Actors who are Christians

Faith on Stage: Keith Ferrin, Marquis Laughlin, Steve Wilent, Jason Nightingale

Faith on Stage: Keith Ferrin, Marquis Laughlin, Steve Wilent, Jason Nightingale

I am just back from a retreat where I got to hang out with some dear friends–professionals in the world of the theater–who happen to be Christ-followers and are intentional about using their craft and talent under the banner of Christian ministry. (Notice I did not say “Christian actors” in the title of this article—I have voiced my opinion on that topic in the past here). These people are my peers and while you may accuse me of a certain bias, I have to say they are some of the best, most talented and dedicated people in the entertainment industry–and you probably have not heard of any of them. (Notice also that I said “entertainment industry” and not “Christian entertainment industry”…whatever that means).

There is a small group of more famous actors that might make your list of actors who are Christians. You can see their names associated with the more recent crop of films coming out of Hollywood these days that cater to Christians. (Although one should not make the naive assumption that an actor appearing in one of those films is necessarily a Christian). While I mean no disrespect to those more famous actors, or the films they are creating, there is a group of actors who travel the world plying their craft not on famous stages or in movie houses, but rather doing their work primarily in churches. There are others in this group who go to places where you might not find many “church people.” Places like university coffee houses, prisons, the street and even bars and nightclubs. They go there because God has opened doors for them to share their gifts and the message of God’s hope to the world through the medium of entertainment, which is the language of our culture. They have my highest respect.

The performers in this group are not only actors, but also storytellers, spoken word artists, musicians, poets, mime artists and dancers. These are the artists that raise the bar far higher than what most of us imagine when we think of the art typically shared in most churches. It was my privilege to share the stage with this group. I want to invite you to check them out and consider inviting them to your church. They are:

Drawing Water – Music and drama performed by Cara Walter and Tracie Gorham

Wesley Brainard – Actor, and Mime Artist

Marquis Laughlin – Actor/Storyteller

Jason Nightingale – Actor/Storyteller

Steve Wilent – Actor/Storyteller

Keith Ferrin – Actor/Storyteller

Phil Long – Poet

Marcia Whitehead – Musician/Storyteller

This is just a small representation of some of the artists out there who have dedicated their craft to the building of the Kingdom. I’m honored to be associated with this group. Check them out! Know that the art being produced in Hollywood under the banner of “Christianity” is not the only art, or necessarily the best being produced by people of faith. Some of the best could very well be seen in your church sanctuary by one of these talented artists—artists who are Christians.

Let Go and Let God… or something like that

Man praying in churchIn my last post I talked about Millennials, and the perceptions many of them hold about the church. As a balance it is only fitting that we Boomers take stock in how we communicate our love and concern for the things of God to those we love…our children. As the adage goes, it can be hard to “let go and let God” have control. We often want to “fix it.” It has been a tough lesson for me to learn (still learning) and one that I do address in my own story, Go Ask Your Mother… A Father’s Story.

At a recent performance of my story in Southern California, I was privileged to hear from a parent that was able to come to terms with this very struggle:

“Chuck gave a perfect testimony of what the reality is of parenting and spiritual guidance. I came away realizing my (God-given) responsibility to guide my son needs to be tempered by his own individual walk with Christ, not by my worry to see his bottom firmly seated in a pew each Sunday, or chasing around with a youth group. Neither appeals to him at the moment and I KNOW forcing a teenager to go to church will not bring him closer to God. I also know I don’t want him to be the prodigal son returning after wreaking havoc on himself…so Chuck’s stories sent me home feeling encouraged to give my son some space and just talk with him right now rather than be heavy-handed. I did go home to have a short chat with him about it. He expressed that he does pray, and he likes our church…he doesn’t want to try other churches. So, my husband and I need to pray on it and listen for what the Spirit guides for encouraging growth in the boy. Ooops. Young man.  Chuck’s message was heard at our home and the timing, of course, was PERFECT. If I’m the only parent who came away from that message encouraged and not pushing away one teenage boy…it was worth his travel from Oregon and I thank him.”

As a parent of 3 boys I have lived the story this parent shares x3. As I say repeatedly when I share my story, “these stories aren’t finished yet… there is hope!”

To Millennials Who Don’t Like the Church

Glowing spiral light bulb character and tungsten one handshakingI just finished reading yet another article telling me and my generation of boomers how we have blown it when it comes making the church a place for millennials. According to the articles and books I have read, we are guilty of a multitude of sins. We are: too judgmental, too exclusive, too political, too old-fashioned and in general we are a bunch of haters. We hate sin, we hate sinners, and we hate those who are friends of sinners. We have it all figured out. We know right from wrong and if you disagree with us you are going to hell!

Did I get that about right?

Well, if you are a millennial reading this and you agree with those statements about us, then I want to tell you, I think you’re wrong. You see, most of those statements about the church people I know are not true. Oh sure, there are probably a few like that in every church, but not the vast majority. I spend my life visiting churches, it’s part of my job. Most of the people I encounter are far from the stereotype the media would have us believe. And here is the news flash: the people you are describing are your parents. I am the father of 3 millennials and I would be devastated if I felt my kids believed all those things about me.

As a parent I struggle, along with many in the church, to understand why so many of our children have abandoned the church. I don’t have the answers, but I can tell you if it is for the reasons stated above, for the most part I think you have it wrong. Let me address some of those points.

• Too Judgmental: While it is true that we grew up in a culture and in a time that had “all the answers,” we also live in the culture of today. Unless we have our head in the sand, we are aware of what is happening in the world around us. While we may have some strong opinions about right and wrong, we struggle along with everyone else to reconcile our our faith with the world in which we live. Some of us have faced the challenges and even changed our minds about previous assumptions. And most of the time when we listen to sermons, we are apt to be thinking about our own “log in the eye” and not about you. I don’t think many of us come to church to sit in judgment of the millennials outside the church.

• Too Exclusive: Obviously we are a body of believers united by our faith. But to set us up as a group of people who want nothing to do with people who are different from us is inaccurate and unfair. Most church people I know are concerned about others both inside the church as well as outside. I work for a charity that helps feed and care for the poor around the world. The people funding this work are church people. It’s church people that often offer free clinics, soup kitchens, and drives for school supplies for those who can’t afford them. And when it comes to politics, we are all over the board.

• A Bunch of Haters: Sure there are the few in our midst that would fall into that category, but they are a minority. A minority that is constantly reinforced in the media to make the rest of us look bad. The church at large is not Westboro Baptist Church–far from it. When you categorize us as haters, remember that millennials are our children! We don’t hate our children. Yes, we may have some strong ideas about sin and what needs to be done about our sin. But believing there is a right and wrong on a particular issue is not the same as hate. My experience is that most church people and church leaders are open to conversation about some of the things you think we hate. We may be on different sides of a cultural issue, but we don’t hate you because of it.

Most Christ followers I know are struggling just like everyone else to make their lives mean something in this world we live in. The church continues to be a place of community for us. It has it’s flaws, to be sure, for we are made up of humans who are flawed. As one pastor pointed out to me, the church the only institution that mattered to Christ. It is, or should be an institution of people known for their love, not their hate. I invite you to visit us with an open mind, talk to us. You might just be surprised at what you find.

The Dark Side of Art

Dark_side_ChuckLast week I did something I thought I would never do.

I went to a heavy metal concert.

Not just any heavy metal concert, but a sub-genre known as “doom metal.”

Yes, that “Christian actor guy”—that same guy that does a show featuring the famous catch-phrase “What would Jesus do?”—found himself in a dark room with people wearing dark clothes listening to some very dark music… and doing this around midnight… way past my bedtime.

Why, you may ask?

Well, a couple of reasons. One, it bothers me when people condemn art without first experiencing it, be it music, film, theater or visual art. Christians, myself included, are too often guilty of this. I would probably be one of the first to condemn this form of art at first glance. I am trying to change on that score. Two, I have relationships with people who are into this scene. The relationships matter to me, so I felt I needed to get better acquainted with this world for the sake of those relationships. If after experiencing this music I chose to condemn it, at least it would be an informed decision. On this night I promised I would do my best to arrive with an open mind.

A put on dark clothes, and wore a hat to try to hide the gray hair. I wanted to blend in, although I knew that would be almost impossible. I was too old and too devoid of tattoos to be anonymous. Even if I managed to pull off getting past the first glance, my neon orange earplugs would certainly give me away.

I paid my $10 cover charge and crept in as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. One of the first surprises of the evening was that even though I was out of my element, the people I was introduced to were remarkably kind and even personable. Even though the volume in the place was extreme, they made an attempt to converse and I quickly felt accepted.

This genre of music contains names of bands that evoke the worst imagery for the average Christian. The most famous in this genre is Black Sabbath but it also includes bands like The Skull, Pentagram, Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride. Not names you are likely to find on a lineup with Third Day or The Newsboys.

One of the stereotypes that was quickly dispelled, was that this music is satanic. Now, I know I am a novice, and there may indeed be expressions of this music that could be considered satanic, but on this night that was not the case. And I was relieved!

One of the other stereotypes that I had to discard was that this was just “noise.” I fully expected to dismiss the “so-called music” as anything but music. I was prepared to have my assumptions confirmed. “Just a bunch of kids making a horrible racket” was my preconceived notion. To my surprise, the music was artistic and well rehearsed. It was definitely a “show” and as an actor I could appreciate some of the theatrics in the performance. A single song can last up to 45 minutes and I found the music comparable to a symphonic piece with different movements taking us on a journey. The singing… well there really was no singing… but there was certainly vocal noise. Screaming indecipherable words—that was the “singing”—is what is common in most doom metal songs. This I did not like.

According to Wikipedia —

“Doom metal is an extreme form of heavy metal music that typically uses slower tempos, low-tuned guitars and a much ‘thicker’ or ‘heavier’ sound than other metal genres. Both the music and the lyrics intend to evoke a sense of despair, dread, and impending doom.”

I have to say that is a very accurate description. The fascinating thing is that this draws an audience. The last thing I would want to do is pay for entertainment that would evoke in me a “sense of despair, dread and impending doom.” But that is what was happening. The audience moved as one, nodding their heads, as if in a trance, to the slow dark droning beat, many with their hands raised. I reminded me of a sort of dark worship service, but instead of worship it was as if they were all commiserating their grief together. There was almost of feeling of being tortured and I found it quite disturbing.

I have had the opportunity to talk with some of the artists that make this sort of music and for many of them the music is an expression of some grief or anger they are working through. As an artist I can understand and appreciate this. It is a very appropriate use of art to express what the artist is going through. This was art—no question. The dark side of art to be sure, but definitely art.

My test for the kind of art that I want to experience is that it needs to have something redeeming in it. Often Christians, myself included, make hasty judgments when it comes to art. We won’t go see a movie that has too much bad language, sex and violence. I understand. Yet I am more willing to tolerate the bad stuff if I know that there is something redeeming in it. The good wins, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope in the end.

I left the venue feeling sad. Sad that there was so much pain and suffering in the hearts of those I observed. Sad that they felt a need to celebrate it. I had just experienced a metaphor brought to life—misery loves company. It was the only redeeming thing I found in the art. I left feeling the hopelessness that the artists skillfully expressed.

I’m glad I went. I have a better understanding of the art form and more importantly the people that are drawn to it. I think it will improve my relationship with those in my life that are drawn to this.

I can’t wait to never go again!

The Trouble with Labels

Sign_Theatrical SermonI cringed when I saw the sign in front of the church:
Chuck Neighbors Theatrical Sermon

The image that leaped into my mind was not one I wanted to embrace. First I don’t really think of what I do as a sermon, and second a theatrical sermon conjures up the very worst of what I would expect from a televangelist.

When I walked into the church one lady asked me:
“Are you our entertainer?”

I stuttered…

I realized I had not communicated clearly with this church what it is that I do… but then, when it comes to what I do, it is not easy to articulate in a way that everybody understands. I’m an actor, yes; I’m a storyteller, yes. I do most of my performing in the context of a worship service, but I’m not a preacher. Giving a “sermon” is not what we are accustomed to seeing done by people who bill themselves as actors and storytellers. I’m a minister, yes–but not to be confused with the acting and storytelling done by pastors in the pulpit week after week.

SigncollageAm I an entertainer? Yes… but if I told people I was an entertainer they would be very hesitant to book me, especially in place of a sermon during the worship service.

The trouble with labels.

Sometimes I feel like Rodney Dangerfield when he said, “I get no respect.” In the world of the church one needs to have the title “pastor” or “minister” to be qualified to speak behind the pulpit and give a sermon. In the world of the theater, one can hardly be a “legitimate actor” if their audience is the church. Preaching and theater are often at odds with each other. I have come to detest the dreaded “what do you do for a living?” question. How I would love to have a simple answer like waiter, letter carrier, doctor, sales person. Those are pretty clear-cut. My answers stumble out more like “I’m an actor, but…” or “I’m a minister, but…”

That also spins me around again to the question of defining who I am by what I do, a trap most of us fall into. We mistake what we do for who we are, and not just in the area of our work. Those labels can define parts of us, but not the whole of who we are. I’m also a father, a son, a husband, a writer, a traveler, and a not-very-good occasional golfer. I am a Christian—and there is a label that has become very confusing and divisive lately. I’ve noticed that more and more Christians are becoming uncomfortable with that label—a lot of people are struggling to find a different word or words to use instead of “Christian.” A “Christ follower,” a “believer,” a “disciple of Jesus.” All good labels, but labels can mean different things to different people and they can change over time depending on what attributes we associate with the labels. To some, the word “entertainer” would imply that you work in Las Vegas. Lately, thanks to shifts in our culture, it seems the word “Christian” means you must hate something. We keep adding and modifying our labels to try to be more accurate in describing who we are, what we do, and what we believe. It is making our conversations clumsy.

I’m an actor… but
I’m a minister…but
I’m a Christian… but

The “but” negates what comes before it. Maybe it is time to practice a principle I learned in improvisational acting called “yes, and.” The point is you are not allowed to reject anything when building a scene through improvisation, but rather accept and build to the next thing.

Wouldn’t that make for interesting conversations?

I’m an actor, yes and…
I’m a minister, yes and…
I’m a Christian, yes and…

What would you put after the “and” in your labels?

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