In January 2011, US President Barrack Obama urged the American people towards a new innovative age, declaring in his State of the Union address, "The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation...what America does better than anyone else - is spark the creativity and imagination of our people."
The past decade has seen a significant mind-shift in the corporate world. As business leaders observe the fast-changing market place, full of radical technical developments and emerging customer groups, they have realised that "Efficiency" - the sacred goal of the modern manager - can no longer be an organisation's main focus. Creating more output for less input may lead to a short-term profit but this alone will not allow a company to be competitive and relevant into the future.
Instead, many corporate leaders are aligning their organisations around "Creativity" and "Innovation", recognising that future success will be determined by those who can create new ideas and turn them into reality.
This quest for creativity has called business researchers to a range of new areas, with academics probing Buddhism for innovative insights, as well as practicing Zen meditation and yoga to seek new lessons that can be adapted to organisations. Scholars have observed children, animals, artists, gamers and developing nations, but in all my research on the topic of creativity, there is a noticeable absence. The church.
It's Pronounced Chick-Sent-Me-High
During my time in paid ministry at church, I repeatedly heard a narrow definition of creativity being used. Within the church environment the implicit view of creativity is an ability to be artistic, often through public performance. All discussions about the creative aspects of our church were focusing on how music, drama and art could be employed more effectively amongst our gatherings.
Fellow church members would encourage me to get a specific person involved in the Sunday morning service, as "They're very creative!". This same definition could be used as an excuse for not being involved in ministry, with people saying, "I couldn't possibly do that. I'm not creative enough". Many churches have creative teams, whose sole purpose is to create meaningful and artistic expressions that assist worship and response during a public service. This is an excellent and helpful addition to a Sunday gathering, but is this all that creativity is?
If you're not artistic - if you're not on the creative team - does that mean you're not creative?
Claremont Graduate University professor and leading creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a much wider view of creativity, describing it as "any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one." When we allow this more robust definition to help us understand the world we can begin to see how vital the act of creativity is to our humanity and our faith.
A Creative Crusade
'To create' has the privilege of being the first verb used in the Bible, with God creating the heavens and the earth. God's creativity is what makes life and creation possible, as God turns His thoughts and words into a physical reality. Genesis 2 describes how God uniquely combines breath and earth to create human - a novel and productive being, called to model God to the rest of creation. Creativity does not stop at creation, however, as humanity and God continue to innovate throughout the scriptures.
From Gideon's merging of fire and pots, to Moses' mother using tar, papyrus and reeds to save her son; the Bible is full of these definitively creative acts, that combine ideas and elements in interesting new ways.
David's psalms combined melody and word to unite people in song to God; Isaiah's prophecy mixed military metaphors with agriculture ("They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks") to create new futures and imaginations for a defeated nation; Jesus' stories blended humour, familiarity and surprising plot twists (who could have seen the ending to The Prodigal Son coming?) to reveal God in an exciting new way ("The large crowd listened to him with great delight" - Mark 12:37) - all of these are beautiful examples of humanity following the divine mandate of creativity.
The story culminates in the most mind-blowing display of creativity history has witnessed, with God combining planks of wood, Roman nails, a cruel twist of thorns and His beloved son, to usher in a new domain of life and grace, conquering death and sin. This is creativity at its finest!
The early church kept this spirit of innovation alive as they grappled with their new calling to bring about God's kingdom in the present culture. As Christians in the first century saw unwanted babies being unceremoniously dumped on the street, they engaged with Christ's calling to love "these little ones" and created orphanages, a new innovation in social care. In such a socially stratified culture the church stood out with its diverse composition. Slaves meeting with free men? Jews and Greeks sharing a meal together?
Yet this complexity was its creative strength, allowing different ideas to meet in conversations, creating all kinds of new creative output - public schools, hymns, works of art and hospitals.
Welcome to Church, LTD.
By contrast, the church of the past century has experienced a monumental shift in culture and practice. Faced with declining numbers, growing secularism and an increasingly fickle consumeristic population, Christianity in the West slowly began to mimic the ways of the world it was seeking to engage with. Jeanne Kildre describes the modern church as "driven by the power of the marketplace", seeking to respond to all of their consumers' needs. Instead of being the vehicle of grace and transformation for the world, the church became the destination, with church attendance figures defining a congregation's success.
Efficiency became the buzz-word, with many books borrowing heavily from the corporate world and promising a faster-growing, stream-lined worship center. Church branding, building projects and "worship experiences" dominated conversations, with the modern pastor being described by Eugene Peterson as, "a religious entrepreneur with business plans".
The church stands with two God-given mandates echoing in our ears - called to fill the earth and subdue it, and to preach the gospel to all nations. Both require creativity and a biblically soaked imagination. Often, this calling is passively passed on to the pastor, as the congregation await their leader's action and direction in creative engagement with the world. Yet, this calling is for all of us, participating together in the worshipping community.
A New Call to Create
Harvard's Professor of Business Administration, Teresa Amabile has devoted decades to studying the relationship of creativity and happiness in organisations. During one analysis of over 12,000 diary entries from 238 corporate professionals, Teresa discovered what she dubbed "The Progress Principle" - the employees who were most creative and productive were those who felt they were making measurable progress in work that was purposeful.
Amabile's research echoes the Biblical mandate that is at the core of the creation story; to orientate our lives around a purpose much bigger than our own. She concludes, "The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it's in the arts, sciences, or business."
I am convinced that the church can reclaim our position as creative culture makers and engagers if we can let go of our penchant for efficiency and corporate metaphors to dominate the religious landscape. If churches can encourage diversity and see difference-in-community as a strength, rather than something to be stratified away into separate ministries, we will see new and interesting ideas develop. If pastors can creatively give their power away to their congregations, calling them to dream, plan and participate in God's redemptive plan, we will see dynamic and exciting transformation.
If we can listen to the calling of God to fill, subdue and disciple the world, and allow this message to shape our entire lives, we will become a creative people, who see new possibilities for change in all facets of life.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann described our culture as "competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing". As we face the vocation of participating in God's transformation in the 21st century, the church can take confidence in our rich history of innovation and reclaim our Biblical calling of imagining, creating and transforming within God's community.
Jeremy Suisted is a student and innovation consultant - www.creativate.co.nz - who is fascinated by dams, creativity and the work of Ryan Gosling.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html