10 Random Observations about the Church

A row of Church pewsI travel and perform/speak in a different church almost every weekend and have for the past 40 years—that’s a lot of churches. You do the math. And these are churches of all denominations and sizes and colors. Lunch with the pastor after a morning service is typical. I can almost always count on being asked a question like this:  “Chuck, you are in a lot of churches… what are some observations you’ve made about the church today?”

I know they want an answer with some profundity, but I don’t know if my answers will satisfy. So here are 10 random observations about the church, for what they are worth, and in no specific order.  This is not a scientifically researched treatise… just my observations.

1) The medium-size church is disappearing. I am often in church buildings designed to hold 500-1000 people with less than 100 in the worship service. There seem to be churches of under 100, and the mega church with thousands of people, but not much in between—churches of 200-500 are few. Pastors routinely over-estimate their attendance. They will tell me they have 150 people in worship but when I arrive there are less than 100… this happens a lot!

2) Based on my experience it would seem that the average age in most churches today is over 50. There is plenty of gray hair and there are not very many millennials in the pews.

3) The “Meet and Greet” moment in the worship service needs go. Most churches do it and in most churches it feels forced and awkward. I see plenty of meeting and greeting before the service that seems genuine. If your main goal is to make a visitor feel welcome, I think there is a better way to do it.

4) I have rarely visited a church that matches the negative stereotype portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. (That being the extremes of super fanatical or super boring). I’m not saying they don’t exist… but they are certainly not what I have found under the majority of steeples in the country.

5) People really do “play hooky” from church when the pastor is gone. I often fill in for a pastor who is away at a conference or on vacation. I almost always hear the head deacon say, “I don’t know where everybody is today.”

6) Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the church is filled with people who care about the poor and are involved in ministries that are truly striving to make a difference.

7) At the risk of sounding like my parents… your music is too loud!

8) People still sit in the back (maybe because the music is too loud) or are very spread out in the sanctuary, making those 100 people in a space that hold 500 feel even more empty.

9) There is not much being done to encourage and elevate the arts in most churches. Other than the worship team/band, the opportunities for an artist to be involved in the life of the church are very limited. (I’ve blogged about this one before, but I have to throw it in here.)

10) It can be a challenge today to figure out a church’s denominational affiliation. Oh it still exists, but you won’t find it on church signs and in printed material like you used to. This can be good thing. It can also be embarrassing if, say, you are charismatic and think you are in a Pentecostal church, only to find yourself being stared down after raising your arms and shouting hallelujah in a Baptist church.

Like I said, no science here… just some observations from that “Christian Actor Guy!”

Rooting for the Bad Guy

Okay, I’ll admit it…I love to play the bad guy. Being the villain on stage is so much more fun than being the hero.

My first big lead in a play was in my high school production of Dracula, and to be honest, it was great fun… plus I got to kiss a girl on stage (that was fun too… but awkward).

Back then I didn’t know much about acting, but some things that were true then still hold today. Acting gave me the opportunity to pretend to be somebody else and I loved pretending to be a different person. The pretending I did at home, acting out scenes from movies, was my playground and became the foundation of what would become my career.

In my childhood the bad guys were just that… BAD. I would play the part thinking I was a bad guy and thus it was acceptable that the bad guy did bad things, but would ultimately die at the hands of the hero. But that was okay, because it was fun to act out death scenes too.

As I learned more about acting I began to understand that a bad guy… a real bad guy… doesn’t usually think of themselves as bad. To play a real bad guy I needed to understand why they did the bad things they did. It is then that you begin to see them as real people, not necessarily bad people. Often they’re just people who make a wrong choice or even do a bad thing for what might be considered a very good reason. They kill for revenge, they steal to feed their family, they cheat on their spouse because they feel a need for more excitement in their life. It’s called justification and if we are honest, we all do it. It is the knee-jerk reaction we all default to when we do a bad thing.

I play the Bible character Judas in a scene from my one-man show Encounters (see video at the bottom of this post). The scene is in the moments before he takes his own life after betraying Jesus. In writing and playing this scene, I wanted to show what might have been going on in this man’s mind—what motivated him to do the bad thing. If I do it correctly you—the audience—come away with a more sympathetic view of a person that many simply write off as a “bad guy.” And while in the biblical story he is a villain, I like to think that he wasn’t all bad. He was misguided, he did a bad thing for what he thought was a good reason.

Hollywood has done much to change the image of the bad guy in recent years. In the movies of my childhood you were not really given the option to root for the bad guy. They were bad—they will lose or die—John Wayne or Gary Cooper would see to that! End of story. Today we are given the choice and even encouraged to root for the bad guy. Hollywood has given us the anti-hero in characters like Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and a whole host of others. In these shows we see life from the bad guy’s point of view. It is expected we will root for the bad guy.

In some ways this has merit. It is good to see people—all people—as real people. It is easy to put ourselves in their shoes and to see how, given the right set of circumstances, we might make the same bad choices. I think it is helpful to empathize with people who do bad things.

But there is another outcome from looking at things from this perspective. Over time we can begin to no longer see things as bad. We numb ourselves to the degree that we even forget that what they are doing is bad. We can see this trend in real life. When there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a rape, an affair, riot or a robbery—the media often takes the angle of exploring the motivation and looks for some justification for the crime.

While it is helpful to know the motivation for the crime, let’s not forget that a bad thing is still a bad thing.

It’s called sin… and we are all guilty.

And as for justification… there is only one sure path to that.

“That we may be justified by faith…”

Deceived from Encounters by Chuck Neighbors

What Do You Want?

What do you want?The actor I was directing was just saying his lines. There was no feeling, no thought, no sense of character. The only thing I could get out of his performance was the sense that he was afraid he would not remember his lines. He spoke too quickly, his sentences ran together without pause. I knew the feeling… I have been there many times.  He was afraid if he paused he would forget what line came next.

Actors learn that one major key to a good performance is knowing what your character wants–its motivation. If you don’t know your lines, you can’t play the scene with the true intent of the text. Instead of wanting to achieve the objective of the character, you are completely obsessed with remembering your next line. And anyone watching the play will be able to tell.

If acting were just memorizing lines and being able to repeat them, it wouldn’t take much talent or skill to be accomplished. But acting is so much more than that. In training actors we emphasis the importance of owning your lines–knowing them so well you don’t have to think about what comes next. I tell actors you can’t act until you know your lines.

In an earlier blog I talked about the importance of knowing “who you are,” a key question for any actor playing a role. But equally important as knowing who you are, you need to be able to answer the question: What do you want? This is true for the play in general but also for every moment the actor is on stage. The big picture may be to defeat the villain or to win the affection of the princess, but it also applies to every little moment on stage. If you need to move from one side of the stage to the other, you need to move motivated by a reason that the character understands.  When the actor speaks, he needs to understand why he is saying what he is saying. He needs to know what he wants.

Acting–good acting–is a reflection of real life. I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I took the time to actually stop and think about “what I want” as I go through each day. I think most of us may have it figured out on the big scale. We want to be happy, to make a decent living, have a good marriage and loving family. Some aspire to fame, fortune or adventure. Some to make the world a better place and work on the cutting edge with a sense of calling in faith and service. We may know what we want in a big picture sort of way. Some of us are moving forward and achieving our objectives.

But sometimes I think I may be living my life a bit like that actor I was working with. Struggling to remember my lines. So obsessed with just getting through the day that I may have lost sight of the big picture. I need to be reminded of “what I want” and move forward with the proper motivation to achieve my objective.

What about you? What do you want?

Why, God?

Lucy_prayerI just finished talking with my son. He is grappling with some really tough questions. The sort of questions that even the best, most scholarly of theologians are unable able to satisfy. Why does God heal some people but not others? Why does an innocent child suffer? Why us? Why me? The sort of questions that can shake your faith.

My heart aches for him and his family.

It’s a mixed bag of the good news and bad news all at the same time. On July 25th I became a grandfather to Lucy Paige Neighbors. She was born 6 weeks early, weighed in at 4 lbs. and is the cutest baby in the world (no bias here!). Wonderful news!

The doctors knew before the birth of a potential heart defect and their suspicions proved correct. Lucy would require open heart surgery. It would be a very risky surgery, especially considering her size as a premature baby.

Say what you want about the evils of social media, but within a matter of hours literally hundreds of people were made aware of Lucy’s condition and prayers and words of encouragement poured in from around the world. Church prayer chains were activated, prayer chains that were from people we barely knew. People were praying for a miracle, that Lucy’s heart would be healed.

Surely with so many people praying, God would work a miracle, right?

Well, the miracle we were seeking didn’t happen before the surgery. Lucy had surgery and it went as well as could be expected. As I write this, she is stable. Her Mom and Dad are by her side, and really have not left her side since her birth.

Where is God in all this? That is the heart of the questions my son is asking. There are no easy answers. But I believe He is there and has been there all along. While this story is heart breaking, we choose to believe God has been with them through it all… even when we can’t answer the “why?”

Lucy is in one of the best hospitals with some of the best doctors in the world. She has responded better than expected in the recovery and we have reason to hope! And while this is a crisis of faith for her parents, it seems that their faith has been strengthened.  Maybe, just maybe God is at work here in ways we will never understand.

That may be a lame answer for some… but we do live in a fallen world and even the most exalted heroes of the faith have stories of trials and suffering.

Is that an answer that satisfies? Probably not in the midst of the suffering. But it may be the best we can do this side of heaven.

One of the other blessings has been that good friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help the family during this time. If you would like to join #teamlucy we would be delighted. Here is the link: Support #teamlucy

Who Are You?

Who Are You?For a number of years I toured with a professional theater ministry. One popular sketch we performed was called “Who Are You?” A man on the street would be repeatedly asked that question. First responses were followed with obvious answers like the man’s name but the questioner persisted with the simple question causing the victim to struggle for a better answer. He would give labels: father, son, husband. Then he would struggle for more answers: his job, his race, his religion, his citizenship, his political party.  Still not satisfied the questioner repeated, “Who are you?” Finally the man answers in frustration; “I don’t know who I am.” The questioner then says: “Now we can begin!”

As an actor, discovering “who you are” is also where you begin and is a big part of the job. The script may give you a brief description, but usually not enough information to really create a character. “A successful salesman” might be all the script tells you, but as you work through the script you may discover a salesman who is struggling to keep pace with a new, younger generation of employees, a man whose marriage is failing and who spends a hour at a local bar before returning home from work. Now we are beginning to get a glimpse of this guy, but really just a tiny glimpse. There is more to the guy than those tidbits and the actor’s job is to flesh it out… to make it real, to get inside the guy’s head and figure out why he is threatened by the new employees, what is wrong with his marriage, what his favorite drink is at the bar and how many of those he has before going home. Sometimes as an actor, you may feel you know more about a character you are playing than you do about yourself. It can be safer to ask those really tough questions about a fictional character than to answer those same questions about yourself.

I have been contemplating my own life lately and asking that “who are you?” question again. Life changes tend to do that to you. Sometimes I coast on those surface labels: husband, father, Christian, actor… those tell you a little about me but it doesn’t tell you everything. And some of those labels are evolving. New labels, like empty-nester, soon to be grandfather, guy who gets the senior citizens coffee at McDonalds, are becoming more prominent.

There is a famous adage that has been going around a lot the last few years: “You are who you are when no one is watching.”

That can be a jarring reality, and one that I am not always comfortable with. If I am being totally honest, I don’t always like that guy. Sometimes the “me” that others see is more who I want to be than who I really am. I want to be that guy on my Facebook page where only what I want you to see is posted. The me that I am when no one is watching can be lazy, envious and sometimes thinks thoughts that are too much like the bad guys I play on stage.

Who am I, really?

Truth be told… the truth that I cling to when I have those moments of doubt and confusion about my identity is found in the way that God sees me. Only through the filter of his mercy and grace does my life really make sense at all.

What do you think?

Who are you?

© Copyright – Chuck Neighbors – actor and storyteller - Theme by Pexeto