Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Creative Tension

Written by: on September 14, 2018

Walking into the cold, dirty, and dingy classroom, I laughed at the idea that I was there to be the art teacher. Having no intrinsic artistic abilities I found it odd that I was chosen to be the creative teacher for migrant children. This migrant children’s center discovered that not only should we teach English, but also art and creativity. So, there I was teaching art every Saturday to children that grew up in a society that honors conformity. The Chinese have a saying, “don’t make me wear the tallest hat,” meaning, don’t make me stand out or call attention to me. Traditionally a focus on an individual could lead to shame and embarrassment for more than just the individual. The idea is that shaming oneself publicly will be worse than death. Though some of this is slowly changing, creativity is often seen in the same vein as being discontent with the society.

The Chinese are extremely smart and are able (and trained) to reproduce what is taught. One Saturday I wanted to teach on Christmas at the local migrant children’s center. After the lesson, I told the class that we were going to make Christmas cards for our families. We took construction paper and folded it in half and I ask them to draw something creative and fun on the front. I made the mistake of giving examples. With my lack of artistic ability, I said we often draw things that were related to Christmas or winter time. I then drew on the blackboard a three circled snowman, stick figured Christmas tree and a 5 pointed star; all drawn very simplistic and quickly. I then told the class to draw whatever they wanted and I wanted them to be creative. About ten minutes later, I walked around the class to check on their progress and ninety percent of the class had drawn a three circled snowman, stick figured Christmas tree and a 5 pointed star.

Nietzsche said, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”1 More often than we would want to admit, we find ourselves not understanding a particular situation, discussion or event. Creativity in a world that loves conformity can bring ignominy or disgrace. Often as a foreign guest in this country, it seems as though the population is dancing to music I can not hear nor understand. “Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in this field, notes that “creative ideas don’t have to be original to the whole world, but they must be original to you, and they must have value.”2For each of these kids in my art class, they were doing something new and unique to them even though I saw the potential for more.

Dr. Tina Seelig, in her book Insight Out, writes,“The perspectives, or frames, we use are influenced by past experiences, current  circumstances, and our state of mind…. I often meet individuals who are desperately looking deep inside themselves to find something that will drive their passion. They miss the fact that, for most of us, our actions lead to our passion, not the other way around. Passions are not innate, but grow from our experiences.” 3

Ministry in this context has to be creative and unique, understanding that new believers are participating in something new even if we think it is something everyone should already know. Giving disciples experiences in serving, even before they realize they are engaged in ministry, has been one of the best tools we are able to use. One difficult thing in leadership development in China is students want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it each day. Not wanting to do what is wrong and not wanting to bring shame upon me or themselves, they seek to follow my exact lead. I often am asked, “What should I do?” or “How do I teach that?”

In which I respond, “How do you think we should do that?” This kind of approach can cause frustration on all sides. I’ve actually lost some disciples because they went and found another church or another organization that was willing to dictate to them exactly what they should do each and every day. But I look upon those that have journeyed with me for a couple of years and have seen the progress they have made in being their own creative innovative thinkers towards the gospel. They’re able to creatively understand what it means to live, work, and navigate this culture.

              “Shame keeps us small, resentful and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self- worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.”4

Young believers walk this tight rope of representing both Christ and the community; balancing who they potentially honor and who they might shame.

Dr. Tina Seelig also suggests that we should go somewhere for an hour and watch, observe and consider the opportunities.5 Even though she is talking about entrepreneurial opportunities, I believe the same is true for Christian work. In ministry, we come into a situation with a creative idea or solution without truly seeing the culture we are stepping in or trying to fix. Even after almost 13 years in Asia, I do not fully understand the ramifications of loosing face and the communal impact it has. Balancing the pursuit of new ideas and cultural norms should be a tension that always exists.


1 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7887-and-those-who-were-seen-dancing-were-thought-to-be. Accessed September 13, 2018

2 Tina Seelig, Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World, HarperOne, Kindle Edition, 6.

3 Ibid,56

4 https://www.inc.com/bill-carmody/shame-the-secret-killer-of-innovation-creativity-amp-

change.html. accessed September 13, 2018

5 Seelig, 120


About the Author


Greg has a wife and 3 children. He has lived and work in Asia for over 12 years. He is currently the Asia Director of Imanna Laboratories, which tests and inspects marine products seeking US Coast Guard certification. His company Is also involved in teaching and leadership development.

18 responses to “Creative Tension”

  1. M Webb says:

    Outstanding introduction to your post and ethnographic image to set the culture and context for our upcoming LGP Advance in Hong Kong. I love the “kids” and was always drawn to them on all my missionary journeys. They look like a good group of local kids, worn clothes, colors fading, groomed hair, warm jackets, average shoes, full faces, few smiles, and disciplined. You can learn a lot about the culture by looking at their children.
    Thanks so much for helping keep us in focus of our upcoming HK Advance. I look forward to talking with you and adventuring into the local culture to see how and where God is working and what He wants us merge with the culture.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Chris Pritchett says:

    Greg- Thank you for sharing more of your experience in China and connecting it with Seelig. Your experience drawing on the chalkboard and encouraging creativity made me chuckle, and in reading that story, I recognized my own proclivity to “conform” or “please” my constituents, whoever they may be. I appreciate your humility in recognizing your inability to fully understand the idea of saving face. It seems that when it comes to “I-Thou” (Buber) self-identity understanding, Americans and Chinese are as far apart as the east is from the west. Also I admire your longevity there big time.

  3. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for another great post! I really enjoy hearing your stories of working in your context, and the ways that you draw out lessons for those of us in the church in the West. Some good connections with the Seelig reading, especially the challenge of finding/utilizing creativity in a culture that is more comfortable with conformity.

  4. Greg,

    I’m looking forward to seeing you soon; it’s great to be back this fall as we work forward together.

    Thanks for your post which once again was a good glimpse into your daily challenges. It really reinforces the need for those who are indigenous to the community to multiply themselves rather than depending on expats who don’t often understand the nuances in culture. I suppose your main goal is to uncover and train those who are most apt at reproducing. What could seem to you like small and insignificant work with a few could in a generation be multiplied many times over.

  5. Another very interesting post as usual Greg! I can’t imagine living in such a shame-based culture and I never realized how many things get rejected by the Chinese culture because of this. Creativity being one of these since they value conformity and don’t want to stand out as unique. I wonder how well this book would sell in China because of this. It makes me sad that the perfectionistic nature of that culture has to place an immense burden on those children. So glad they have you and your wife to share the grace of God with them.

  6. I found your perspective fascinating!

    Your statement, “…creativity is often seen in the same vein as being discontent with the society” really popped up on the page. Do you find that there is a distinction of individualism within mainland China and Hong Kong? Has the influence of globalization created a greater allowance for experimentation and creativity?

    You also asserted that, “Creativity in a world that loves conformity can bring ignominy or disgrace.” Do you find that the cultural context of Christianity in toto, regardless of location, is driven by the desire to conform?

    • Greg says:

      Colleen. There is an underlying common culture between mainland and HK but the British influence and also created a distinct and unique culture in HK. I will admit that I made some generalizations and there is a significant difference in generations, in city vs rural and in east vs west coast. This I believe is definitely the influence of globalization. This is why also believe there is a major shift in the political situation and a desire to slow the change and bring the country back under control.

  7. Jason Turbeville says:

    I found Seelig’s statement on how our experiences to be true as well. My first mission trip inspired me to be a minister, I have seen many teens and adults be given an opportunity to serve and then run with what God has shown them. Thanks for another good post brother. I look forward to seeing you in HK.


  8. Trisha Welstad says:

    Greg, I could imagine Seelig’s book being both challenging and enlightening in Chinese culture. I do wonder, in the business world in China, do people venture out to start new companies and how is that perceived? I remember you mentioning the tallest hat phrase before and wonder if that has spilled into Hong Kong as well. I am glad for your discipling both young and old to continue to encourage creativity, even when you feel you are not the best one for the job.

    • Greg says:

      Trisha, what I think is the biggest problem with starting businesses is the enjoy copying what they see as successful. If one person has been creative and has a started a booming business or is selling some unique product, it will be reproduced without the same quality. There are restaurants, clothing stores, curio shops that come and go so often and most are simply a copy of someone else. True creativity seems to be a rare commodity.

      • Trisha Welstad says:

        That is fascinating and sad. I am even more glad for your work to help people find their uniqueness and be creative while still being connected to Christ. I wonder if that is an issue too: that people will assume that if they do something unique and creative they will be disconnected from their community (by having a tall hat and being different)?

  9. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Greg!

    I found this statement of yours so interesting, “Giving disciples experiences in serving, even before they realize they are engaged in ministry, has been one of the best tools we are able to use.” Once again, you really made me think. As I look back on my own life, I think this has been true. As early as possible, my mentors started me in serving. I was not even aware what they were doing, but I am so glad they did. In fact, our growth is stunted if we only serve ourselves. Well written my Brother, and once again, your cultural intelligence and growth inspires me…

    • Greg says:

      I know some would disagree but I even have seekers helping me teach B studies. I give them direction, a passage and have them ask 2 or 3 simple questions. They usually are the same questions asked each week but we try to model that you don’t have to be highly trained to lead a small group. We still mentor and but I believe often we do more detriment not letting new people find a place a service.

  10. Shawn Hart says:

    Greg, I can still remember the distorted look on Doug’s face when I first asked him if he would like to preach on a Sunday night; I’m not sure faces are supposed to look like that. The thought of entering the pulpit had never even been a consideration to him…that is, until that moment. Not wanting to tell his preacher “no”, he accepted the challenge, and began meeting with me to plan his topic and work on an outline. Each conversation became longer than the previous one, and as his date for preaching grew closer, I noticed his excitement was growing as well. Without sounding too critical, it was about what I expected, with one difference; he absolutely loved it. When the sermon was over and we talked about areas of improvement for the “next time,” I was pleased to see that he was actually considering a “next time.” It only took about a month when I turned around one morning after services and Doug was waiting to talk to me; “So I have thought of a topic for my next sermon…” 5 years later, Doug is one of my “go-to” guys when I need a preacher. I know Doug did not plan on preaching, desire to preach, or even consider it as an option, but once someone gave him a little nudge, he found a ministry that he not only enjoyed, but has also become really good at. I noticed in your post that about 90% of those children drew a snowman, a tree, and a star; but I am really curious what the rest of those kids were inspired to let their imagination draw. There is an old saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink;” but I once rode a horse that you could lead to water and that horse would drop flat in that pond and wallow around in it till you made him quit. What a thrill it is to see how God is going to influence and use each of us as we go through this journey.
    Great post.

  11. Aleta says:

    a “lead generator” based upon the devices youMost impoprtant point is choosing words

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