Erwin McManus is a world-leading advocate for the vital place of creativity in our spiritual lives and longs to see imaginations unlocked in the life of the church. He is the lead pastor at Mosaic, a church community in LA renowned for their innovation and creative expression. Erwin’s understanding of culture and leadership brings fresh insight to the church that must wrestle with its place in today’s world.
Erwin was the keynote speaker at the NZ Baptist Hui 2015. He spoke of the need for the church to dream of and create futures that change the world – expressed through lives that are works of art! We caught up with him to unpack this further.
Erwin, why do you believe we should be living lives that are works of art?
Erwin: He who is the Creator God is the creative God, and he created us in his image and likeness. He created us with imagination and curiosity, with the capacity to hope and dream, and he placed within us all the material necessary to live an extraordinary creative life.
So what does this look like? Not all of us are painters, for example.
Erwin: Though we may create many beautiful works of art, the most important works of art to which we will ever give ourselves are the lives we live. We will never create anything more powerful or significant than our lives. At first our soul is like a canvas where others begin to paint the portrait of who we are. Slowly, as we develop and mature, we take the brush into our own hands and continue painting our own lives. Then we go beyond that, to leave our mark on the world around us.
So a parent loving their child and investing in their life is a work of art. A nurse helping someone deal with a terminal illness is a work of art. A teacher bringing their creative self to a subject is a work of art and it will be a loved subject. A barista who sees coffee as a work of art, will get you a great flat white!
Why is this important?
Erwin: The greatest artists in the world would say that the purest motivator of all art is love. When you create something beautiful, you begin to know that love is the driving force of all things beautiful. If a human always acted on love, they would look fully human and would be living up to God’s intention for them. From here, we would create a better world.
How do we go about crafting lives that create a better world?
Erwin: You need to dream, risk, and create. This should be the reality every moment of your life. You always need to dream, you always need to risk, and you always need to create. If you take a break, there will be a gap in the future. If you’re not dreaming now, you’re not creating tomorrow and if you’re not creating now, you weren’t dreaming yesterday. And if you’re not risking now, there is something that you are not actualising into reality. It’s an ongoing cycle of continuous reinvention.
Decide who you are going to be, invest and grow. Feed on that which feeds your dreams and therefore affects what you create. Start living a life of inspiration, not obligation: go and enjoy the life that God has given you so that you can guide others to life! One time, someone asked me if I would give my life to Jesus and I said, “Well, if I do, will I become like you? Because I don’t want to become like you!” If you tell people that Jesus will change their life but you have a life that people really wouldn’t want, that’s a threat, not a promise! You need to live a full life so that people also want to have full lives – we have to be the best proof of God!
Find two or three people who are willing to be on the journey with you – two or three people with a sense of holy discontent and hold each other accountable to live life differently.
What is stopping us crafting lives like this?
Erwin: Fear seems to be a pretty significant factor: fear of failure or fear of rejection; fear that we are less than we hope we are or fear that we are more than that which we have given ourselves to. But fear goes further than this. For people of faith, there seems to be a fear of infringing on God’s role. We talk about it as if everything good is done by God, and everything evil is done by us. So if we do something good, we say, “Well, the Lord did it.” And if we do something evil, we say, “Well, we did it.” We have a misperception of how God works in the world and we have become paralysed because we don’t know what is our part and what is God’s part in the process of just living life.
Fear is the greatest debilitator from a creativity perspective and fear will establish the boundaries of freedom: if you are afraid of heights, you stay low. If you are afraid of people, you stay alone. You have to decide that those fears will not be your boundaries because eliminating the power of fear can unlock most creative potential! Simply seeking to live a life of security and safety, when hope in what we have now is stronger than the hope in our potential, can result in a miserable life!
What would the church look like if it was unlocking creativity in its ventures?
Erwin: Well that’s the wonderful thing about it – there wouldn’t be one answer because different people would be dreaming different things, risking in different ways, and creating different futures. The church would be so unique and not so standardised.
I think we are coming out of this industrial revolution mindset where the view of humanity was that you get in the assembly line and you do your part and you’re not really important - it’s just the whole that’s important. But then we’ve swung to a place where it is only the individual that is important and the whole doesn’t matter. We can’t seem to bring those two together: we either end up moving towards a standardised community or isolated creativity. I feel like part of what the church is to do is bring these two things together – they are not mutually exclusive. Can we all walk together and be unique? Can we be a community where everyone unlocks their God given potential and creativity but we move together as a tribe towards a goal of creating a more beautiful world?
What might need to change in our churches?
Erwin: I don’t really know about specifics but I think we tend to love our traditions more than our children and I think that’s a tragedy. I think we also tend to make sacred the things that God gave us – but just because he gave it to us, doesn’t make it sacred. Think about buildings – we might have been given the resources to build a building but it doesn’t mean God wants that building to be sacred. That building is a temporary vehicle to achieve an eternal outcome. So if that building is getting in the way of reaching the world, it is time to release that. If we make sacred our past, our future can become irrelevant. I would never choose to keep my traditions and lose my kids: church is not here for us, we are the church to reach the world. We don’t have to relinquish our convictions but relevance to culture is non-negotiable.
Do you have any thoughts for those in church leadership?
Erwin: If you are a leader, it begins with you being teachable, adaptable, and taking courageous steps out of your comfort zone. It begins with your own transformation. I hear pastors talk negatively about their churches and I think, “It’s not your church you don’t like... it’s you! You don’t like yourself!” If there are things you don’t like about your church, you need to change it in yourself first. You can’t make your church creative if you are not prepared to create. You can’t make your church adventurous if you don’t become adventurous. You’re not going to call your church to great risk if you’re not prepared to take great risk. As you grow, so will the church.
I also think that people who do not open up their lives to those who do not know God do not know how to create the future of the church. I don’t think anyone should ever have any power in any church if they don’t have friends who don’t know Jesus that they are bringing to Jesus. I really love Jesus and I really want people to know Jesus and as a church leader, you have to love those who don’t know Christ. That’s becoming really human – actually caring about people.
It also stops the fights over the colour of the wallpaper.
It can be easy to get frustrated with the ways things are in a given church. What would your advice be to someone feeling like this?
Erwin: Change something. Move beyond just talking about whatever it is, because if you are just talking about it, you are not frustrated enough to make better choices.
Story: Sarah Vaine with Erwin McManus
1. Erwin talks about dreaming, risking and creating. Do you have dreams that feel too big to implement? What would it take for this to change?
2. How could your church explore the balance of unlocking each person’s creative potential whilst journeying together to a future that impacts the world?
3.If you are a leader, what do you think about this line? “People who do not open up their lives to those who do not know God do not know how to create the future of the church.”
4. Perhaps this makes you feel overwhelmed or exhausted. Discuss this with others and consider what God is calling you to.
You can read more about unlocking your creative potential in Erwin McManus’ book The Artisan Soul.
Photo Credit: Junie Jumig