When I teach internationally, I’m often introduced as “the most creative pastor in America.” It’s a bit embarrassing, but I’m thankful to those who’ve happily perpetuated that fiction, since it’s a better introduction than “he’s this guy from Michigan with tattoos.”

As a result, I am regularly asked to evaluate other pastors’ and churches’ creative ideas. Specifically, people often ask: Why didn’t our cool idea work?

I’ve answered these questions so many times I thought it was worth a little attention. Here are the 5 most common reasons no one celebrates your imagination, creativity, or ministerial innovation:


1. It’s too crafty. It looks like a 3rd grader made it before stuffing it into their backpack and feeding it to the dog. Usually things made with tissue paper, glue, pencil crayons, tape, and glitter have a “crafty” appearance. Most of what we try to pass off as art is really not. The real problem with craftiness is when we oversell it as art. We tell our people “a great artist made this” and the average person looks at it and thinks, “Did they pass it off to their kids?” or “I could’ve made that!” My suggestion is to either avoid displaying crafty stuff altogether or invite everyone to contribute to some master-craft/group project. With the former, you don’t blow your credibility by overselling crafts as art. With the latter, you have the benefit of everyone involved feeling like they’ve discovered their artistic side.


2. It’s too obscure. No one understands what it’s supposed to mean or why it’s supposed to matter. Much modern and abstract art is this way. And, because artists are often very sensitive about their work, we’re not prepared to deal with people’s knee-jerk reactions. As a result, we tend to become angry when they don’t “get it” and immediately categorize them as cretinous, low-brow, children of an empty-headed consumeristic culture whose only aesthetic sensibilities come from Target.

But the truth is, our churches aren’t made up of artists, and people do need some help understanding why art has value, how it should be appreciated, and what place it holds in the life of a congregation. If you don’t help them think through these things, you can’t very well expect them to magically arrive at substantive conclusions all on their own. Let the artists do their work, and then do yours.


3. It doesn’t connect with scripture, Jesus, or the gospel. Your people have no idea why this is part of church life. They may even enjoy the art, but be confused as to your motivation for including it. Most frequently, people wonder if we’ve gone soft on the gospel or are tiring of Christ. This leads them to strange conclusions about heresy, faithfulness, and—I’m not even kidding—sexual orientation or witchcraft. Part of our job is connecting the dots. You’ll enjoy life more if you can remove the obstacles of confusion and wrong-headed conclusions from the majority of your people

4. It’s self-indulgent. This is a work made by the artist for the artist’s own enjoyment and really has nothing to do with anything at all. Most art is therapy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s just a whimsical expression of your inner snowflake, then don’t put it on display. It’s the three-dimensional equivalent of an eight-minute piano lamentation or a fifty-five-minute lecture on the difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism in neo-Calvinist chorale music. Nobody cares.


5. It’s got a short tail. People see and appreciate it, but they don’t know what to do next, so their enjoyment lasts about five seconds. Art doesn’t have to have a point, nor does it have to give direction for actionable progress. But we often get our feelings hurt when people like our art but not as much as we do or as much as we think they should. This is the same problem experienced by folk artists who try to sell their collector’s birdhouses for $100. We overestimate the worth of our endeavors in the eyes of everyone but ourselves. It’s a good idea to ask: What am I hoping for with this display/experience/exhibit? And then: Are these actually the kind of people who might respond accordingly? Chances are, they’re not, so you have to get over it, find a new venue for your art, or begin cultivating art appreciation over time so more people can experience the beauty you’re offering.


I realize some of this might feel disheartening, but I’m trying to remind us of what we already know: Art is important, but it isn’t obvious.

If you want to lead a creative, arts-driven ministry, you’re going to need a robust theology of the visual arts and be able to explain why the things we love are also dear to God.

Good luck with that.


P.S. Give me a day or so and I’ll craft a follow-up post about what to do to ensure your cool, hip, neat-o idea gets as much traction as possible.