The Functional Limits of Creativity: How Innovative Can We Be with the Gospel?

creativity-600x375This past weekend I had the privilege of presenting a workshop at Crowder’s Fantastical Church Music Conference in Waco, TX. Through a series of email discussions, David and I came up with the title, “The Functional Limits of Creativity: How Innovative Can We Be with the Gospel?”

img_1728When Crowder first contacted me about participating in the conference I wanted to make sure he knew where I was coming from in the area of creativity. I love creativity, but think God has placed limits on its use in congregational meetings. He told me that’s why he wanted me to come to the conference. Well, that made my day.

I divided my workshop message into three sections, which I’ve listed and filled out below.

Thoughts on Creativity
The Bible is filled with examples of creative individuals and examples, including Bezalel (Ex. 35:30-35), the liturgical and musical revolution David  brought to temple worship, and the Psalms. But God isn’t always impressed with our creativity (Ex. 32; Num. 3; 2 Sam. 6; 1 Sam. 10).

It can be helpful to think of creativity like water. When water is confined by household pipes, river banks, and ocean shorelines, it’s a blessing. When it moves beyond those limits, it can wreak havoc.

In the church, creativity is not something we do, but a way we do something. To pursue creativity without concern for its function in the church confines us to always pursuing originality and newness, oblivious to the observation of Eccles. 1:9 that there is nothing new under the sun.

Three Purposes of Music in the Church and their Corresponding Limits
1. To build up others – Edification Limiter. (Eph. 5:18-19; 1 Cor. 12:4; 1 Cor. 14:12)
The standard for the music we sing is not what benefits us, but others. This requires a knowledge of the people we’re leading and an awareness of our tendency to favor our own preferences.

2. To demonstrate our oneness in Christ – Unity Limiter (Rom. 15:5-7)
God has always intended singing to be a demonstration of the church’s unity, not a cause for its division.We should be asking what kind of music best enables the people of God – from different generations, backgrounds, and socio-economic classes – to sing together, so that we might demonstrate in our singing how the gospel has reconciled us not only to God, but to each other.

3. To enable the word of Christ to dwell in us richly – Gospel Limiter (Col. 3:16)
Music is one of the primary ways God means to deepen the effect of this gospel in our lives. Music helps us remember the gospel. It can stir up our passions for the gospel. It provides a means for us to express emotion about the gospel. It is meant to help us let the word of Christ, or the gospel, dwell in us richly.

It is too easy to assume the gospel. We have to fight to keep the gospel central and prominent in the midst of our creativity. Without the gospel, we have no relationship with God and our worship remains unacceptable (1 Cor. 2:2; 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 6:14; Eph. 2:18; 1 Pet. 2:4-5).

Creativity can distract from the gospel, affecting its value.
Creativity can distort the gospel, affecting its content.
Creativity can demean the gospel, affecting its power.

The success of our meetings is not ultimately dependent on something creative we do (new lighting, layout, arrangements) but something God has already done. Creativity must not usurp the gospel of grace. God can use our creativity, but He doesn’t need it.

Pursuing Creativity in a Way that Magnifies Christ.
Know and treasure the immeasurable riches of grace found in Christ.
Value truth over tunes and Christ over creativity.

Trust the power of the proclaimed gospel.
Recognize that creative sometimes means old, simple, and familiar.
Cultivate and expose yourself to creative thinking communities.
Value the sound of the congregation over the sound of any instruments.
Regularly examine the short and long term fruit of your music.
Never stop asking questions.

I ended by praying that God would give each of us wisdom to establish the proper pipes, banks, and shorelines to our creativity, so that after we have done our best to serve the church with our creative gifts, both believers and unbelievers would leave our meetings saying not, “What great creativity,” but, “What a great Savior!”

You can download a full copy of my notes here.

For a brief video where I talk about creativity with CJ Mahaney, check out this post from WorshipGod09.


39 Responses to The Functional Limits of Creativity: How Innovative Can We Be with the Gospel?

  1. mike dowling October 8, 2010 at 8:05 PM #

    great stuff!

  2. Jason Wu October 8, 2010 at 9:37 PM #

    Thank you so much, Bob, for expressing these thoughts, and for making the notes available.

    My wife and I were discussing the issue of contemporary worship – and how it’s not really an issue anymore. A few years ago, someone looking for a church might ask, “Does your church have contemporary worship?” Now, almost everyone has contemporary worship, been there, done that. The trend is moving back to asking, “Does your church teach the truth, the Word of God?”

    I sense that we are making a turn back to the solid ground of God’s Word. The music – it’s there to help, but the end goal is that our eyes be turned to Jesus. The music is once again taking the back seat, seen as a vessel/channel, rather than the goal.

  3. Brett Lovern October 8, 2010 at 10:15 PM #

    First of all, I am so thankful for you, Bob. Your thoughts are always so Biblical and Christ-centered. Thanks for keeping the main thing the main thing and for reminding us as worship leaders to do the same.
    Second, I would be curious to hear some things that you see as examples that illustrate a number of the points you make, particularly how you’ve seen creativity distract from, distort, and demean the gospel.

  4. Jeff Lackey October 8, 2010 at 10:45 PM #

    Thanks, Bob, for taking time to teach at this conference. I love the DCB and I can’t think of anyone better to teach us how the Gospel informs our creativity, rather than the reverse. DCB and Bob; like peanut butter and chocolate.

  5. Josh October 9, 2010 at 2:50 PM #

    Great stuff Bob. Thanks so much for your loyalty to the gospel in worship.

  6. Mark Lioret October 9, 2010 at 2:51 PM #

    thanks for posting this bob – a fellow workshop attendee and i were laughing with each other after you finished, as you had waited until the END of it to announce you were posting the notes – meanwhile, we had been furiously scribbling away in notepads.. .hahaha…. i’m happy you did, though – i glanced through my notes and wasn’t having much success at deciphering them.. :)..

  7. Rachael Starke October 9, 2010 at 3:41 PM #

    SO helpful. If I describe you as the most theologically sound “Switzerland” in the never-ending worship wars, will you receive that as a compliment? It’s completely meant as one. :) Thank you!

  8. Steve Inman October 9, 2010 at 11:43 PM #


    You listed “three purposes” for music in the church: edification, unity, Christ’s word in us.

    Curious — why didn’t you list “Four purposes” and include music as a vehicle to enhance worship, with our creativity being limited to ensure God is the focus and not the music itself, not the “experience”, etc.?

    I was surprised to see “worship facilitation” missing from your list.


    Steve Inman
    Kokomo, IN

  9. Andy October 10, 2010 at 1:04 PM #

    Steve, I hesitate to speak for Bob, but I think he omitted it because, while enhanced worship is a pleasant side-effect, it’s not the purpose. Worship, as presented in the Bible, is about glorifying God and building up the community… it’s not so much about the individual (although as I said, it’s a pleasant side-effect when it takes place).

  10. Daniel Kenny from October 10, 2010 at 8:05 PM #

    I love that last point… that people would leave the meeting saying “What a great saviour!” instead of “What great creativity.”

    I think we walk along the edge of a sword with this one, though. We want to use our creativity in such a way that it in some way magnifies the glory of God. It’s like speaking eloquently as a preacher. You can be like Jonathan Edwards and stand there with your hands in your pockets, preaching to thousands and thousands of people, and have a profound effect on their lives. That’s be the grace of God. By the same token, there’s a lot to be said for the George Whitefields who match the message of the gospel with the passion of their preaching. God uses both kinds of preachers; and I think God uses both kinds of worship teams, too.

  11. mandythompson October 10, 2010 at 10:00 PM #

    Thank you for posting this, as well as for linking to your notes and video from the discussion with Mahaney. I recently attended the Story conference, and I’m working/grappling to match my creativity with the “content of the Gospel” like was said in the linked video.

  12. Rich October 11, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

    Steve and Andy,

    Like Mark I attended the workshop and wrote a crazy amount of notes. The info and all around good stuff that Bob was giving was like drinking from a fire hose and he only had an hour to do it. If I can remember correctly I believe he said that there were more ‘banks’ or ‘shorelines’ that limit our creativity but that he only had time for three. And after re-reading I think he nailed the three he shared with us.

    glad the notes are up! they will be shared.

  13. Rich October 11, 2010 at 10:08 AM #


    In the pdf document, page 6 is blank…

    • Bob Kauflin October 11, 2010 at 11:07 AM #

      Rich, thanks for the heads up. I took the blank page 6 out of the download.

  14. Ben Miller October 11, 2010 at 10:09 AM #

    Thank you so much for this. It is so important that we talk about creativity biblically, and more than just “God is creative, so we should be too,” which is correct, but incomplete. It seems there are so many more avenues for creativity (lights, video, graphics, etc.) in the modern church being used without any limiters at all. Biblical limiters are extremely helpful, and I am so grateful you wrote about them!

  15. albert777 October 11, 2010 at 2:43 PM #

    Love it – Love David he was at our church last year – he’s a worship genius – It’s very funny if you read about the life of Fanny Crosby – a hymn writer in the 19thcent the debate was allowing those horribly written music in the church – High Church people thought it a sin to allow modern tunes to be put to christian lyrics – like amazing grace – a common drinking tune – Creativity is important because God mad us different so we can reach different people – as long as the content is unchanged the method does and has!! Great blog post man!!

  16. Steve Cornell October 11, 2010 at 5:07 PM #

    Although not a musician (yet a pastor for 27 years), I’ve noticed that some musicians feel a need to express their creativity with an assumption that what ignites them will be enjoyed by all. Non-musicians tend to stay in a musical “comfort zone.” Creative musicians can rattle (unnecessarily often) others with their personal expressions in public worship. Just go easy and think of others as more important than yourselves (Phil. 2:3-5).

  17. David Parker October 11, 2010 at 8:40 PM #


    This article was wonderful, and prompted some good discussion among our church plant group. We were curious if you had anything specific in mind as far as valuing the sound of the congregation more than the sound of the instruments?

    Obviously we don’t want the volume to overwhelm the congregation, but were you also thinking along the lines of the size of the group needing to match the size of the current congregation? Thanks again for the great article.

    • Bob Kauflin October 12, 2010 at 8:40 AM #

      David, thanks for the question. There should be a sense that the instruments are serving the congregation rather than dominating it. That doesn’t mean the band/musicians can’t be louder than the congregation at times, such as when you’re teaching a new song, getting a song started, or when you’re changing keys. But once the congregation knows what’s happening they should be able to hear each other sing. It’s good at times to try a verse, chorus, or even a whole song a cappella to make the point that instruments can be used but aren’t crucial in what we’re doing. The point is to inspire faith-filled singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Is that helpful?

  18. Paul October 11, 2010 at 11:31 PM #

    Thanks for the notes Bob. These are extremely helpful to all worship pastors. Your teaching on worship is greatly appreciated.

  19. Steve Inman October 12, 2010 at 8:27 AM #


    Thanks for your reply. Since I have a bad habit of being too verbose (as I am about to do!) I tried to be brief with my post and did not fully explain my thinking on the topic.

    To clarify my thought, I would point to the Psalms (Ps. 33:1-3 is the first such highlighted passage I came to in my Bible) as being filled with many passages that show a very strong link between music and worship, hence my surprise that it was not listed among the top 3 purposes on Bob’s list.

    Being familiar with churches where “the horizontal” aspects of the faith (“edification”) reign as the supreme focus of everything that is done has made me sensitive to the importance of “the vertical” aspects of Christianity, and the importance of proper emphasis of praise and worship. As surprising as it might be, there are some churches where little emphasis is placed on worship — there is indeed a wide spectrum out there.

    Having read many of Bob’s posts, I have no fear that there is any weakness in his personal perspective in this regard. He may have omitted the “worship angle” simply because he thought it was a “given”. Yet I think it is important to point out that a balance must be struck along the “quality-creativity continuum” for music when it is used to facilitate worship. Too little quality or creativity can be a problem, as can too much — if the congregation’s focus is shifted from God to the music at either end of the quality spectrum.

    Based on the Psalms, I would assert that one of the purposes of music is indeed to facilitate worship. Based on my perspective, I would also assert that “music does not equal worship”, with the most exaggerated example (for effect) being my town’s secular, classic rock radio station.

    Moving from that example back toward the spiritual, caution must then be applied not to jump to the conclusion that great music (“radio quality” ?) in a church service means that great worship occurred. Likewise, great creativity in music does not mean that great worship has occurred among those present. However, poor quality music, lackluster presentation, low creativity may in some settings actually detract from worship, or require more effort from the congregation to worship “in spite of” the music.

    So I see the need for a balanced perspective in this regard with attention being given to musical quality and creativity, though remembering that it is God and His attributes that must be the focus of attention and not the music itself. Scriptural truths about God’s attributes (selecting songs with excellent lyrics), combined with musical quality and creativity, provides an effective facilitation of worship when believers come with prepared hearts.

    Best Regards,

    Steve Inman
    Kokomo, IN

  20. David Ketter October 12, 2010 at 10:01 AM #

    David P:

    Bob has some great thoughts. I would also encourage you, if you have the opportunity, to look at a congregation affiliated with RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). These are folks who do a capella Psalmody as their mode of congregational worship (they hold to the regulative principle and thus do not permit instruments or songs other than those inspired by the Holy Spirit to be used in worship) and it’s definitely a different kind of experience, but one that more Christians should have, I think.

  21. tom cottar October 13, 2010 at 10:02 AM #

    thanks as always for your insight. LOVED your contributions to the Crowder conference in Waco. In fact, much of your notes have led to some great dialogues with some back-in-the-day, hardcore GLAD fanatics/friends of mine!

    May the Lord continue to bless you as you help lead us to Him..

  22. Diana October 13, 2010 at 1:50 PM #

    Your message has been especially educational and encouraging to me! I’ve recently been asked to lead worship at our little church due to some painful turmoil our church has endured. While I am a worshipper – I’m not a worship leader, and can NOT make the services as creative and big productions as they were before. I opt for the simple, basic, tried and true and amazingly…I actually HEAR people singing with their hearts!! While I enjoy creativity as much as the next person, and I thank GOD he’s so creative as to give us sights and sounds and tastes…I know that Billy Graham has never wavered from the simple message – Jesus saves. I will strive to keep that the central message of the music I bring each Sunday.

    I truly appreciate your perspective – and learn something each time I stop by. Thank you for serving our God so faithfully.
    In His Grip….

  23. David October 13, 2010 at 10:52 PM #

    Thank you for the reply, that definitely makes sense!

  24. Jason October 14, 2010 at 3:53 AM #

    Thanks for a wonderful post, Bob. We often miss the forest for the trees. Creativity is just like water if used to serve God proves to be a blessing however if used for selfish ends causes havoc in our lives much the same way as floods. Eccles’ thought is indeed a timeless one that that there is nothing new under the sun.

    What we can change though is whether we are receptive to the Word of the Gospel and use our creative gifts as meant to be rather than the way we want it to be.

  25. Bethany Colgrove February 24, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

    I’m 24 and a new worship leader. Your blog and book have been helping correct & comfort me during this new season of life.

    “Truth over tunes” and “Christ over creativity”…these are just two of the many phrases that I am learning from your blog and your book, “Worship Matters”.

    Thank you for taking the time to share the knowledge and wisdom God has given you, with a new generation.


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