I know this is ground I’ve covered before at some point on this here blog, but if you will indulge me…
A few years ago, during the height of our deconstruction, our family had a very serious conversation together. This conversation led to a paradigm shift for me, one that has informed my path ever since. Essentially, I was lamenting the fact that I had built my entire musical identity around the platform of institutional church, and now that we were feeling disenfranchised from the institution, I found myself having something of an identity crisis. How does a worship leader function with no platform from which to lead? What do I do now with these gifts? In the course of the conversation, I started to say, “We’ve spent our whole lives trying to fit our gifts into this box we call ‘the ministry’…”
My son, the Director, finished the sentence, “…instead of letting our gifts BE the ministry.”
Now, a few years later, I’m able to look back and see how drastically this epiphany has changed the choices we make, both as a family and as individual artists–which is why I suppose I’m revisiting this topic. It’s something I still grapple with from time to time, but there’s no doubt the rudder on this ship has changed since this conversation took place.
The idea is simple, but for some reason elusive–so in case it’s confusing to some, let me ‘splain, using some personal background to help out.
During my teenage years growing up in church, my talents were quickly noticed (and often coveted, and sometimes exploited) by the church. It was quickly ingrained into me from well-intended people around me to “use my talents for the Lord.” In many ways, what they really meant was to use my talents for the church–to frame the gifts in the context of traditional ministry, to use the gifts as a vehicle to preach the gospel, etc., etc. This was so ingrained into me that I developed my entire approach to ministry around it. As I grew into a worship leader, and as my wife the Wild One began bringing her own visual artistic gifts to the table, we became a team that focused on teaching people to “yield their gifts to the Lord”–meaning, again, to use them in a specific church-worship setting. We began to envision a center for 24-hour worship where people of all creative arts could express their gifts as a direct act of worship to God.
It was a noble idea, for sure–but it also tried to put God in a box. I had no idea how constricting that concept was until we became alienated from the very platform that would have enabled us to fulfill that vision. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much bigger God is. When He says he doesn’t dwell in houses made by human hands, He isn’t just saying He’s omnipresent–He’s also saying He can’t be contained in the structures we create for Him, whether physical or mental.
But I digress…
The conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this post radically changed this concept in me, and I think, in all three of us.
BEFORE THAT CONVERSATION, our entire mentality was based on a predetermined idea about “ministry” and trying to figure out how those gifts would best apply to ministry. This framework continues to be maintained by most church leadership today, which is why some creative gifts find a place in our church services (like singing), and some frequently get left to the side (like dancing or painting). If a particular creative expression finds no place in the vision of the church, it becomes disallowed.
AFTER THAT CONVERSATION, we dropped our preconceived notions of what “ministry” should look like, and we began allowing our gifts to be the defining element. This gave us new permission and freedom to develop and express our gifts and to see what ministry might look like when it forms around the gift itself.
The gift doesn’t serve the ministry: the gift IS the ministry. Get it?
Again, now having a few years to live this out, let me share some examples of what ministry has looked like for us when we allow the gift to define it…
The Wild One has a strong visual artistic gift. In the church setting, it expressed itself in the form of dance, drama, making banners and staging events. Outside those walls, she ventured into photography, which led her into oil painting. She’s allowed herself the room to grow, she paints nearly every day, and her growth has even begun translating into income. To the churched, it might not look much like a ministry, but there is a deep spiritual element to her paintings that isn’t forced–it’s just there, because she’s a deeply spiritual person. You’d be amazed at how many messages and emails she receives from people who view her work online, or buy her paintings and have them in their homes, who say to her, “This painting spoke to me deeply,” “This painting is exactly where I’m at–how did you know?”, “This painting describes my life.” Her paintings aren’t hung on display in church foyers, but they are ministering to people directly in ways the institutional church never could have enabled. She has also been able to minister to, encourage, and most importantly be a solid witness to other artists within her community.
The Director is in a personal place of searching and transition in his own life as he is trying to forge his path as a filmmaker, but I think he grasps this concept more than either The Wild One or me. He doesn’t see himself as a “minister” at all–just as a filmmaker and director, ingrained with a set of guiding principles that he brings to every aspect of his life. He has a deep understanding of human nature. He intuitively knows how to talk to people–he knows how to evoke a certain performance from an actor, he knows how to encourage someone who is down, and he knows how to challenge people to do their very best. He’s unafraid to talk about deeper spiritual matters, or faith, quite honestly, anytime the conversation comes up. His chosen artistic medium doesn’t produce art as quickly as ours–I can write a song in a day, and the Wild One can sometimes turn out several paintings in the same time, while a film happens every couple of years or so. He doesn’t preach in his films at all, yet something about them makes people think, and often evokes change. Perhaps the most pronounced aspect of ministry that surrounds his films (and the part I personally love most) is when we’re actually involved in the process, on the set–when a team of creative people gathers around his vision to help get it done. Never have I witnessed a stronger sense of community than on these film sets, when people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together in extraordinary circumstances with a common goal. The conversations that take place, the friendships that form–ministry is swarming around these projects. The Director has absolutely no agenda for ministry in the way most people think about it. He isn’t trying to convert anyone, and he’s not even thinking about that in these moments. He just feels the freedom to express his gift, and the ministry somehow takes care of itself.
For me, I think the process of re-thinking has been more difficult, perhaps because I was always the most comfortable with religion and the institutional church, and because the old ways of thinking were so deeply ingrained into me. As a music blogger and a musician myself, I’ve found I can experience the same anointing of worship and encouragement by interacting with people outside the walls of the church. I can’t tell you how many times various musicians told me that an article I wrote about them encouraged them when they were about to quit, and I can see when I perform that the audience is responding to the music in much the same way as they did when I was playing it in traditional church settings. There have been a lot of deeply spiritual conversations that have come out of these interactions with the music community here–none of which could have happened in a traditional church setting. And I’m still learning and growing. As I begin now to venture into composing, film scoring and producing, I have my eyes and ears wide open to see how ministry will evolve around these things.
Even so, it’s a challenge for me. There are times when I look at our lives through the lens of the old paradigm, and I feel a sense of guilt or even shame because there is so little I can put my finger on that I could tell church people, “This is what we’re doing for the LORD!” I have an increasingly difficult time describing our ministry to people, and I don’t even like to identify myself as a “minister” to strangers anymore because it almost always raises questions I don’t know how to answer. 🙂 But when I look at the gifts themselves, and I see how much these gifts are truly participating in the larger picture of “Father’s business,” I know in my heart we are exactly on the path God has chosen for us.
I know this path isn’t for everyone. I know there are people who still function and even thrive within the traditional definition of ministry, and as long as God is using them to touch people for the better, I have no quarrel with them. But for us, I know we would eventually have withered within that system; we were already well on our way. I’m beginning to understand that God isn’t just infinitely bigger than the box of “ministry” we built for Him; he also had a bigger idea for our lives, as well.
I have heard lots of “prophetic words” from people in my church circles over the years, and to tell you the truth, a lot of it was hogwash. But there’s simple thing a brother told me once that I understood to be prophetic at the time, and it has turned out to be perhaps the most real, most undiluted word I ever heard. He was a worship leader from respected sister church who had come to ours to help and teach our worship team, and he said something to this effect, “Jeff, don’t limit yourself to what you think God can do through you. I feel very strongly to tell you that.” And he wiped away a tear. I understood it clearly in the immediate context, but I don’t think that even this brother understood how deeply that word was speaking, or the ramifications of it. I now see how real this truth was. I see how much I was “limiting” God. And I’m beginning to see just what can happen when those limits come off, when we begin to think less from our perspective, and more from His.
The gift is the ministry. Think about it.