I. A CURRENT SNAPSHOT OF THORNCREEK CHURCH
One week before a message series begins at ThornCreek, a growing mid-sized suburban congregation located in Thornton, Colorado, neighboring residents receive a postcard from the church. The custom image on the cover announces the theme. Upon entering the building, attendees are given clues about the series through stage design, a countdown video, and the worship songs—all intentionally chosen to support the series. A 30-second, custom video trailer introduces the message, and before the pastor speaks his first word—a great deal of “teaching” has already taken place.
The message itself, saturated with Scripture, is supported by culturally-relevant illustrations, application, and purposeful points of comedy. Depending on the day, attendees enjoy a live drama, video testimony of a ThornCreek attendee, or a performance of a secular song with lyrics displayed. There is movement, variety, and creativity. As the message ends, music, lighting, and visuals shift to create a mood of contemplation and response. One final high-energy song is performed to close. It reiterates the day’s topic one last time and communicates hope and encouragement for the week ahead!
So, what are you thinking?
“Well that sure sounds nice, but there’s no way we have the resources to pull off something like that.”
“What is the point of all that stuff anyway? Can’t we just rely on God’s Spirit to move?”
“I’ve always wanted to try to be more creative in our services, but I just have no idea where to begin.”
II. THE EARLY DAYS OF THORNCREEK CHURCH
Two and a half years ago, when I joined the staff at ThornCreek Church as Creative Arts Director, I also had no idea where to begin. Our pastor believed that creative and culturally-relevant services would help us reach our audience. He believed this was the kind of church God was calling us to be, and so he chose to hire a staff member to develop a Creative Arts Ministry.
When I told my pastor that I didn’t consider myself to be very creative, he said, “That’s okay, we don’t need someone to come up with all the creative ideas. We have lots of creative people in the church already. What we need is someone who can rally them together and organize their creative ideas.” Organize? Now that I can do.
What we need is someone who can rally them together and organize their creative ideas.
I quickly assembled a team, and we began planning. We brainstormed and came up with many (too many) creative ideas, and then we struggled to decide which ideas to use. Sometimes, the ideas fit pretty well with the pastor’s message; on other days, everyone struggled to identify the connection. In hindsight, I realize that we dove right into the “fun” of planning services without laying a solid foundation for creativity.
Thankfully, God was faithful. He saw our hearts and our desire to bring others to know him. He blessed our efforts. Yet, had we done our homework adequately, our efforts would have been much more efficient.
So, here’s your homework—that is, if you believe a Creative Arts Ministry is right for your church. I hope these steps will save you lots of time and energy and help you develop a foundation that will support your Creative Arts Ministry for years to come. However, let me warn you—this process is not simple. It requires time, patience, and a lot of “soul-searching.” If you’re up for the challenge, I believe it will be worth it.
III. LAYING A FOUNDATION
A. Embrace the Value of Creative Teaching
Educators understand the importance of creative teaching. For years we’ve known that people learn in different ways. Some learn by seeing (visual), some by listening (auditory), and others by moving, doing, or touching (tactile or kinesthetic). No teacher worth his or her salt would attempt to teach a class full of students through lecture alone. Why then should we? Our goal is to communicate the gospel of Christ in a way that people will understand and retain. Our audiences need to see, hear, and, whenever possible, feel the point of the day.
Our goal is to communicate the gospel of Christ in a way that people will understand and retain.
B. Embrace your Unique Audience
In addition to understanding learning styles, it is also critical to understand the audience in order to communicate effectively. Who is the audience? What are their ages? What kind of music or movies do they enjoy? What issues are they facing at work, home, school? For this purpose, it is all right to generalize.
For example, the faces of ThornCreek Church include mostly adults in their mid-30s, married, with 2.5 kids; they are suburban homeowners, college graduates, professionals, stay-at-home mothers, middle-class, and Caucasians; and they are media saturated and tech savvy. They live in nice homes, dress well, love their kids and most days hold it all pretty well together—at least until the automatic garage door comes down. Of course, we have many people who don’t fit this profile, but on average, this describes who we are.
This is our target audience! Our pastor is clear that this is the target audience God has called us to reach. As we plan, we keep this in mind. Let me also say that your services should NOT look exactly like ours. This exact format will not work for every church. These are the choices we’ve made because we believe they will connect with OUR audience. You can choose for yourself the tools that will work for yours.
God has given us a different community to reach.
Who is your target audience? Is your community urban or rural? Are your people blue-collar or white-collar workers? God has given each of us a different community to reach. Work on being able to clearly define and articulate yours.
C. Embrace Your Unique Mission
Many of us have been involved in creating “mission statements” for some type of group. I personally have experienced the frustration of those meetings, only to find that the Mission Statement is never used and rarely seems to serve a purpose.
Our mission statement has become the guiding factor in everything we do.
At ThornCreek, our mission statement has become the guiding factor in everything we do. It is the tool by which new ministries, marketing tools, and message illustrations are all assessed. It is our benchmark and guides everything that we do.
THORNCREEK CHURCH MISSION STATEMENT: “Transforming SELF-SUFFICIENT people into GOD-DRIVEN people.”
If you’ve been disillusioned by pointless mission statements in the past, I encourage you to take another look. Create a mission statement that is meaningful and purposeful. Then USE IT! Print it on your stationery, discuss it at every leadership meeting, include it in your email signature—whatever it takes to remind yourself and everyone else, “This is what we do!” A clear purpose will guide your creative planning.
D. Embrace the Value of Planning Ahead
I know you may be thinking, “All right, already! Get to the point and just tell us how you plan a creative service!” I understand this feeling and, at the same time, I’ve come to realize that jumping in without adequate preparation keeps us from preparing consistent and effective services.
I’m not a big fan of planning. When hanging a photo on a wall, I’d rather “eye-ball it” six different times before getting it right than actually use a tape-measure and a level to get it right the first time. This drives my husband crazy!
In contrast, we have an incredibly-talented volunteer on our team who is a craftsman. He spends extensive time planning out a stage design and often creates a model of the set before he ever begins the actual project. However, once he begins, his work is precise because of the time he took to prepare.
The more time we spend doing our homework, the better the services.
When planning a creative worship service, the same is true. The more time we spend doing our homework, the better the services are when the day arrives.
We are also very fortunate to have a pastor who values the planning process even though it means more work for him. During my early days on staff, the first time we discussed the weekend service about 5 days before it actually happened. We quickly realized this limited our ability to be creative and figured out a way to plan weekend services two weeks in advance. These days, I meet with our pastor four to six weeks before a message series in order to identify a topic for every message. This means he is often beginning his research one to two months in advance. With a head start like this, our teams have ample time to prepare quality dramas, videos, and stage designs. Continuing to plan only a week in advance will always limit what you’re able to accomplish.
E. Embrace the BIG IDEA
If you give 10 pastors one scripture or story from the Bible and ask them to teach a message from it, they can easily come up with 10 excellent lessons from the same passage. Take the feeding of the 5,000 for example. One might teach about the selflessness of the little boy willing to surrender his meal for the good of others. Another might focus on the disciples’ lack of faith. Still another could focus on Christ’s compassion for the crowd. Before a Creative Team begins to plan, it is critical that they understand the angle their pastor will take.
The goal of the Creative Team must ALWAYS be to support the heart and vision of the pastor.
Since we’re on the topic, please remember that the goal of the Creative Team must ALWAYS be to support the heart and vision of the pastor. The pastor’s job is to faithfully communicate what God has placed on his or her heart for the church body. The job of the Creative Team is to support this message. If this order ever becomes reversed, things are out of order.
During his study time, our pastor clearly identifies one key point or idea that he wants to communicate each weekend. We refer to this key point as the BIG IDEA. It must be stated in clear and concise terms, as it will guide the planning process. When the Creative Team clearly understands the BIG IDEA, then we are ready to begin developing a creative worship experience. To see photos and video of ThornCreek Church’s message series, “Give it Up!” please go to thorncreek.net/churchleaders.
DAWN SWAN serves as Creative Arts Director for Thorncreek Church of the Nazarene