Creativity always has been my bag. The worst thing about being creative in worship is that all your effort is at once visible to a great many people. There is virtually no place to hide, once the pulpit production is underway. I learned this when I was quite young in the ministry.
Once when I was a new pastor, barely out of my teens, I decided I would preach a Christmas sermon and close with having our young people (who were among the few who saw me as brilliant) do a modern dress version of the Christmas story. So at the conclusion of my sermon, I had Mary and Joseph come in as the bride and groom in an evening gown and tuxedo (respectively). The shepherds entered in overalls and the Magi in dinner jackets and black slacks. The annunciation angel entered in one of our unused baptismal robes.
Some in our congregation (I thought them very narrow minded at the time) were very upset and thought the $35 per week the church was paying me was too much for my liberal views of the nativity.
Well, that was 50 years ago, and I have had many opportunities since then to ask, "When does the preacher's creativity spin past the congregation's credulity?
How big a role should propriety play in cooling the pastor's creative spirit?" The answer is: "When the creativity of the preaching moment outstrips the congregation's proper view of things and basically embarrasses the flock."
There are lots of reasons why this happens. First, the creativity may be corny, ostentatious or inappropriate in its verbiage. It may be overly dramatic, woefully undramatic or obnoxiously melodramatic. In whatever way it errs, it merely translates as inappropriate.
I have lots of examples of times when I tried to be visually clever and ended up looking stupid while everyone else was just looking down. What amazes me is that I continue doing these creative things that just don't work—all the while imagining they will.
Two years ago, I put together a series of Advent banners, which I hung out at each of the four progressive worship services that precede Christmas. Each of them represented a different name for Christ. They were good, sound biblical names for Emmanuel; and then I took the time to explain why each of the names of Christ was so significant.
I found myself working so hard to produce extremely attractive banners (and if I do say so, art is my bag). When I actually tried to pull them off as an aspect of worship, people didn't seem to get it. The original names for the banners were all in Hebrew or Greek, and they just never seemed to make the leap to the good Old English translation of the words I wanted them to understand. The whole effort literally was lost in translation.
I preached a sermon this past Christmas I called "Rahab, the Christmas Prostitute." It was in some way a shocking title and certainly had everyone's attention. The sermon was built around the Arab harlot whose name worms its way into the genealogy of Christ imbedded in the begat passage of Matthew. It was intended to be a picture of grace that I symbolized in the scarlet cord, which I had concealed in an inner vest pocket for the sermon's conclusion.
I drew the cord out at the last possible moment and invited my audience to consider their own sin and how wonderful is the grace of the scarlet cord that would allow a prostitute to be one of the ever-so-great-grandmothers of Christ. The image seemed to fall flat and I found myself wishing I had preached another sermon to a more appreciative audience.
One of the worst features of all this image-driven preaching is that I have boxes filled with all of these banners, bells and whistles—items I wanted to be more exciting than they actually turned out to be. When I fail to make the image and the Scripture passage connect—at least to the degree I had hoped—I find myself thinking, "Could I really have been this stupid at this stage of my life?"
I see others whose breaking with propriety in favor of over-done imagery leaves me feeling at least a little better about myself. A certain dean I know of recently mounted a horse, complete in Western regalia, and had himself photographed in front of the college chapel where he serves. The sermon he preached in his inaugural address was called "Taking the Reins of the Institution." I can only imagine how his Gene Autry mystique was read by all the members of the accrediting agency. It is just another case of how a lack of propriety can render our creativity to be a dull exercise; instead of winning for us a round of applause for our creativity, it leaves for us a reputation for foolishness. Remember the words appall and applause are almost anagrams.
What is the answer to our dilemma? Is it right to try to be creative? The answer is of course, "YES!" What of the time when we don't succeed at it very well? Here is my judgment: It is better to have tried and sometimes won than never to have tried or won at all. The best thing about creativity is that it unlocks within those who try it a freedom, an escape from the fear of never changing things in worship. The reason so much worship is boring is that the services are run by those who never stand up to the possibilities of impropriety. Never able to imagine ourselves doing anything the congregation would not approve of is to lock us up in a box of sameness that we never can escape simply because we fear we will be caught doing something so odd that we will risk being called improper.
The tension between the two—impropriety and creativity—is a horrible, uneasy tension; but we must remain free enough to experiment, and when we do then interest—and maybe passion—will be born in our preaching.