This past weekend, I participated in Denver 2010 — a regional gathering for the Ecclesia Network. I was one of 12 speakers who gave 14 minutes presentations on a particular topic as it relates to mission. Below is the first half of my manuscript. I will follow with part two tomorrow.
Two years ago, our family moved from the Seattle area to Austin, following God’s leading that had begun four years before. Austin is often compared to Seattle, and so I’m often asked just how similar they are. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so much of what we loved about Seattle is present in Austin. I would even venture to say that Austin is a little more independent feeling than Seattle, as the university has a little more prominent role in Austin than it does in Seattle.
There is one difference however, that cannot be missed. When people visit Austin and ask what they should do, the first destinations that come to mind are all restaurants. I was hesitant to move to Texas, but there was one part of Texas culture I had no trouble embracing…the food! Austin has plenty of BBQ, Tex Mex, and more traditional Mexican food — all of these put a smile on my face. Now I have learned to see that there is more to Austin than great food, but my experience is not unique. More than once have I been in conversation with someone who tells me what dining experiences they had on a visit to Austin.
In Seattle, on the other hand, I have to confess the food was lost on me. I’ve never enjoyed sea food. But when someone asks me what they should see in Seattle, restaurants are nowhere near the top of the list. I can quickly overwhelm a would-be visitor to Seattle with a list of places to see, both in and outside of the city. I grew up about an hour north of where we stand right now, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the Pacific Northwest is as beautiful as it gets.
While we lived in Seattle, our dear friends Justin and Erin came for a visit. Wanting to make the most of our time on their brief visit we took them for a drive over Deception Pass and down Whidbey Island. Justin and I sat in the front, and as usual, his keen and inquisitive mind led to rich discussion. Along the way, we pondered the question of what it means to be made in the image of God. As I took in the beautiful scenery sweeping past the windows of our sporty minivan, I came to a realization that had never occurred to me before…
To be made in the image of God is to be made a creative being. I had always considered that being made in the image of God means that we have the core characteristics of God’s image imprinted on our soul, no matter how broken we may be. Every human shares God’s need to give and receive love, compassion, pleasure and relationship. Likewise, a person who makes, who creates, is a human who is straining into the image of God that sits in their soul.
Now you might have realized long ago that to be creative is to exercise the image of God within. But for me, it was a fresh, important, and empowering shift in how I view the nature of creative work. Throughout my life, I’ve been labeled as a creative, and usually it was meant in a positive way. But in this conversation, this label gave new meaning to how I viewed myself and my part in the Missio Dei. It was not just who I was, but who I am meant to be. And whether or not you’ve been told you’re creative, it’s who you were made to be as well.
I don’t know what kind of labels you might carry. Some of you might call yourselves creatives, or even artists. Others might have never progressed beyond the stick figure stage, convinced that you have little creativity, let alone artistic impulse. I’ve been in more than one church leadership context where the creative types are marginalized, characterized as the free thinkers, or even trouble makers, who disrupt the work of the pragmatists who can really get things done. And yes, I do caricature a bit, but not as much as you might think.
Often, in the church today, we settle into some kind of understanding that arts of one type or another primarily function as a means to communicate our message, wrapped around and propping up the spoken word as the primary communication of the Gospel. At best, creative work is a tool we use to convey the message. At worst, creative work is something that type A, results oriented pastors and church planters tolerate as a means to illustrate the preaching.
Everything I’ve said this far, and everything I will say after pivots on this one point — creativity is not merely an expression of the Gospel. Inviting another to imagine, to dream, to create and to make is to invite them to live into the image of the Creator God they are formed after. Creativity is not only an expression of mission, it is an act of mission itself.
It’s helpful here to give some shape and definition to mission. What is mission? How is the church to partner with God? As I define it, the mission of God’s people is the ongoing announcement and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. We are a global community offering a verbal and visual indication of what life looks like as God intends it to be.
To be creative, then, is to re-create, to put back together the pieces of God’s broken image of a creator — to live into humanity as we are intended to be. In these remaining few minutes, I’d like to offer two instances of the practice of creativity particularly serves as a demonstration of God’s kingdom.