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
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.
change.html. accessed September 13, 2018
5 Seelig, 120