Copying and the Creative Challenge

A few weekends ago, my wife asked me if I was excited to go to her parent’s church. It was a bit of a loaded question.

I’m sure I rolled my eyes or made some sort of noise of disapproval before I sarcastically said, “I always enjoy being at a service where it’s a bunch of strung together stolen elements from other churches.”

I suspect my wife wasn’t surprised by my response, but I was a little taken back by hers. As a former communications director, I assumed she sided with me about stealing something and claiming it as your own. Instead, she challenged me about why I was so snarkily bent out of shape.

Our conversation brought up the challenges and realities that face congregations of various sizes in all sorts of locations.

The truth is, in most congregations, people don’t care if the content is stolen as long as they feel good. It’s one of the most frustrating aspects of the creative process. If your audience doesn’t care if you created it or stole it, what’s your motivation?

At my family’s church, when someone is raving over the service, I always feel compelled to share the fact it’s not an original idea of their specific church. When met by disbelief, I can usually find a YouTube video to prove my point. That doesn’t always go over well. But the conclusion almost always is something like, “Well, it doesn’t matter as long as people are coming to church and are engaged.”

After all, why should they care? Isn’t everything a copy of something else? Plenty of people have made the argument that there is no original idea. To some degree that’s true. But for me there’s a difference between directly copying and being inspired by something. How are you looking at an idea and working with it to fit your context?

I get why copying happens. Most churches don't have the resources to be anything other than a copy machine. Money is always tight and small staffs are stretched with the large amount of work they’re asked to do.

Yes, there is some truth to the belief that it takes a massive staff to free up time to allow for creativity. More importantly, for a church of any size, it takes a leadership culture that believes in taking time to think creatively. Even big churches, with large staffs, aren’t as innovative as they should be because it’s not a part of their staff DNA.

Even the popular church growth model of extending to multiple sites forces growing church staffs to spend time duplicating an experience and not creating something new.

To do ministry well, and to focus on quality, often times you have to be so narrowly focused you say no to good things. At times it’s good not to try to be everything to everyone. But as churches we face a problem with that too. If someone is told no, they move on. It’s not always bad. Some personalities are toxic to your culture. Although, if this happens a lot, as a church you get a reputation problem and you don't have someone to manage that bad reputation.

We don't have so many churches because they're all full. It's because there are so many differences.

Yet copying is one area where many churches find common ground. There’s a desire to be like the church down the street or across the county that’s had successful growth.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud all of the creative churches who have made it a ministry to share their ideas, graphics and more with other congregations. I love it when churches work together towards a greater mission. But even if you’re using templates, think about why you’re doing it.

If you copy, make sure it fits your church setting. Be true to who you are—don’t just do something because it’s cool.

Take the time to brainstorm. Work with other churches. See how you can be better together. The truth is, it will probably be more productive than meeting with an elder board where the topics are out of their wheelhouse and therefore get slowed down.

I understand there is a creativity conundrum. You have to find a balance with your church resources and the goals of where you want to be. But in all of it, don’t ever compromise who you are as a church. God has blessed you with something unique. Use it. Fine-tune what you see others doing instead of blindly copying. It will make you a stronger church.

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