. Later I reflected on the event and knew what I had experienced. Willow Creek was one of the few churches who had broken rank and decided they would do whatever it took to communicate His message well. I was moved to tears because they cared and it showed. They were not interested in some impersonal, detached formula of communication. Rather, they were creating something fresh and original. They were not mesmerized by various art forms, but rather they were interested in what those arts could communicate.
It’s ironic that the only group in the world with a truly life-changing message has stripped that message of most of its joy and creativity, forgetting how creative Christ was in communicating truth. I was equally engaged and moved that afternoon in Chicago by how all the art forms were applied with quality and beauty. Actors were prepared and music was well-written. Everything was presented with passion. Lights were focused on the action, and beauty was not ignored. Most important though, Willow Creek was taking their cue from the passion of their hearts, rather than imitating what other large churches were producing each week.
Some 20 years later, many churches now wade waist deep into the wake that Willow Creek and others created when they made those bold commitments to communicate His message with excellence. It matters. It matters because the message is transformational, and the church must be completely committed to connecting the Gospel to everyone across the world. The message needs no help, but deserves the best delivery for its individual audience. People know when we care. People are multifaceted and relate to beauty—whether it’s architecture, a book cover, or how the food is presented at a great restaurant. All the forms available to us today should shout, “Something good is about to happen! This is not business as usual!” The graphics, backgrounds, lights, setting, and staging must be carefully planned, because it all matters. If that mindset is the place we design and produce experiences from, then it is art.
For those of you who have recently arrived on the scene, let me encourage you to be inspired and to become the best you can at your discipline. The question that remains is: When people come to the church where you serve, are they inspired by the intricate, careful expression you have created as an act of worship?
The use of the arts in the church is not about being new and different, it’s about connecting with an audience and deepening their experience. It’s about the person sitting in the last row of your service, and how you might best communicate the Gospel to them. Those of us who get to participate in these moments —whether as pastors, musicians, actors, technicians, designers, or producers—are blessed. Lay down your chainsaw, take a step back, and create something new today. After all, the woods are full of more than bears.
Gary Stroope is the Senior Director of Arts at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, TX, where he leads a talented team in producing all large gatherings. He is also an experienced speaker, writer, and consultant.