I grew up in a musical family and my mother would tell you I was dancing before I was walking. I received my BFA in Musical Theater from Western Michigan University and then I moved to Chicago where I became a dancer, performer and choreographer for 17 years. I was also blessed to work at Disney for three years as a director and choreographer. So I guess it’s no surprise that, when I founded the Bodhi Spiritual Center in Chicago in 2003, having creative arts as part of the Sunday programming was a high priority.
It wasn’t a priority just because it was in my background, however. It was a high priority because I knew that having a stellar presentation on Sunday mornings was necessary for success. During my ministerial training I often looked to the successful mega Christian churches to see what they were doing to bring in literally tens of thousands of people. Every one that I visited had Sunday productions that were equivalent to a Lady Gaga concert. (Ok, well maybe not that great … but definitely close.)
Why might this be important? Because high quality, entertaining experiences are what people have come to expect. The Internet has opened people up to instant access to the best entertainers, motivational speakers, inspired authors, and the best of the best performances. I chose to embrace this instead of making it wrong. Sure, my background lent itself well to this choice, but I knew that an experience for the people that activated their emotional, visual, auditory and whole body senses would cause a spiritual experience that was memorable.
From my very first Sunday at the Bodhi Spiritual Center, I opened with a seven-piece band. I knew that if I started with just a keyboard player and one singer that adding each additional musician would be an uphill battle where I would have to justify the additional expense. So I set the standard high from the very beginning and I never looked back … neither did the community. They loved it and came to expect it. They also gladly paid for it.
I also made it a priority to add skits and theatrical experiences to the Sunday message. At one of my visits to Willow Creek church, in the suburbs of Chicago, I saw an amazing skit that was done by actors who were members of the church community. It was moving and it added a dimension to the message that was undeniable. When the minister stepped in to the pocket to give his sermon, which immediately followed the skit, the audience was prepared and their hearts were wide open to receive.
I have often been asked where to begin in adding creative arts to the Sunday experience. The first place is to look to where the talent of the community rises the highest. If you have a group of actors, professional or amateur, I assure you they would love to be a part of the Sunday morning experience. If you have a visual artist, then invite them to bring paintings and creative art pieces into the room.
This is a bit of a contradiction, but I personally feel it is important to hire professional musicians for one very important reason: they work for you, and you shouldn’t have to deal with the emotional dramas that can come with using members of your community. Not to say that you can’t enhance the musical experience with members of your community, but I would not want volunteer musicians to be the core of the music program.
A special note to the ministers—please do not be shy or afraid to give clear, concise direction to any and every artist that is bringing their gifts to the Sunday experience. If you take a weak stance, in an effort to not offend, you will become vague and disempowered, which in turn will put the artist inside a container of codependency. This never makes for a good presentation.
From the very beginning, when you are working with artists it is important that you let them know you will be guiding and shaping the overall vision. Share with them that you look forward to co-creating and that you are enormously grateful for their contribution. And, you ask that they be flexible and that they keep their focus on the Higher Why … not on their egos.
As the Bodhi Spiritual Center grew over the years that I was the senior minister (I am no longer there, I left after 11 years), the opportunities to bring more and more creativity to the Sunday experience also grew. I have no doubt that a large part of the expansion the Bodhi Spiritual Center experienced was because of the creativity that people came to expect every Sunday morning.
Wherever you are in the game of adding creative arts to your Sunday mornings, know that putting your time, attention and resources into this area will pay back exponentially in greater joy, worship and success.