I was recently watching the special features section of the Pixar animation film “Ratatoulie.” There is a short documentary called Fine Food and Film, which looks at the creative processes of the film’s director Brad Bird and renowned chef Thomas Keller.
As the camera follows them around on the documentary, a common theme begins to emerge in the work of both the chef and the filmmaker – emotional connection. Both Keller and Bird stressed how crucial this element of the creative process is.
From Keller’s perspective everything that goes into a meal from the atmosphere to the presentation to the taste of the food is carefully crafted to connect with a person’s soul. The same can be said for Brad Bird’s attention to detail from plot and character development to animation and direction right through to the finished product.
Watching this documentary got me to thinking a lot about church. In recent years the term “relevant” has become the buzz word for many churches in America as they struggle to get out of a subculture mentality which has cut them off from the larger cultural landscape. This has meant that many churches have taken steps to become more hospitable places by offering coffee bars and space to hang out, as well as worship in modern styles with multi-media and shorter messages which are more practically applicable to real life. And while this is a great place to start, we in the church must realize that coffee and lights and sound systems and relevant messages are only useful to the point that they are connecting with folks on a heart level. Otherwise we just become cool. (by the way, Jesus had a few words in the book of Revelations for a “cool” church which weren’t too kind) Our world doesn’t need more cool people. Our world doesn’t need more hip and trendy churches.
So as one who is involved in weekly services at a local church, I have begun to ask myself questions concerning how what I do, whether speaking or worship leading or playing an instrument, can contribute to making an emotional connection with the folks who walk in the door. Now, understand I am not trying to simply stir up or manipulate emotions. That’s called emotionalism and like all of the other cultural junk-food in our world will not sustain a human soul. However, if through music and words and atmosphere I can connect with a person who is drowning in troubles or simply indifferent to life and help them glimpse the larger narrative of redemption, struggle, love, and hope that has been playing itself out through the ages then just maybe like any other pieces of art or music or great movies I can get them to see life in a different way. When this happens, “relevance” is in its proper place—the servant of emotional connection. If “cultural relevance” is one of my main values, then I will be forever tossed to and fro by the waves of culture and even worse may find myself at odds with the very cross of Christ; yet if “connection” is one of my guiding values, then it means I myself must be careful to stay connected and that I must put considerable deliberate care into how I communicate and produce art or music or speak so that it can make the best connection possible with the ones with whom I want to connect.
This also brings the value of “excellence” into its proper place. Too often we approach excellence in our art as some kind of illusive perfection that we can attain to if we just get enough things right. However, if emotional connection is the goal, then it drives our values of excellence as well, bringing forth an experience which is natural yet supernatural, earthly yet heavenly.
This should be a guiding value for us as artists, speakers, writers, and painters – to take raw emotion and passion and wrestle with it until it can make an emotional connection. This is the hard part though because one has to be so intentional, so determined, and so attentive in the process.