by Doug Walker
To discuss creativity on the mission field we must first define creativity.
Creativity has been called the ink into which every writer must dip his pen. But it is also the paint for the artist, the tool for the mechanic, and the test tube for the chemist, without which a Godgiven capability within each of us would be lost. And so I listened intently as my college professor began telling me of an alarming pattern on the mission field.
"One thing that frightens me," the teacher said, "is to see so many missionaries who, after a few years on the field, lose all their creativity." She continued: "They only do what is required of them, nothing more, and before long they’re just a shadow of what they used to be. "
That shocked and scared me. And, from the moment I entered the mission field a few months later, I carefully looked for signs of the same thing in myself. I was like a patient watching closely for a sign of cancer, knowing that if it was caught early enough a complete cure was possible. My vigil taught me many things, more often from my own mistakes than from those of others, and I share the observations, hoping that others may learn from them, too.
To discuss creativity on the mission field we must first define creativity. It could best be explained as: taking some thing (or things) and fashioning it in. such a way – whether through words, art, chemistry, or any other means – that it can now be viewed as a new and unique creation in itself. Thus, describing a rainbow in a distinctly original form could be considered equally as creative as the designing of a new kitchen appliance. On the mission field, opportunities for creativity exist in everything from our prayer letters, to our mission meetings, to our ways of caring for those in need.
Creativity is a spark in mankind that comes from our Creator God. Man’s relationship with the Creator has been stained by sin, but the ability to be creative still exists in each of us. As Christians in harmony with the Creator, through the redemptive work of Christ, we should have a special grasp of what creativity is. Too often, however, we coast along without ever really discovering what we have in us. Non-Christians, on the other hand, search for their meaning in the created world (rather than in God himself) and find the search for creativity exciting, because it is the closest thing to knowing God that they can ever experience.
On the mission field, that search for creativity is an integral part of effective outreach, yet often it is distinctly missing. Why is this so? I noticed five reasons.
TOO MUCH WORK, TOO LITTLE TIME
First, there is the complaint that there is "too much work and too little time" to come up with creative ideas. There is usually a good basis for this complaint. Many mission staffs are udermanned and a missionary day usually lasts far longer than eight hours. In addition to the regular work schedule, a missionary is often called upon to be Sunday school teacher, traveling speaker, foreign correspondent (letter- writer), counselor, and church leader. Anyone in this situation, myself included, often finds himself so pressed for time that he does the bare minimum but nothing more. Many do a courageous job of trying to achieve more – with varying degrees of success. But there must be a better solution. In searching for answers, I talked to my father, a bank vice-president, who suggested five ways in which a business handles the same work overload problem. If we analyze them carefully, each of these suggestions has an application on the mission field, too.
One partial solution is to require a vacation – not just in the policy manual, but in actual fact. Both on the mission field and in secular businesses, this requirement can be easily ignored by the plea that there is too much to do ("who cares what the policy says"). Often, a devoted person goes on and continues achieving even without the vacation, but like a battery that hasn’t been recharged, one can’t produce quite the same spark as before. The time for recharging is actually quite small (even a three-week vacation takes up less than six percent of a year’s working days), yet too often it is ignored. It shouldn’t be. just as Christ required time away from the crowds, we must allow ourselves that same time as missionaries. It will give us new reserves and creativity to draw on, which over a period of years can strengthen the vitality of our witness.
A second suggestion is to switch assignments for a while. This doesn’t have to mean working at a completely new job. It can be just doing a different variety of jobs within the same basic job setting (for instance, secretaries or translators could temporarily exchange certain duties with each other). All this would have to be coordinated with a superior, but the change in job duties could well spark more enthusiasm and with it creativity.
Another idea from the business world (with many biblical parallels as well) is to put a person, who previously had been working alone, with another employee. Especially when someone has been working on their own, the ideas of another person may be just the impetus needed to get him thinking along the right track.
Throughout the Bible, God used other men to prod each other. Aaron gave support to Moses’ leadership abilities, Jesus gave the disciples a fellow student to learn with when he sent them out "two by two" (Mark 6:7), and Paul often traveled and ministered with others. The examples are many. If we bring two or more people together on a project, the chances for new ideas are greatly multiplied.
Fourth, the superior needs to allow his workers the time to develop creative ideas. Sometimes, pressure can spark creativity, but in the long run any extra time allowed to amplify an idea will be helpful.
And, finally, any outside seminars that can be attended (or listened to on tapes, because of isolation) are well worthwhile. Any employee, missionary or not, who thinks he has his job totally mastered, will soon find it boring. But if the challenge of the job can be to continue to learn about new facets of one’s field, then there is continual hope for learning and growing.
IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE THIS WAY
A second major problem in the total consideration of why creativity is lost on the mission field might be called the, "It’s always been this way" problem. Very often we falsely assume that because someone else did something holy, or used a certain building for religious purposes, the building or action becomes holy forever. The Pharisees assumed that their long prayers were holy because holy men before them had prayed similarly, while in fact (because of their attitude) their prayers carried no holiness whatsoever. Just because the missionary before you ran a church service a certain way, does not mean you have to (though, if the needs are the same, you may well choose to). Just because a church was originally intended to be built in one spot, does not mean that that spot is holy. The situation may have changed over a period of time. The Lord’s guidance to us is not always revealed in a flash. It is often a continuing process, and so we must be open to change our plans as we understand his leading in the present.
Christ’s basic message of salvation was always essentially the same ("I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me"), but his methods varied greatly. On the mission field we often criticize others for using a different method than ours, when their goal and message is still Christ- centered. We need to allow each other the freedom to be creative in our outreach as we use new methods. Many of us, if a part of that day’s religious structure, would probably have criticized Christ’s healing of a blind man on Sunday, or his talking to the outcast Samaritan woman, but always his message of love was the same. We, too, must know our message. We must know God’s Word. And if we really know it, then we will have the freedom to share it in any number of ways with the creativity of the Master himself.
OUR JOB IS TO WIN PEOPLE TO CHRIST
Another factor that stifles creativity is an attitude that in one sense is justified. The attitude says that our job is to win people to Christ. Anything outside of this is considered a waste of time. This is absolutely true in the sense that our whole lives as servants of God should be examples that draw others to him. Yet, we often fail to allow enough diversity in our service of him. Christ tells us in Matthew 25 that we are to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. But often a missionary involved in this type of work is considered somehow less spiritual than one who is spending more time preaching. Christ did both. As part of his Body of believers, we should each serve varying and complementary functions while speaking individually, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the Lord who has saved us.
We should remember, too, that winning people to Christ can visibly be the result of a vast array of methods, but inside it is always done through the work of the Spirit. In that process, the Holy Spirit can bring people to know Christ by means that are far from usual. We should never expect him to work only in churchtype activities. For instance, camping trips and football games accomplished more for my ministry to high school students than weeks of sermonettes. That isn’t to say at all that the sermonettes were wrong (they were needed), but that each of these means contributed to the basic desire to help these teens to know Christ. The camping trip, for instance, showed concern and God-given love (day and night!) in a way that my youth group sermonettes could never do.
NO ONE WILL LIKE MY IDEAS
A fourth area where problems are encountered is when a person comes to the point where he or she says, "No one will like my ideas." This individual then clams up and becomes a useless mission field blob. If we feel unable to share ideas with each other, then we have lost uncounted opportunities for shared solutions to our problems. Fear of failure always squelches creativity and someone who fears that no one will accept his solutions has hurt both the mission and himself. If this problem is to be successfully avoided, the mission and the individual must each take a step. The mission leadership must be willing to accept criticism and to listen to new ideas. If the mission is open to suggestions, then an atmosphere is created where people begin to do thinking on their own.
The individual has a responsibility, too. He must never be satisfied with doing only what he’s told, but instead must be willing to produce on his own. If the mission is open to his ideas, this will encourage him more and he will in turn develop new ones. A healthy cycle will have been begun. Certainly there are times when an idea cannot be accepted because of spiritual or technical deficiencies, but if an open atmosphere is maintained then the failures will not stifle creativity, but in the long run will encourage an even deeper quality of it.
LOSS OF SPIRITUAL VITALITY
The fifth reason creativity is lost on the mission field is perhaps the most obvious and most important. Most missionaries know the importance of maintaining a quality time of study and prayer with God, but because of many factors they don’t always do this. If it continues over a period of time, the effects are inevitably felt in slackened spiritual production (although, as I experienced it, the only one who may notice it for a while is Christ). Soon, we lose the ability to produce a life-changing impact on others. We are like a car without a battery, and though we may still impress some of the world while coasting downhill, we cannot bring his saving message of love to them because we are spiritually dying (devoid of power on the flats and hills).
Thankfully, this process can always be reversed by renewing our close communion with God. The actual steps will vary for each individual, but there are some essential elements- (1) a regular, diligent study of God’s Word, realizing that it yields real knowledge to those who patiently and consistently seek it from the true Author. This involves asking what the lesson of a passage is, both within its context and within our own lives; (2) a daily time of prayer, as well as a day-long attitude which allows constant communication with God; and (3) a desire to listen to God as he speaks through his Word, through those we serve and in our time alone with him (including an agreement with the Lord to pray for that desire when we don’t even feel we want it – because those dry times will occur for each of us). The results of this consistent study will soon become evident. When we are in fellowship with him, he can drive us into areas of creativity that we never thought possible. God can take the lessons of a wandering shepherd and turn them into the lines of a poet, as he did with David. And he can do that same kind of thing for us, too, whether we serve as writer, preacher, mechanic, or anything else.
No mission organization is perfect, but as the individuals within it work to share the love that is so much a part of their lives, they can set a tone where new ideas are expected of everyone, because each in his own way shares a special personal knowledge of the Creator. This same value can then be assimilated by the people of the surrounding culture. They, too, will be encouraged to be creative in their response to God, rather than to just produce faded copies of white religion. Our God is far greater than this. And, we as missionaries have the privilege of being lights of his love, sharing in new and profoundly creative ways because we are spurred on by his example and direction. As we come to know him better, we become like finely polished mirrors which, despite our imperfections, still reveal a new and more beautiful reflection of God at work in us. If we have totally submitted ourselves to him, the world will never see a more perfect example of creativity than in that process by which he builds us into his people.
Personal P. S. – In looking back, there were two of these five problem areas that were most difficult for me. The first was reminding myself of the need for a consistent time of Bible study and prayer. Two things helped me with this. One was telling another missionary specifically about the struggle I was having with this and asking him to pray about it. As he held me accountable before God to be doing this, I found myself becoming much more regular in spending a daily, quality time with God. Second, though I worked a different schedule almost every day, I picked a particular time to spend alone with God each day that allowed me to be as alert and unpressured as possible. And God faithfully brought me new joy as I relearned this necessary discipline.
The second problem was facing the "too much work, too little time" situation. I sometimes reacted to this by losing all enthusiasm for my work, yet the words of a close friend always stuck with me: "If you don’t do your best job, no one else may even notice it, but you will and God will. And, if you leave knowing that you haven’t given God your utmost, then you’ll always carry that with you. "
At the radio station where I worked, I attacked this problem by picking one task a day (or a week) that I wanted to especially devote my time and efforts to. There simply wasn’t time to reach perfection in every area of radio production or news work, but there was time to really put myself into one five-minute interview or 1 -minute special. It wasn’t that I neglected the other tasks, but since time was limited, I gave one or two tasks special attention. By setting an accomplishable goal, I was able to see results regularly and it encouraged me to try new projects, too. This also had an unexpected by-product- those areas that I still worked in as part of the every-day routine were able to be done with more enthusiasm, too.
In it all, God showed me again and again that he was and is the Master, and I succeeded only as I was willing to listen carefully to his guidance.
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