Collaboration or Dilution

In an age where “community” has become the latest pop-culture buzz word in our faith…umm…communities…there seems to be this sense that the more minds you have working on any given project, the more ideas will flow and the better the project will be. I’m not sure that’s always the case.

For the past few years, I’ve been privileged enough to attend a very artistically minded community of faith. I’ve produced and contributed a significant amount within this community, from writing copy for press releases to writing and directing dramatic sketches. While I’m in love with the fact that Western churches at large are no longer fleeing in terror from the arts, I’m continually amazed by the detached nature with which creative projects are approached.

Certainly, group brainstorming and strategy sessions are critical and productive, depending upon the task at hand. There’s a time, however, when the more hands that are in the project, the more diluted the final piece becomes. The piece begins to be seen as a commodity as opposed to a passionately crafted creation. I’ve actually been told, “I like what you wrote…I went ahead and changed some things in the last paragraph…I didn’t think you’d mind.”

And what would have given you that idea?

I watched a panel discussion this afternoon from the American Theatre Wing podcast…an old panel, from back when I was working on my undergrad (not at that school, just the same time frame). It’s interesting to watch professionals discuss issues that were heated topics at that time. In this case, it was film vs. theatre, and America’s unfortunate obsession with the former to the degradation of the latter. One panelist stated that “in Hollywood” the emphasis was on the visual, the appearance of the final product, and that the writer was thus devalued to an extreme. In theatre, however, the attitude was that the writer knew best, because what took place on the stage was about language.

This is a concept that I see sorely lacking in church environments. I’m not talking about a writer (for example) not being open to feedback; after all, he is essentially writing his article or sketch or press release for a client. I’m talking about the liberty that others feel to take with the writer’s work…something the writer has crafted and left of piece of him/herself in, to completely re-work it in the name of editing. Re-writes upon request are one thing…having someone “make some changes” to your last paragraph is quite another. Perhaps I’m being narcissistic here, but I see and feel an attitude that everything must bow to the end result, and that the process of getting there isn’t important.

I think that’s because it’s viewed as a product, not a piece…a nasty little side effect of what C.S. Lewis discussed as the deification of science. In other words, the church sees what the artist generated for that Sunday morning as a product (or worse, they see the entire Sunday morning as a product), approaching it with an attitude of expendability toward the process and those involved within it, removing the individuality from the piece, and absorbing it into their collective whole, somehow viewing this as acceptable. In other words, the contrived concept of community that thrives in American church culture is one in which everyone must toss everything that they’ve created into the mix and let everyone else have at it, so that it is morphed into an homogeneous thing instead of a piece of art.

There is a place for collaboration…certainly theatre, for example, is an extremely collaborative art…and the artist who is not open to others’ ideas and feedback is likely one destined to produce pieces of little meaning. That said, permitting anyone and everyone to have their hands on every aspect of every piece produced robs the piece of the artist’s individual style…a style that, as Believers, we assume that God has permitted that artist to develop. The end result is a diluted and weak piece of art, something that Christ-followers should abhor, especially when something so much better is possible.

This has something to say about the fact that our industrialized Western culture is obsessed with valuing a human being based upon what he or she can produce. We view the role of the church as producing instead of creating, of churning out quantifiable and visible results instead of following less measurable impulses.

In short, our communities of faith are approached as organizations instead of organisms, corporations instead of families.

We see the detrimental effects of this, among other places, in “Christian art,” and in a lack of authentic relationships amidst an abundance of “community.” Certainly, we should see it in our reflection when we look into the eyes of the unbeliever, for, if we viewed ourselves through their eyes, it would take little to imagine how cold, alienating, and hypocritical we must appear.

All because of our push for a finished product.

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