Matt Appling teaches elementary school art. He knows a thing or two about creativity and how we tend to lose it as we go from kindergarten to sixth grade. Matt talks about art in his recent book, Life After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room. We talk with Matt about creativity and the church:
Why is it so easy for kids to sit down and create something but as adults we just balk at the idea?
Matt Appling: It’s a combination of factors, which I get into in the book, but it is a sad thing to watch kids grow up and actually become less confident in their ability to create. I’ll summarize it with this: confidence to create shrinks as kids become self-aware. As kids grow up, they start spending more time looking at what their peers are doing, comparing themselves and trying to maintain a particular image. It’s a recipe for defeat, anxiety and a sense of failure. It’s the “Pinterest Anxiety Syndrome.”
How do we rediscover our creativity in the church? How do you get the regular folks in the pews who aren’t artists to be creative?
Matt: That is a question that I’m working on figuring out, and I don’t know if I can answer it yet. It’s the same division we have between “clergy” and “laity.” Most people don’t think they are anointed or gifted to participate, so they sit with their hands folded while a few people put on a show from the stage. Churches have to build a culture of a “priesthood of all believers,” and the people have to buy into it. Everyone’s gifts and creativity is going to look differently. Is the church a place where everyone’s gifts are useful?
Why do churches even need to be creative? How does some artsy stuff make us better at preaching the gospel?
Matt: That’s a good one, precisely because, as I start the book, art and creativity in most of our minds seems like “child’s play.” Let the kids make pretty pictures while the grown-ups take care of the real business.
But consider that when Moses was instructed on the Tabernacle, the first people God commissioned were two artists to make the place look nice. God even implied that these two guys’ abilities were because of the Holy Spirit working in them. The question of why we need art or creativity in church shows just how little we think about how aesthetics affect us. I would counter with “why do we need music in church?” Why is everyone expected to sing (though I can’t carry a tune—I’m certainly not gifted to sing!)?
As churches, we’re kind of afraid of failure. Why do you say we should be embracing failure?
Matt: You’re right. Failure is tough for anyone to embrace. And I think it’s tougher in churches because we think that maybe our failures make God look bad. Or they imply that our vision wasn’t clear or we didn’t pray enough or God isn’t blessing the church. Basically, most of us have a bloated concept of failure in our minds, like it’s the end of the world if we fail, which just isn’t true.
Learning to embrace failure happens just a little bit at a time. I ask children which elements of their projects are successful—and not successful. What would they change if they did the project again? They know that no other children are allowed to criticize their work—just them and me. And my room is a safe place to fail. I’m not going to yell or laugh at them. And they are slowly learning that the only real failure is to not learn anything when they fail. Just like churches need to be safe places for sinners in the seats, the church needs to be a safe place for failures to happen, even in the leadership, and it starts with discussing what is the real consequence of failure. (Most consequences are actually rather inconsequential.)
What churches have you seen that are doing a good job of embracing art and valuing creativity?
Matt: I’ve tried looking for churches like this, and I think there are a few that are trying something interesting. Many others are definitely in the process of figuring out what it means to marry worship with creativity. Sojourn Community Church in Louisville has an exciting arts program. Beggars Table Church here in Kansas City is actually a gallery in the arts district of the city. It’s not a “church in a gallery” or a “gallery in a church.” It’s a church that is a gallery, and the art isn’t just crosses and baby lambs. They are inviting the secular art community into their space.
There are several other places that I’ve studied a little bit of what they are doing and have come away pretty impressed. Mosaic Church in Los Angeles is huge on the arts. Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wis., holds an annual arts conference called Pulse. Imago Dei Community has an arts space and considers art part of their ministry to Portland. There are a lot of exciting things, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the churches that are bereft of any art or creativity.