Westwinds has always been known for creativity. We’ve been featured in the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, produced 4 published authors who’ve written 78 books, and crafted 7 albums of original worship music.
Not bad for a bunch of thugs from Prison City, Michigan.
Our latest project is Love Unknown, a collection of hymns we recorded during Holy Week and Easter this past year. It is available on iTunes for $9.99 and 100% of the proceeds will go to the United Way to help with Hurricane Harvey and Irma relief. Buy it right now, on your phone, and you’ll have the instant gratification of doing something noble as well as the pleasant anticipation of enjoying good music when you’ve finished reading this post. Both that anticipation and that gratification will make you happier, and doing things that you know will produce joyful, noble happiness will also make you wiser. I’m not even kidding. I spent six years researching the sociological and psychological evidence that—for $10, you will actually become a better person in the next 60 seconds.
Our next, next project—that coincides with our Then.Now.Next. teaching series—is something of a manifesto. I don’t often speak about my own sense of calling. When I do, I am often ridiculed. But I’ve been following Jesus Christ for over 30 years, and have been an ordained minister for 20. I have traveled the world and actively participated in thousands of church services from dozens of theological and denominational backgrounds. I know church, and if I were to sum up my calling in one sentence, it’s that God has told me to change it.
I want to change church.
The church has to change. The message of Christ’s love and redemption has become politicized, anglicized, and westernized. Many of Jesus’ most important teachings, and many of the most profound truths about what it means that God has become Man, are offensive to people who call themselves Christians. Sometimes, during church, I think God might puke.
We need to re-align Church with Christ. With Christ’s message. And with Christ’s mission to heal the world.
Then. Now. Next is a biblical vision of the church, the kingdom, and the future. You’ve been preparing for this series, and the book we’ll soon release, every time you’ve walked in the doors at Westwinds for the last several months. All over our church you see signs prophesying about “The Church We See.” That’s not our fantasy. Articulating the vision is the first step in actualizing it. We’ve put it out there;now we’re gonna make it happen. We may not be able to change the world in the next five minutes, but we can start by changing ourselves. By changing Westwinds into a new kind of Church. Again and again. A constant renovation to keep ourselves with Christ.
The thing I think we’ve got “most right” is creativity. We do a lot here. Futurist and scholar Leonard Sweet has often said we’re the most creative church in the world. Best-selling author Reggie McNeal has repeatedly said we do things that no one else is even dreaming of. And he’s Baptist. We’ve received accolades from super pastors Rick Warren, Larry Osborne, and Steve Stroop. In 2014, we even won an award from the Jackson Citizen Patriot for being the “Best Place of Worship in Jackson.” I misplaced the plaque.
But when I search the scriptures for evidence of why creativity matters, the best I can come up with is a metaphor. Can you guess what it is? Something beautiful? Wonderful?
It’s dung. Poop. Caca. Offal. Absolute crap.
Consider that creativity is derivative. It’s what we make with what we’re given. It’s also messy. Sometimes, our work stinks.
The prophets made exceptional use of dung. Ezekiel cooked with it. The priests used it as a sin offering. During economic collapse in 2 Kings, there was a short period of time when dung was even used as currency.
We conceive of something, and then we bring that something into existence.
We digest, and then we produce.
But this production matters—it’s one way we heal the world. Think of design shows on HGTV, where imaginative renovators work with a family to spoil them. That’s creative work—fixing and making. And the net result of that creativity is joy, hope, and healing within that family.
Of course, it’s much harder than they make it look in the 60-minute sexiness of Chip and Joanna Gaines, as anyone who’s ever tried their own renovations can attest. But we can also attest to the fact that such fixing and making is about more than just our house. Or our art. Or our stories. Or our songs.
Whenever we repair the world, we repair ourselves, also.
That’s why our church puts such an emphasis on creativity. Because it’s godly. It’s one way Christ heals the world.
This is a cool feature of comic book writer Grant Morrison, and his never-published pitch for Superman 2000—where he clearly draws strong parallels between the superhero and Christ. Others have noted the similarities, of course—a savior, sent from above. Even the name Jor-El is derived from the Hebrew name for God: EL. But the biggest feature Morrison wanted to connect was their curiosity and their creativity. Superman, in this story, becomes a hobbyist par excellence—gathering artifacts and creating experiences. He retrieves the Titanic and hangs it in the Fortress of Solitude as his dining room, and he curates wonders from space for his friends to enjoy.
Is there a direct connection between Superman’s curiosity and Christ? Certainly Grant Morrison thinks so. In my mind, the strongest link exists between their creativity. I can give you six overlooked pieces of evidence that demonstrate Christ was creative. And, as in all things, he’s our example. We look to Jesus in order to determine both the source and the shape of our salvation. We do what he did … maybe not as well, but we definitely try.
ONE: Jesus made up stories to explore the deeper substance of human morality. He created 52 parables.
TWO: Jesus adapted his stories to varying audiences, with slightly different emphasis, in order to suit his particular purpose.
THREE: Jesus never performed a miracle the same way twice.
FOUR: Jesus never answered questions directly. Most often, he responded “sideways” with a new question of his own, often employing sarcasm in his rebuttal. For example, in John 10, an angry mob of religious conservatives tries to stone him during the Feast of Dedication at the Temple. Instead of running away, Jesus turns and faces them. “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?”
FIVE: Jesus constantly reframed Torah, which required not only that he was an expert at his craft but also his audience. Please, consider the area of your expertise. Now imagine explaining to your colleagues IN ONE SENTENCE why they are precisely and totally wrong. Now imagine doing this in such a way that your quip is retweeted, blogged, tickered, and soundbyted on every media platform by the end of the day…and stays in the public consciousness for two millenia. “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” MURDER (v. Hate), ADULTERY (v. Lust), HATE YOUR ENEMY (v. Love your enemy)
SIX: Jesus reinterpreted scripture in new ways, mainly to refer to himself. People often miss the creativity required here, mostly because their theology is poor. We think, since Jesus was God, he knew everything already. But scripture is clear that Christ “emptied himself” of his divine privileges, limiting himself to what any human being who did what he did would know. Jesus had to study. Jesus had to learn. Jesus had to eat. Jesus had to do his homework. Jesus had to find evidence for himself in the scriptures, and draw conclusions about his divine calling on the basis of what he learned from the Law. According to NT Wright, he would have had to discover he was called to perform acts that only God Himself could perform, and then do them, as God.
Sometimes our work feels like absolute crap. Like it doesn’t matter. Like it doesn’t make a difference. We write songs or stories, put on creative exhibitions or host events, and we wonder why the world isn’t fixed yet. We make lunches for our kids and go to work every day and wonder why we don’t have complete harmony in our families. We try so hard to be good, but our efforts are no guarantee our lives or our jobs or our relationships will be successful.
We despair, and we wonder what’s the point?
In Jeremiah, there’s a story about God’s people being totally destroyed by their enemies. After centuries of working with God, they fail; the prophet despairs. But God reminds Jeremiah he could do new things with failure. On the battlefield, the bodies rot. The bones remain unburied. But God turns that decay into fertilizer, and out of that battlefield, new flowers grow and so does a new promise—that, once again, God will bring his people to a good land, where milk and honey run, where work heals, where relationships endure, and where the law is made from love.
Our work may be crap, but crap makes the best fertilizer. Flowers grow in manure.
We discovered this anew about two weeks ago, while dissembling The Garden Path. Most of you will recall that all summer long we had prayer gazebos on our front lawn. We crafted seven spaces, and hosted thousands of people, as we learned to pray in new ways. The centerpiece of our prayer garden was The Spire—a thirty-foot tower made from shipping palates. People were invited to write prayer requests on the walls, and when Lauren Raymond, who is fairly new to Westwinds, was helping tear it down, she began reading the requests. One of them was for her son and read, “Heal Landon, a child of our church. Amen.” Landon had been hospitalized, and there—in that moment—someone who was new to our church found out that church is a family you don’t even know.
Some might wonder—we did all this work, and then took it down?
No—we did all this work so Lauren could take it down. So God could show her she’s got a family. That tower was only up for 9 weeks. But that story is going to live forever.
That’s the power of dung. It’s derivative. It’s messy.
But it’s fertilizer.