Church is weird. Think about it for a minute from an outsider’s perspective—someone who has never been inside a church. (More people exist in this category than you can imagine.) Once a week a group of people meet at a building to sing together and listen to a guy talk. Week to week the songs are mostly the same, and the same guy talks about things from the same book. People use an enigmatic vocabulary and mostly dress the same. There are parking attendants and slick handouts. Audio and lighting systems that rival the best of the best. Fair-trade coffee that was grown and roasted locally. And merch, overstocked Christian merchandise—from books to t-shirts to Testaments.
For most of you, this description is ordinary. Nothing new, Ben. For years and years, most of my adult life and even before that, there has been an elevation of creativity in modern church culture ad nauseam. I remember the first time I heard a biblical exegesis for God as the ultimate creative. It was riveting. God created everything that is, so it wasn’t much of a leap to envision God as the quintessential hipster, made in our image. As if a website, a banner, a video, or a service order comes close to touching or even weakly reflecting the glory of God. Church is weird.
In December, I resigned my position at a large church in a metropolitan city because I don’t get it anymore. I got lost somewhere between the first time I felt called to be a worship leader at the Brownsville Revival as a teenager in the early 90s and keeping the shareholders happy. On Christmas Eve, we left in search of normal. No disrespect to the great church we left, I just got lost in the weeds somewhere. Currently, my wife and I spend our weekends leading worship around town, or better yet just attending a worship service, and we’ve visited some great churches.
If you don’t read anything else in this article, highlight the mess out of this one—there are no formulas. There is no secret sauce. There are no shortcuts. There is no podcast you can listen to enough times that will make you a creative worship leader. Creating a podcast won’t help you either. You could literally spend the rest of this year attending every conference named by a plural noun, put into practice every great recommendation this magazine has, and still miss the point. You’re not even in the same game. The goal isn’t to be creative, it never was and it never will be.
The goal is to love the Lord your God with all your soul, might, and strength. Obedience has zero to do with creativity! Obedience isn’t sexy. It doesn’t sell books or drive unique visitors like creativity does. But creativity isn’t the point—at least not what we’ve traditionally called it.
With that as the framework, here’s what I want to say to you. The most creative churches I’ve seen don’t seem very “creative”. They’re terrible at it and they’re not trying to be. It’s not even on their radar. To me, the truly creative worship leaders and churches have identified a problem and solved it.
Take my friend Sean. He started a church in my town a year ago. They didn’t have money for a projector, a screen, a laptop and software to run lyrics, or any of that fancy stuff we are all accustomed to and must have for engagement. Instead, they created a songbook. It’s professionally designed and printed. It has the top 40 or so songs they sing as a family. Worship leaders choose from the book and call out the number on the page before leading a song, like song leaders did two generations removed. We led worship there last weekend and we love the songbook. It’s nostalgic and clumsy, but it’s one of the most creative things I’ve seen in a worship service in a long time. It solved the problem. It’s a throwback to days gone by, all the while enabling this start up church to fund other priorities.
I have another friend you’d know by name. He’s written songs you and I have sung and now he’s a campus pastor at a church nearby. The room they meet in is small and quirky, but it has character. They just purchased it after renting several years, and I believe this church is crushing it in every way. They’re my favorite church in town and I could write about more than I have space to write.
Three things they do I love. One: There is no stage. The worship leader and band lead on the ground. From the fourth or fifth row back you can’t see them, and all of this is by design. They’re not the focus and they don’t want to be. The first time I was frustrated by it. I couldn’t play all the normal self-proclaimed church consultant games I play. “What gear were they playing? Was the worship leader making eye contact?” I couldn’t grade this guy—I was so frustrated by such a poor design. Quickly I realized that they did this on purpose. In the words of Gollum, “Tricksy”.
The second thing they do that I love: The band is all facing each other in a circle, almost no one is facing the congregation. The seats are set up around them in a half circle. The feeling is intimate and intentionally not focused on the worship leaders or band. Having led there now, I can say this is the most freeing feeling to not feel like the center of attention; I feel closer to the church and less focused on me.
Lastly, they do Scripture reading every week in the worship set. But they do it in a way that’s refreshing and unifying. The worship leader asks everyone to turn to a passage and read it in a group together with the people sitting beside them. No masterful oration in preacher voice, just normal people reading God’s word together, in whatever translation they have on their person. You might not have met the people you’re reading with, but now you know them and you’ve connected in a way that you might not have seen coming.
Church is weird. It doesn’t have to be, but it’s gotten weirder. The constant chase to be Seth Godin’s church version of a “Purple Cow”. Maybe I’m just waking up and you’ve seen it all along, but the most creative churches and worship leaders I know aren’t very creative at all—at least not what we’d traditionally call creative. They’re normal people solving normal problems and they’re keeping the core purpose in mind: love the Lord your God with all your might, soul, and strength.