The Institute of Worship is partnering with Manifest to present a creativity in worship stream at next month’s creative arts festival (Avondale College of Higher Education, March 20-22). Speaking as part of the stream: Nicholas Zork, a singer-songwriter, composer, liturgical musician, guitarist, violinist and lecturer on topics in theology, worship and the arts.
Zork explores ways music can resonate, embody meaning, cultivate community and overcome social barriers in ritual contexts. If you needed any more convincing: he is also minister for worship and the arts at the Church of the Advent Hope in New York City and director of the Andrews University Music and Worship Conference.
In Christian worship, [a] central priority is to facilitate an encounter with God.
The Institute of Worship and Manifest are curating the festival around Zork—themes for M15 are community building, creativity in worship, social justice and storytelling. I asked him about his creativity.
How did you discover your creativity and what got you started in music and songwriting?
Music-making was integral to the fabric of my childhood. My parents are composers and songwriters, and I was always encouraged to have fun creating with sounds. I’m told I was born crying, and I suppose I’ve been thinking out loud ever since. There is great value in silent reflection—I wish I were better at it—but I was always encouraged to reflect publicly, to discover if what resonates in me also resonates in others, which has a certain value as well.
What do you do to improve what you do creatively?
I make mistakes, more than I like to admit. Creative artistic practices like songwriting and music performance are messy. I’m learning to rely less on what I used to think of as innate ability. I’m not sure innate ability exists. But developing an ability through experimentation, play, hard work and challenges—even, or especially, failures—is hugely rewarding. In addition to focusing on daily practice, I find constructive criticism—while hard to hear—is more helpful, honest and refreshing than most praise. A wise person once said, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
What makes worship leading different from just another musical performance?
In facilitating congregational singing, a worship leader needs to use a different set of aesthetic tools. Presentational music is marked by several strong binaries: the stage and the audience; the active performers and the passive listeners; music creators and music receivers. Of course, these binaries have their own issues in any performance and should be questioned. But in a worship service, a central priority is to break them down and encourage full participation. In Christian worship, another central priority is to facilitate an encounter with God. Participation serves this end as well since active participants can more readily attend not just to the music itself but through the music to other people and to God.
Why is creativity important for Christians and the church?
For Christians, creativity is existentially significant. Life is a gift, and an artistic gift at that. Human creativity is finite and limited in that we don’t create ex nihilo (out of nothing). But creative practices and works of art—visual, auditory, multi-sensory—can serve as symbols of the transcendent, the mysterious, the divine. Human creativity can facilitate an encounter with the Creator in a way that is not always—and cannot be—tightly controlled and neatly defined but is profound and transformative in its tangible mystery. My artistic practice has stoked the fires of a deeper faith and a real peace.
What do you hope to contribute to and gain from participating in the Manifest Creative Arts Festival?
I’m looking forward to meeting all of the participants. I have identified some important questions I believe will facilitate some valuable conversations. I’m honoured to offer my perspective on what it means to live creatively as participants in our shared human-divine story. And I’m excited to learn from everyone who will attend. I suspect this world would benefit greatly from a greater appreciation for collective wisdom. It seems Manifest will afford an opportunity to discover a lot of collective creative wisdom all in one place.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia and co-convenor of the Manifest Creative Arts Festival.