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Storytelling in the Church

It probably goes without saying that the American church hasn’t
always valued creativity as highly as it should. But that seems to be
changing. Churches all over the country have creative teams, weekly
church services are markedly more creative and conferences like STORY
have injected new imagination into sanctuaries everywhere.

One
of the people at the forefront of this new creative revolution is
Blaine Hogan, creative director for Willow Creek Community Church. Under
his leadership, Willow Creek has become widely known for its arts
ministry, videos and innovative experiences.

But for Hogan, a
former actor, the transition to full-time ministry didn’t come
quickly—and it still doesn’t come easily. “I didn’t start out in
ministry, and actually had never really considered it,” Hogan remembers.
“I grew up Catholic in Minnesota but had a pretty broad background. I
was always kind of exposed to ministry but never had any interest at all
in doing it myself. Since I was 9 years old, I knew that all I wanted
to be was a professional actor.”

Which is exactly what he did.

“I
went to theater school and then was working professionally living here
in Chicago,” Hogan says. “I was working steadily at one of the big
theaters in town [and] had a very small role in a few episodes of Prison
Break. At the time I had been flown out to New York to go meet with the
producers of Wicked about doing a role in the Chicago production. It’s
sort of a rarity for an actor to be making a living actually doing their
art. Less than 2 percent of actors through the Screen Actors Guild are
paying their bills through acting—that’s what I was doing.”

At the same time as he was experiencing vocational success, Hogan admits he felt like his personal life was coming undone.

“One
day I deposited a check from 20th Century Fox that had a comma in
it—the biggest check I had ever received in my life, and it was from
acting. I got into my car, I drove toward the pier to do a show and I
was just thinking to myself, I’ve done it. It was this beautiful day, it
was August. At the very same time I had this feeling like, OK, well now
what? What do I do now? I [had] this overwhelming feeling that I needed
to take a break.”

It was during that break from acting when Hogan
made the decision to attend seminary—a place he never thought he’d be.
“It just sort of bit-by-bit felt like that’s what I was supposed to do,”
Hogan says. “So I was there for two years, not vocationally. People go
there to become pastors or therapists, and I wanted to do neither.”

That surprise step led to yet another unexpected twist in Hogan’s life: working for a church.

Upon
graduation, Willow Creek reached out to him to come work on their
creative team. “At first I wanted nothing to do with it because I had
[been] wanting to do a sabbatical, and then I just kept getting worked
on,” Hogan says. “I thought maybe this was the next part of my story. So
I signed on and have been doing that for three years.”

But a
desire for a true sabbatical wasn’t the only reason Hogan felt
apprehensive about working for a church. Like many people, he feared how
a full-time ministry position might negatively impact his ability to be
creative—and honest—in his art. “I don’t think Christian
artists—artists who are Christians—and the Church deal particularly well
with darkness,” Hogan muses. “I have found in my own story and in other
art that you can’t have light unless you have darkness. I think my fear
is that it was going to be saccharine and watered down, and I wouldn’t
be able to tell whole stories because we would want to get to the
celebration too soon.”

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Despite his initial reservations, Hogan has
discovered a niche at Willow Creek. In his time there, he’s made the
church’s arts program one that creative pastors all over the world hope
to emulate. His performance art piece at a Global Leadership Summit is
proof. Combining video with music, stark typefaces and powerful
drawings, the piece is unlike most “church art” you might have seen (you
can watch it for yourself here).

One of
the unique challenges presented to a creative by a ministry job is the
need to “be creative” week in and week out. Creative teams in churches
(or businesses) don’t have the luxury to wait for “inspiration” to
strike—not when there’s a service, project or event just around the
corner. “I think in the last six years I’ve really had to come to terms
with what creating looks like on demand,” Hogan says. “As an actor, even
though I worked consistently, I still would temp here and there. It
wasn’t this daily act of creativity, it wasn’t this daily demand. As I
started to move into work, particularly what I’m doing now, that fantasy
of, ‘Oh, I’m just going to wait for inspiration’ is wiped away really,
really quickly.”*

Hogan says the idea that being creative and
artistic is somehow a fun and “easy” job is a long way from the truth.
He points to the common maxim that “creativity is 1 percent inspiration
and 99 percent perspiration.”

“As I’ve continued my work at
Willow—it’s hard,” he says. “There’s nothing about it that is easy. If I
can sit down and start something, and I can be consistent about
starting something, eventually the genius shows up. But rarely does it
just show up to people who aren’t available. Being available doesn’t
mean just laying in the grass looking at the clouds. For me, sometimes
that’s writing, sometimes that’s running. I’m running, praying and
hoping by the time I get back from my six-mile run, an idea will have
come.”

Hogan admits one of the most difficult tensions he’s had to
face as the creative director at Willow Creek is walking the fine line
between using technology and creativity to bring the Gospel to life but
not letting those elements dwarf the Gospel. “There’s some really
phenomenal mediums that may appear to be very entertainment-based. But
the question I have to ask is, ‘Did the medium serve the content?’”
Hogan says. “I think what starts to happen is that we get in these
realms of needing 3D in our churches, or holograms in our churches and
people aren’t asking why except for the sake of relevancy—it happens
when we don’t think of the story before we figure out how we’re going to
tell it.”

For Hogan, the story has to come first—then you decide
which type of medium is most fitting for delivering the story. He says
churches often try to do it in reverse, to make the medium fit the
message. “My goal is to tell the most incredible story ever,” he says.
“You can use whatever you want to use, as long as you have a really
great story you want to tell first. I think what ends up happening is
the medium trumps the message because we want to be relevant, we want to
be cool, we want to fit in. I just don’t care about that stuff. We’ve
got the greatest story ever told; we just usually don’t tell it that
well.”

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