What is an artist? Is being artsy actually a good thing for worship leadership? Many parents might panic at hearing their son tell them of his dreams of being a dancer, or their daughter a master painter. How will you pay off that student loan? Get a real job. The liberal arts and the fine arts seem second class in a society built on industry and execution. The problem is that we need artists! And, we need the church to allow their worship leaders to be artists. Like any trade, the arts are part of how we build a great society with products and tools people use. One might build a house. Another person might design how that house feels, as well as functions. Lighting from windows, heights of ceilings, or placement of doors are some of the items that bring a home together. The artist describes how it should feel and look. The engineer makes sure it can withstand the wind and rain. The business manager gets it built on time and within budget. Basically, artists design–everything from what we sit on to the fonts we read on our computers. They create. In the case of worship leadership, a service is designed, and music, readings, and visuals are created. There is a side of it, like the businessman or engineer, that makes it happen 52 weeks a year. There is also another side that employs empathy, vision, and creativity in the design of a worship service. Do we give enough appreciation to the artistic side of worship leadership?

Worship Leadership: The Importance of Empathy, Vision and Creativity for an Artistic Leader

Being an artist has little to do with feeling entitled or misunderstood. Artists are driven to create that which did not exist before. It is not a copy-and-paste activity, either. We too often view mimicry as creativity in the church. If we see it work, we copy it. But, when you artistically create, it comes from a vision based on who you are and where you are. This is why artists often ask what the inspiration and thinking were behind a song, a movie, or a book—not just cataloging the data of how to imitate what someone else did. Yes, we all steal good ideas in the process of creation. But, to imitate means we do so without empathy for those we are creating for. Context is everything, and cutting-and-pasting does not employ empathy. Importantly, creativity means looking at solutions that may not have been tried before. Are we open to this kind of innovation? Who you are, the people you lead, and their issues all exist uniquely. Artists serve the need to design for what is needed and desired wherever they live.

This does not mean reinventing the wheel, does it? You don’t have to write all original music and create all custom liturgy. Stealing the good stuff is surely wise and learning best practices is a must. We misunderstand how to do this, however. The sin of cut-and-paste “art” asks your creative leaders to put on another person’s clothes, name, and persona. It goes beyond borrowing good content and applying it well. Mimicry forces your church musicians to be a cover band, not the unique set of people called in your church to help lead your prayers in song. Think of our creativity in church worship this way: We are like car makers. If so, we need to have wheels and can be satisfied with the proven design of what a wheel does. With that said, everything from engine horsepower to seating arrangements differs from car to car. The design of a worship artist will be made to fit your church uniquely well. Why use another person’s car meant for hauling a trailer when your curvy roads call for something sporty?

There are three ideas I feel that are in the toolbox of skilled artists that we should keep in worship leadership: Empathy, Vision, and Creativity. Empathy is the practice of seeing your context. How will this worship service fit our people? Vision is the inspired end product seen before, during, and after design. What anchors the design of a service and forms the desired effect? Creativity is taking leadership beyond cut-and-paste or paint-by-numbers and into solving the issues unique to you and your church. What are issues unique about your worship service and how are those addressed in what you steal, as well as what you make? I hope I can walk you through these three ideas and reinvigorate your appreciation for the hard work of artistry in church worship and music.

Empathy is necessary to serve people well.

Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. It is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.

–Albert Einstein

Commit to the idea of empathy. If you want to innovate for others, you have to understand what it is like to be them. You need to be able to suppress your own ego and think like another person.

–Vijay Kumar

Do we honestly know what it is like wear the shoes of the average person we lead in worship? We see the people enter the church and exit each Sunday. What we as worship leaders do centers on serving this group we are in front of each week. Having empathy means we, in some way, know what their experience is like from their perspective. We feel what they feel and design for their success. This is the goal of empathy—to know another’s experience and be able to lead with that in mind. Musicians, we love our tribe. When in a room with only musical people, the conversations and vibe might make us feel at home, while the rest of our time in the week, we experience life as aliens. It is a rare treat when you get to hang out with your kind. Our experience is indeed significant. However, being empathetic for us as worship leaders may indeed be a one-way street. But, this is our honor—to take our unique way of thinking and to help our church pray and worship as is best for how they are made. This is why we were made as we are. A congregation full of artists would be a disaster!

We all know the non-artist hats we have to wear as worship leaders, as they have to happen or we fail miserably. The machine required to lead worship involves project management, human resourcing, and even budget alignment. Add to that list the theological requirements—which sometimes themselves get lost—and the bag of responsibilities become quite heavy. Worship leading these days is about experiences that are crafted and produced. But, what does that machine intend to do and does it fulfill the spiritually-filled and soul-bathed longings of our congregation? Are we focused on what we know God desires from us as worshipers, as well? While we do need to have an organizational and theological framework; do we design for the machine to be fed or for the people to express their worship? Design, even of the business practices of how bills are paid, matters. And you cannot design something for others without empathy. What is it like to walk in their shoes?

Empathy is a discipline and character trait that has lost favor in our society. To willingly experience the pain of another person goes against our avoidance of uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. We would rather not even experience some of our feelings. A good artist allows us to feel something another feels—whether it’s the inner conflict of a fictional character in a movie or the captivating colors and strokes of a masterful painting. We are transported to get out of ourselves for a moment. The interesting thing is that we pull from our depths and well of our own personal experiences to find that moment that relates to what we see, hear, smell or sing. As spiritual beings, our connection to the Holy Spirit allows a shared engagement as we gather. In ourselves, we have much to compare what others might be feeling. Beyond ourselves, we have God with us to help us know how to serve, as well. Do we listen?

If you are artistically trained and called, it is likely you have a bent to be empathetic when you create. Artists by training or nature intrinsically know the reaction people will feel with the wording of a certain lyric, the chemistry produced with certain sounds, and the combination of distinct rhythms that work. This does not mean that an artist is naturally a nice person, however. It simply means they create with an astute mind in regards to how people feel and react. This invitation to experience requires a personal sacrifice. You need to know what it feels like first. And, this is why “performing” or creating is very exhausting at times for an artist. If it feels powerful, the artist likely has spent some of his or her inner strength. Empathy has a cost.

Christ is the ultimate example of empathy and its cost. The Incarnation means that Jesus was truly tempted in every way we are and can empathize with our human struggles. Such an invasion into the human race means our Savior values us to the core. Christ took on our form—permanently! When we think of how amazing this truth is, we ought to question any doubt that God does not relate to you and I. When we design a ministry and prepare to present our leadership, how have we been in the skin of the people we serve? Do we follow the example of Jesus as we lead? While artists at times can be empathetic, we can also be stubborn about our vision or version of reality. We mostly get it right. But, sometimes we don’t! Practicing empathy reminds us of serving others. Service then is the highest form of artistry!

Vision supports, as well as launches, our creative work.

It is very dangerous to go into eternity with possibilities which one has oneself prevented from becoming realities. A possibility is a hint from God. One must follow it.

–Sören Kierkegaard

Where there is no vision the people perish.

–Proverbs 29:18

Beyond the idea of empathy, being an artist, we also need to lead with vision. Like I said, we don’t always get things right, but that artistic ability to dream and then create a new reality is desperately lacking today in worship leading. If you cannot take the ideas of what would move another and translate that to something you create, then your empathy is lost in translation. To be an artist is to see something possible that you can help bring into reality. What do you see for the church when you lead worship? For us, as church musical ministers and worship leaders we should see more of what happens on the inside than on the outside. Getting people to sing and engage is indeed important, but do we see their hearts being warmed to pray honestly to God? Do we see our church hunger for more of God’s voice in the word that is taught? I hope to see my church people feel they can bring their true selves each week. I hope the music I choose or write allows them to say “this is my prayer” as well as “this is our prayer.” I see that possibility and work for it to arrive as a reality.

Our vision of worship leadership matters. Do we see how God might use our gifts to minister to people? If our view is too high of our role and function, there might be frustration with the results we witness. On the other hand, we might forget how important what we do is! The person that can most aid us in forming our vision is our pastor. He or she likely has the theological training to frame the spiritual goals of the service. When we can see the global scene of God’s move in a church worship service, we are better able to visualize our part in leading it. I understand that based on your setting, this will be different. You and your pastor have articulated together what it should look like. You need to form what you see to do that, however. Your theology, history, and people determine the desired spiritual results of your worship.

We may harm our theology by asking art, music, or even our expressions of worship to teach it. Not every lyric can be a sermon. Not every prayer will be a complete theological exposition. What we need is a worship vision informed by a biblically sound foundation. Let the sermon preach, the Creeds teach, and the prayers reach! The hammer of a sermon works great on the nail of preaching or teaching the word, but we have more than nails in worship. A song, in other words, does not have to be a sermon. It could, after all, be a prayer–a psalm of praise or lament. Our theology informs us of how we will and should pray. Creeds can be sung like our hymns. While they may represent things we can preach about, such as the Trinity or God’s sovereignty, they don’t explain them. Does our worship vision see music working properly or are we thwarting the music by attaching baggage to it? Art can tell a story. Sometimes it can help teach theology, but not always.

Traditions will both save and strangle worship. The tension to anchor in the identity of the past may at times restrict relating to your current people and those future souls you hope to reach. Tradition, such as liturgy, is indeed a powerful root to grow our worship expression. You can employ it creatively. Do we keep traditions in worship because we can envision how they will inspire people to worship, or because we fear what might be its replacement? Or, do we fear tradition at all costs because of possible roadblocks to reaching the uninitiated? In both extremes, I think we miss the gold in keeping the past as a launching pad, as well as the rocket fuel, to propel us forward. We need both!

Empathy drives the vision. Does your vision include people who sit in your pews? A big problem can occur when we attend a conference and hear how God works in worship ministry in a church that is very successful. We want that success, so we copy what they do. But, unless we copy their people, we might be ignoring the actual souls that God has called us to serve. God forbid! All of our empathetic muscles have to support our vision, as well as our theological and historical roots. All three–theology, tradition, and your people–collaborate to create a vision of worship ministry.

Creativity calls us to solve problems, as well as to tell stories.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

–Scott Adams (author cartoonist)

Imitation is suicide.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cut-and-paste thinking is death to the artist. That voice that says never to reinvent the wheel may not understand that you might simply be trying to keep people from boredom about how they worship. Artists must challenge the process. This is our nature. However our current system of expectation might feed it, worship leaders have to resist simply addressing what is “needed” and lead forward. Imitating an order of worship without knowing where it comes from is unwise. Creativity takes the empathy about your context, the vision of who you are and then finally fits all the pieces together. Of course, copying or “stealing” might be one of those pieces. But, the application must be filtered before it can truly be your unique expression instead of mimicry and imitation. In an age that longs for authenticity, creativity checks our bent to cut and paste our solutions. What works in one place might be a disaster for you. Or, it may simply fall flat. Why? Maybe we simply undervalue artistic creativity.

One important thing I have learned is that artists are like innovators in any other field. We solve problems. The business entrepreneur will see a new way to deliver goods or improve customer service if sales are flat. As the saying goes,  “Necessity is the mother of invention.” We in America thrive on meeting needs, and when one presents, the innovator will find a way to meet it. The artistic person will see that same activity with things that some at first glance may not think of as necessary. Why would we “need” to sing a new song when we have one already present that our people know? Why approach an order of worship differently than we have before, if what came before worked well? The need of the human soul cries out for beauty, not simply utility. The pain for the church artistic leader reaches its peak when the desire to meet the soul-felt needs of worshipers is squashed and scuttled.

Yes. The idea of being creative should solve real problems. With all of the best intentions, worship leaders are coached to keep things safe, consistent and reachable. Boredom, when it arrives with such a strategy, usually ends up hitting the leadership of the music and worship hardest. Most pastors want their congregation to feel a certain way about worship–requiring a reaction that echoes back positivity to the leadership. If the order of worship hasn’t been refreshed in decades or the music selections spiced up a bit, a dragging effect likely pulls the service downward. An artist sees this before it occurs and, at his or her best, will seek to invigorate the worshipers’ expression through creativity. However, this same creativity might not be understood, valued, or nurtured for the worship leader to be free.

I have said over the years that innovation solves a problem while art tells a story. Combining these two is what creates a powerful design. While the need to keep utility as a priority is important, the function will lose effectiveness if it does not include the story. The question of how we execute our leadership must also come with the reasons why we lead as we do. Even further than this is the idea that “the who” must be a part of all we do in ministry—regardless of it being music, pastoring or even charity work. Who we are as a group and the context of our church matters much! It should also be said that who we are as individuals matter. In a story, our various roles come from an identity we share as well as the unique journeys we travel. If we want to be creative, we have to value discussions and evaluations based on our unifying values, not just the desired outcomes. To forget this is to step on the creatives and lose the potential impact of the whole.

Process then is as important as outcomes. The ends do not justify the means when it is God’s work. An artist–at their best–will want the process to tell as much of the story as the outcome does. If our ministry is for people, by people, and with people, then we have to be good with people. Artists who see their role in the church to rally people by writing their prayers, leading their songs, or inspiring their actions are gold. They serve the function we need in worship. Additionally, they understand that leading worship is more than what is seen by all. How things are put together with prayer, in practice and study, and the relationships behind it work together. Change your view from the romanticized artist whose goal is to express themselves. Replace that view with an artisan who makes something that serves others. Creativity, at its height, is expressed with altruism.

Develop artists and change the culture!

There is a mystical switch that gifted and skilled artists turn on for people. The Holy Spirit, who fills us, works through our physicality just like Christ did in his body when he was with us. We have the power of God within us. Now, that is a promise we may not experience or realize in our frontal lobes as often as we should. Regardless, it is truth for us as followers of Jesus. The very human activity of putting music together is a spiritual activity–whether it is for the church, or for your coffee-house band. Now, the purpose of what we put together is not the same. We create art for the church that is holy. All this means is that it is created and “set apart” for worship and nothing else. We create for our gigging band as holy people with art that is set apart for those that come and see us play. Both are spiritual because we all, as humans, are spiritual. Why then do we undervalue the activity of creation at times? Or, on the other hand, do we exalt it too much and mimic our culture?

Being artistic indeed is idolatry if we see it as our primary goal. We create because it is who we are as image bearers of an amazing Creator. We need guide rails and markers. What are those benchmarks for artists in the church? We need empathy to check our motives and vision to check our thinking or strategy. Creativity then serves under those values and disciplines. And for those who lead these artists, we need to develop worship leaders who grow in being in the skin of others and who have a well-formed vision of what worship looks. We have too much unchecked personal experience guiding some stunning creative work these days. What we require are mature artists. We can lead our world’s art expression in the church once again, but we have to begin by supporting the artistic side of worship leadership.

About The Author

Rich is a writer, blogger, speaker, musician, father and husband to his best friend. You can check out his latest book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, on his website, RKblog.com

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