Humble By Design | Creativity and the Distraction of Novelty

Christian Living | Creativity

Published on July 05, 2021

The design and art world can sometimes tend to foster a sort of egotism among artists. After all, we need to promote ourselves, brand our artwork, get our names out there and tie it to stunning and quality work! Such is the nature of working as a professional artist and designer. However, the ‘pride monster’ can grow insidiously under all this ambition to succeed in the professional world of design and media. It is sometimes masked or even openly lauded by a subculture which praises personal individual expression and aggrandizement.

However, how should artists and designers working and serving within the Church (or parachurch organizations) be distinctly humble? In this article, I consider specifically those Christian creatives who find themselves working in church or Christian ministries. However, I think it would also be helpful for Christians and creatives in general to consider some of these principles.

Humble By Design

Pride is by no means a unique struggle for creatives. Thus, it should be no surprise that the Bible gives us distinct principles which should guide how we as artists and designers approach our work to the glory of God. Philippians 2 is especially helpful in providing a theological framework for us.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

Do nothing from selfish ambition (v.3)

What does this mean to artists and designers who are used to self-promotion in order to get work? More specifically, what does it mean to act Christianly in our work?

Many of us are used to signing or watermarking our work, which is good practice for the sake of protecting yourself from plagiarism. However, with this can come a temptation to massage the ego. Paul in verse 3 is telling us that we must not feed such temptations. Rather, we should let all that we do be geared and tempered by a care not for self, but for the interest of others. The selfish ambition we see popular in secular art and design field should have no place in those who minister and work in the church.

As I serve and work at my church, overseeing its media ministry and design work, it has taught me more and more how to put to death the desire to make a name for myself by my design work. When you serve in the church, there is only One Name we make it our aim to make famous—and it’s not yours nor your church’s. (This obviously also applies for those working in jobs outside of overtly Christian institutions) Thus, we can see where our work falls into the grand scheme of ministry. It is not the centre point or focus. It merely serves the greater purpose of the Gospel cause in serving others. It is not selfish ambition which drives us, but rather godly Kingdom ambition.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Have this mind in you (v.5)

Have this mind in you – the mind of Christ which is marked by humility, service, obedience and sacrifice.

Christ’s humility means that just as He did not assert His rights and seek His own interests, the Christian artist’s fame and self-interest must also take the back seat. This is highly counter cultural in a secular artistic culture which prizes self-expression and promotion. Christ’s service means that a Christian artist understands the role his/her art plays in service to the Kingdom. Therefore, if the showiness and complexity of our designs get in the way of the message, it must go. We must serve Kingdom goals firstly. Christ’s obedience/sacrifice means that to be humble and serve with your art and design, you may have to sometimes sacrifice that which is most dear to your heart and put away pride.

Practically speaking, this has played itself out for me where I will intentionally simplify a design to communicate clearer, even though the intricate design is more artistically satisfying to me. Sometimes this can feel like a little piece of me has died with the design – but I keep in mind that my art and design are not to serve myself but others. I will also submit my services to honest critique and feedback from non-creatives on our ministry team and within our church. If my design is not readily understood or does not communicate clearly to them, then I know it is not going to communicate well to the broader community I aim to serve. I’ve had many productive meetings with our pastors and staff which help to clarify what is the end goal of the communication and how my design work might help serve that purpose.

I’m sure I’m not the only creative working in ministry that has struggled with this. We love novelty and it often plays an important part in creativity. However, novelty is not an end in itself.

C.S. Lewis and the Distraction of Novelty

If we are concerned with bringing the Gospel effectively to our culture, the need for excellence in media is important (but not ultimate – the church survived for millennia without PowerPoint or Photoshop!). However, the use of art and design should not be at the expense of Christian convictions and right heart attitudes toward it. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in some “attractional” church models of ministry that prize novelty and utilize the arts to that end.

C. S. Lewis said on the Dangers of Entertainment and Novelty in Worship:

“It looks as if [innovative clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.”

Sometimes, as we’re enthralled with our own designs or satisfied by the depth of symbolism, others are confused or discouraged. We may think that it is our own creativity – that new design or innovative film or fresh musical composition that is the key to church growth or interaction. However, while it can and does play a role, it’s ultimately not the decisive factor or goal. We must consider, who does our art and design serve – ourselves and our artistic tastes and satisfaction, or God and his people? Sometimes, faithfulness can be sacrificed for novelty.

Lewis continues,

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”

I think this is one way to frame creativity in service of the church that is often overlooked. Creativity is not meant to be distracting from the main thing, but rather plays a supplementary or supporting role. Sometimes the question of whether novelty is a distraction or not in the church’s service rarely is considered or even comes up. Seldom is it considered how the ‘familiar’ may have greater use.

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’”

Thus, we must ask if the novelty our creativity introduces actually moves us and our people more towards genuine worship or away from it to become fixated on the new form or the artist. While Lewis is has in mind more liturgical church settings, I think this principle is broadly applicable to the Christian church in general – and perhaps many Evangelical churches have never stopped to consider this. While I am not against us using new or modern forms of the arts or design in worship (there were no electric keyboards or drums or projectors in the ancient church), I do think it is worthwhile for us to pause and consider Lewis’ point.

A part of our consideration as creatives should entail how we might humble ourselves to better serve our congregation and others we seek to reach. Sometimes this may mean giving up on the ‘novelty’ of something. Sometimes, it may indeed involve employing a novel form to bring greater attention and clarity to a subject. However, in each of these, our motivations are outward: God and others centred, not to satisfy our own design itches or tastes. Neither should our first concern be what tickles and catches the attention of our congregants or an unbelieving world, but rather, what pleases our Lord and is in accord with His revealed Word?

Ultimately, as Christian creatives in ministry, we must learn how to detach from “my art” and consider it as a tool and gift to be stewarded in the service of others (see 1 Peter 4:10). This process necessarily involves humility as we are often tempted to tie our identity too closely to our work. We are likewise easily enticed to an inflated view of how our creativity could better do the work of the ministry. However, our Lord’s example of self-emptying calls us to “in humility count others as more significant than yourselves” and to look “not only to [your] own interests, but also the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

May we be humble by design.

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