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preaching article When Creativity Crosses the Line to Become Offensive

When Creativity Crosses the Line to Become Offensive

based on 8 ratings
Apr 16, 2012
Scripture: none
(Suggest Scripture)

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.

Dr. Calvin Miller served as Research Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, as a poet, artist, novelist and evangelist. Before coming to the divinity school, he was professor of communication and ministry studies, and writer-in-residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 40 books and numerous articles on religion and preaching. Sadly, Dr. Miller passed away in August 2012.

Talk about it...

Charles Mims avatar
Charles Mims
0 days ago
Brother, I too preached a sermon on Rahab one Christmas. While I wasn't quite as bold as you in titling, it still went over like a lead balloon. I thought it was a fabulous sermon, but as my congregation wasn't spoken to through its words then it was not a success.
Paul Newell avatar
Paul Newell
0 days ago
When I get critiqued for a "bad illustration" (I'm highly visual when I speak) I just remember all of the really bad sermons I've preached that no one ever mentioned. At least with the visuals someone usually says something!
Dean Johnson avatar
Dean Johnson
0 days ago
We need more Calvin Miller articles!
Wayne Taylor avatar
Wayne Taylor
0 days ago
Calvin, your words ring so true. Such is the nature of creative people. We are constantly pushing the envelope. We can't help it. That is the way God created us. On the other hand, as you pointed out, creativity is not an excuse for insensitivity. We need to remember who we are speaking to and not try to pour a gallon of creative thought in a one quart container. There will be times when the criticism is not that we were too creative, but that we tried to fill a gallon container with a cup of creativity. That is where most of us live. Thanks for your great insight.
0 days ago
Yes, i feel for you, have not most of us gone through that...sometimes to our shame. I remember a sermon i preached on the '' TRUMPET WILL BLOW" and at the end of the sermon while every head was bowed. i had someone blow a trumpet, you can imagine what followed, apart from a few near heart attacks, chaos. As i got more matured , i asked myself the question, does the gospel need these ''gimmicks' seeing it is the Holy Spirit that does the conviction? But as i look back i can't help smiling and thinking, those were good times...at least we tried. God bless
Troy Heald avatar
Troy Heald
0 days ago
We need to make sure that our illustrations (with or without props) are tied to the central focus of scripture. We also need to be sure to not take out of context the beauty in the original story just to make it appeal to a modern day crowd. The writer used the example of the modern day nativity. Why would anyone want to take the beautiful, accurate picture of the birth of our Lord and make it modern? Too often, I see people trying to "modernize" scripture to make it seem (at least in their minds) more applicable or more appealing. Scripture has been eternally changing lives for centuries just as it is. Why would we want to change something that comes directly from God?
Tim Smith avatar
Tim Smith
0 days ago
I appreciate Calvin's thoughts and shared worst and best experiences in planning worship. One solution is to plan worship with a Worship Planning Team. It helps to bounce ideas off others and see if they resonate. That's saved us from alot of ideas for worship which didn;t connect. (See "Redesigning Worship: Creating Powerful God Experiences" by KIm Miller). One of the most helpful tools for us is from Chip and Dan Heath's book, "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." In it they have a six fold test through the acrostic S.T.I.C.K.Y. Is it simple? Is it Unexpected? Is it Concrete? Is it Credible? Is it emotional and is it a story? (The Willow Creek Leadership Summit has the Heath's talk on DVD from 2010 which is alot easier than getting a group to read the book. We still have some things that don;t connect but not as many clunkers or embarassments. And sometimes we're even pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the congregation.
Ricki Lee Brooks avatar
Ricki Lee Brooks
0 days ago
Dr. Miller, from the time I first read The Singer (shortly after its first release when I was a young man) 'til just a few moments ago reading this article (as a 56 year young pastor), I have been inspiried by servants who breath the rare air of your creative caliber. You remind me that creativity is a most wonderful form of worship since it is a small attempt to imitate the Creator. Thank you for then, thank you for now, and thank you for all the in between.
Nokomis Jackson avatar
Nokomis Jackson
0 days ago
I believe being creative is good. I also believe that we have to keep scripture relevant to todays await congregation. With that being said, we must remember that the word of God is unchanging and that should be focal point of all our messages. Jesus spoke and taught in parables, in order for the people to relate to what He had to say. We must remember to make it plain and to wear the saved and the unsaved are able to understand and relate.
Mark Baker avatar
Mark Baker
0 days ago
Creativity is great--and, yes, it can get us into trouble. To me it is not a matter of if we should be creative, but if we properly understand it. I think many creative people (artists, musicians, etc) see it as a NEED, or obligation, or license to go outside of the box and doing what no one else ever thought of before. But ANYONE can do that! Perhaps creativity is more about being unique and clever all while remaining within the "BOX" of what is appropriate. Now this is challenging and few can do this on a regular basis.
Zachary Bartels avatar
Zachary Bartels
0 days ago
Rahab the "Arab Harlot?" Wha--? Um, maybe you need to make a little more reading and researching the text "your bag," eh?
Darryl Woodson avatar
Darryl Woodson
0 days ago
Thanks Calvin. I am with you. One thing that has helped me to make some progress in this area, is to expand and illustrate the text rather than the topic. In other words I may have a illustrated sermon on grace and use the woman caught in adultery as my text. I will simply illustrate the biblical story part (with actors and props) rather than the grace part (I stay textual rather than topical). Then when I feel led to preach my "topical" revelation or insight on the text I step away from the scene - I can step in and out of the scene several times.
Darryl Woodson avatar
Darryl Woodson
0 days ago
Thanks Calvin. I am with you. One thing that has helped me to make some progress in this area, is to expand and illustrate the text rather than the topic. In other words I may have a illustrated sermon on grace and use the woman caught in adultery as my text. I will simply illustrate the biblical story part (with actors and props) rather than the grace part (I stay textual rather than topical). Then when I feel led to preach my "topical" revelation or insight on the text I step away from the scene - I can step in and out of the scene several times.
David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
God, use me for Your glory - that's all I ask. I would stand on my head and preach if I thought the people would get it and Christ would be honored by it.
Robert Sickler avatar
Robert Sickler
0 days ago
I like your article. In some ways I wonder if Jesus wasn't a bit artistic in His sermons. I am old and I have learned that if we preach to the establishment we lose much of our future generations.
Mack Pullen avatar
Mack Pullen
0 days ago
As I was reading the reactions to your article I was reminded of a time I did just the opposite. I was serving a very narrow minded congregation and I preached a sermon on what I knew they would like. I received rave reviews and felt smaller with each comment.

So, what did you think?

Thank you.