On Age and Relevance in the Church

“Our church is shrinking,” they’d whine
Average age, seventy-one, a bad sign
To avert a disaster
A millennial pastor!
The average is now sixty-nine

The email from the pastor made me chuckle.

“We have a mostly older congregation, no children, but we do have one millennial couple!”

“One millennial couple” and it was almost as if it was a badge of honor.

But I understood. The church has changed drastically in the years that I have been involved in ministry. My friend, Pastor Jon, likes to remind me that “no one has been in more churches than Chuck Neighbors.”  I don’t know if that is exactly true, but I have been in a different church almost every weekend for the last 45 years. I have seen a lot of change over the years.

My generation of Baby Boomers, who once strived so hard to be “relevant” and “contemporary” in church now find themselves on the outside of church culture. To the younger church culture we are now, it seems, irrelevant and too traditional by their standards.

Indeed it is rare to find a church that appeals to all ages. Churches that promote a “contemporary” worship style seem locked into a new tradition they have created that is no longer contemporary. In striving to be relevant, contemporary has become tradition.

I recently did a series of performances for a church in Sun City, Arizona. Sun City is well known as a retirement community. There was a good turnout every night. People enjoyed the performances. I have a statement that is read when I am introduced, that “if babies get too noisy to please take them out of the room so as not to distract from the performance.”

The pastor read this and received a big laugh.

Babies? There was not even one millennial couple in the audience.

Mixed Messages

On Palm Sunday it was a privilege to perform to over 5,000 people in three services at a church in the Los Angeles area. It has been a while since I shared with an audience this large and I have to say it was both exhilarating  and exhausting. Three in a row of Encounters, with a lot of emotional characters, takes a toll on the body.

After each performance I was happy to hear some great comments from people that sought me out to compliment my performance. One comment came up more than once:

“I have never seen anything like that before.”

It gave me pause and made me ponder what exactly they were referring to. Did they mean they had never seen an actor do a one-man show? Perhaps. Or did they mean they had never seen a dramatic performance in the place of a sermon on a Sunday morning. That seems more likely to me.

Their comments were a blessing and a reminder to me of the great gift the arts can be to the church. These listeners heard familiar stories from the life of Jesus told in new and different ways and it impacted them deeply.

The church continues to struggle—or maybe doesn’t struggle enough would be more accurate—when it comes to making room for the arts in the church. The response this last weekend gives me hope that progress is being made in this struggle.

After such a great weekend I was stopped in my tracks when I returned home. A very different response from another church awaited me. A pastor was hoping to schedule a performance this summer; we had the date penciled on the calendar and I was awaiting the formality of an approval from the church board. Then I received this email:

“It is with deep regret and personal disappointment that the Board decided to decline the opportunity.”

I pushed back. Often these things don’t pass the Board because of budgetary reasons. I asked if it was about the money. His response:

“It had nothing to do with money. There was just an expressed apathy. I showed them the clip you sent which I felt was incredibly powerful but apparently they did not share my perspective. I am both puzzled and frustrated. I am sad and disappointed and believe we have missed a wonderful opportunity.”

I am especially bothered by the word “apathy” as the reason. I would be more understanding if it were about the money, or “not appropriate for worship” or even what is even more typical, “we have never done anything like that before.”

Notice how close the phrases are:

“I have never seen anything like that before”

“We have never done anything like that before”

The first was an open door that brought new insight and spirtual impact to the listener.

The second is a closed door that resists change and settles for the status quo.

One step forward, one step back I suppose. (Uh-oh, was that a subliminal message about dancing in the church?)

Strength and Weakness

When Jason Gray photobombs your selfie!

I had the pleasure of bumping into my friend, singer-songwriter Jason Gray, last week. It was quite a fun coincidence. I knew he was coming to my town of Salem, OR for a concert on Sunday and we were actually hosting him in our home on Sunday night. Lorie and I were flying back from Dallas, TX on Friday and guess who was seated behind us?

I got to know Jason, before he became “famous.” We were both partners in a child sponsorship ministry several years ago and traveled together to Africa on a mission trip.

If you are a fan of his music, you know that one of the themes that Jason writes and sings about so eloquently is “weakness.” He makes the case better than anyone I know that God’s strength is experienced in our weakness. He uses his own handicap as an example. Jason is a stutterer. You don’t have to be around him very long to discover this.  Yet, Jason is one of the best communicators that I know. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? He doesn’t try to hide it. He even makes jokes about it from the stage.

In addition to being an amazing musician, Jason is also a terrific storyteller. His stories reinforce his theme of weakness, as he shares openly and transparently about his own life. He makes the point that when we share our weaknesses and our failings with others, we are able to truly get to know each other better, like each other more and relate to each other honestly. He even quips from the stage about his stuttering, “now that you know that about me… I bet you like me just a little bit more.”

Oh how I need to be reminded of that. It is okay to have weakness, it is alright to share our weakness. In this age of social media, we spend way too much time trying to make ourselves “look good.” Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we put our lives under a microscope, yet work furiously to make sure people only see our best side.

I am inspired by people like Jason. I want to be more like him when it comes to being honest and transparent about my life. It is one of the reasons my newer presentations have been personal stories from my life. It has been freeing to tell my stories and to hear people afterwards thank me for being transparent and talking openly about my struggles and failures. Through that process they see that they we are not alone. (Check out Truth be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up and Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story)

Take a listen to one of my favorites of Jason’s. I think it is one of his strongest pieces and it is called “Weak.”

This Old Hat

This old hat sits in display on a bookshelf in my office. What comes to mind when you look at it? It is pretty beaten up and worn. If a hat could talk I am thinking this hat might have a terrific story to tell. Which is one reason I chose it. I was looking for a hat with a story to tell.

At one time it was actually a pretty good hat. The label on the inside says it’s a Dobbs hat. Dobbs hats date back to the 1930s and the company is still in business today. I was actually looking for something that went back even farther—the 1910s would have been ideal. But for the story, this one would work fine. I found it at a thrift store in the 1980s. When I found it, it was a little too nice. I needed it to look like a hat that had been to there and back. A hat that had experienced all kinds of weather. A hat that had slept in the streets and maybe been kicked and punched a few times.

So I worked it over a bit. I wadded it up and stomped it in the dirt until it had the look I needed—a hat that had once been distinguished, now beaten, faded and tired. A hat with a story.

At that time, in the 1980s, it didn’t have any holes in it. Those came later. The holes appeared after telling the story hundreds of times. I would tell the story while holding the hat in my hands and fidgeting with it. That, combined with being thrown in a suitcase until the next time I told the story, eventually wore holes in the hat. Small at first, but becoming more pronounced over time.

Soon it reached a point where it was too worn and too fragile to withstand the rigors of the storyteller. I feared it might disintegrate in my hands if I were to keep demanding it to perform. I needed to replace it, to recast the role of the hat with a different old hat.

So I did. I went to another thrift store and found another old hat. This one was a different style but still appropriate to the time for the story. It would work, and has been my companion for telling the story for many years. But it is not the same.

I miss this old hat.

We shared so much time together. This old hat became not only part of the story I told, but part of my story too. This old hat is linked to a lot of memories. Cherished memories that I don’t want to forget.

So I keep it around, letting it occupy a place of prominence on my bookshelf, where I can see it often. It still serves a purpose. It reminds me of the journey we have had together. Of the stories we have told. It has become a part of me.

I’m just not ready to give up this old hat.

The Seven Last Words of the Church

In the 70’s and 80’s I toured with a theater ministry based in Southern California. The director often quipped that the seven last words of the church were, “we never tried it that way before.”

(At the time I thought it was his original thought but have since learned that it is actually the title of a book published in 1973: The Seven Last Words of the Church or “We never tried it that way before” by Ralph Neighbour (no relation) published 1973.)

The director would bring this up when we would lament about churches that were reluctant to schedule us because it was something new, different, or foreign to the way they normally did things. This seemed to be especially true of churches that had a more liturgical format.

A lot has changed in church culture since 1973. For a time it seemed the way to go was to intentionally do things differently. Indeed, if I use the church I attended as a youth as an example, I am sure many of the “saints” would be rolling in their graves at what constitutes a worship service in today’s culture. The changes in dress, music, and a more casual attitude would, I’m sure, rock their world.

Having been in the middle of it, I experienced the gradual embrace of the dramatic arts as a part of worship, as more and more churches tried “new things.” The rise of such churches as Willow Creek spawned a movement of churches from all denominations embracing dramatic arts as an integral part of worship.

And then things changed again. Current trends reject anything that smacks of “performance” and demands that what comes from the platform be “real and authentic” (as if they can’t co-exist it seems). I am hearing again “we never tried it that way before” or a similar phrase which I think means the same thing, “what you do wouldn’t fit in here.”

Once you do something new that works a couple of times it can easily become the tradition. Being a non-traditional church establishes new traditions that can be just as entrenched and inflexible as the old traditions.

This week I heard from a pastor who said “we aren’t scheduling any productions at this time.”

I wanted to explain that it is not a “production” in the sense of sets, lights, and sound. It is simply me telling a story in place of a sermon. But I don’t think he would have listened.

Bottom line for him and so many others, “we never tried it that way before.”

Then the other day we had contact from a young pastor who was thrilled about bringing our ministry to his church. He had never heard of doing drama as a sermon before.

Everything old is new again.

No Regrets, but…

Do you ever wonder what your life would look like if you had made a few different choices at key moments of your life? Those “what ifs” that sneak into your thoughts when you pause to ponder your life and just how you got to where you are at this moment?

I have no regrets in the big picture of how my life unfolded and where I am now. I am happy in my choice of career, spouse, family, ministry and in the overall direction of my life.

But still…

I have these moments when I pause and wonder. Often those moments occur when I happen to watch a concert with a particularly good drummer. I pause and wonder if that could have been me.

You see I had two passions as a kid growing up. Both in the arts. I was a drummer. I started playing in band in elementary school, my first “drum” being one of those practice pads—a piece of rubber glued to a piece of wood. I would build up to a real drum kit later, one piece at a time. I’m sure my parents thought “any instrument EXCEPT the drums,” but they were tolerant and encouraging, despite the noise. In junior high I was in my first rock band, The Phylum Five (there were only four members—go figure).

The other passion, of course, was the stage. I was in church plays, school plays and in general a ham in front of an audience. In high school I found my niche as an actor. I auditioned for almost every play and was cast in leading roles. I loved it!

So here I was in school playing drums in concert and marching bands, and performing in plays and competing in Forensics (humorous interpretative readings). I was able to, in a sense, have my cake and eat it too.

I went to college as a theater major and again had success landing good roles during my time as a college student. I also played drums in the college marching band and in a rock ’n roll band. I was keeping my feet fairly balanced in both worlds for a time.

In 1974 a music group called “The Spurrlows” (Google Thurlow Spurr) came to our college. Well known at the time, this group was like a Christian version of “Up With People.” Big band, contemporary music and a great drummer, a guy by the name of Larnelle Harris (yep, that Larnelle, Grammy and Dove award winning vocalist). The Spurrlows had more than one touring group and invited audience members to audition for their groups after the show. I chickened out but later went home and made a cassette recording of me playing the drums and sent it off to them.

In the summer of 1974 I got my first professional acting job, working as understudy for all the male roles in the Smoky Mountain Passion Play. It was a great experience and for the first time began to open my eyes to the possibility of being an artist that was also in ministry. One of the cast members had toured professionally with a Christian theater company called the Covenant Players. I was enthralled at the possibility!

Upon returning to college the next semester, I began to investigate this theater company. By the end of the semester I was traveling to LA join the company and to become a full-time professional actor.

In the summer of 1975 I was on tour break and with my family back in Michigan when I got a phone call. The voice on the other end of the phone was Larnelle Harris. Thurlow Spurr was launching another group and they had listened to my tape. They wanted to know if I was interested in being the drummer for the group.

Needless to say, I had a sleepless night. Of course I was interested! But I also loved being an actor. Tossing and turning through the night, I played out different scenarios. Actor, drummer, drummer, actor, back and forth all night long. But as much as I wanted to do both, I knew I couldn’t.  I had made a time commitment to the theater company. I really didn’t have a choice. I needed to keep my word. The next day I called Larnelle to tell him no, at least for now.

I chose the stage. It has become my life and I am happy and blessed. Not every person gets to make a living doing something they love. I don’t take it for granted.

A few times I have had the opportunity to play the drums again. Charles Tanner, writer and director of that theater company wrote a play for me. The character was a drummer, a drummer struggling to decide how to use his talents. The climax of the play was a drum solo expressing the character’s conficts, and also served as a prayer as he made his choice to “follow the drumbeat.” It was the only time I was able to be both an actor and a drummer at the same time (talk about having your cake and eating it too)!

Over the years I have played a few gigs at a church jazz night as a drummer, and have passed on my love of the drums to one of my sons, who is a very talented drummer in his own right. I keep a Cajon in my office and my car dashboard takes a beating on my travels. Once a drummer, always a drummer I suppose.

Almost every church has a set of drums on the platform these days. Such was not the case when I was a kid growing up in the church. But every weekend as I sit in a different church preparing to take to the stage as an actor, I look at those drums and I listen to the drummer…no regrets…but sometimes I wonder.

We’ve Got New Stuff!

As you may know, in addition to the stories I share in my travels, we also represent other artists through Master’s Image Productions. Two of our team have added to their lineup recently and I think they are productions you should consider for your church/organization.

Marcia Whitehead – Broken

If you have experienced Marcia’s presentation You Raise Me Up you know she has a powerful story to tell of her journey to discover life after loss. Her story does what a good story always does—leaves you wanting more.   People had so many questions they wanted to explore that she was compelled to create a sequel to address some of the issues left unresolved in You Raise Me Up.  Her newest presentation, Broken, does just that. It addresses her continued journey to healing and wholeness, a message of hope that will inspire those who listen. To learn more or schedule Marcia for a presentation: www.marciawhiteheadusa.com

Steve Wilent – Unlikely Prospect

Steve has had a varied career, from cleaning windows to working as an actor in Hollywood, and pastoring a rural church as a young seminary graduate. It is from this experience as a young pastor that he shares his story called Unlikely Prospect. I have had the pleasure of looking over Steve’s shoulder as he wrote out this story and I can tell you it is a story for anyone who has ever wondered about the purpose of the church—a fellowship of believers learning how to live life together as the body of Christ. You will laugh, squirm and be moved to tears in this inspiring true life story of faith. Check out Steve’s presentations at www.stevewilent.net.

While I don’t have a new production waiting in the wings at this point, I am still enjoying sharing my stories and especially those that, like Marcia’s and Steve’s, are based on my real life adventures. So be sure to check out Truth be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up and Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story.

It it matters, there’s a story!

Can a Story Really “Change” Your Life?

“It changed my life” is an adage that’s often repeated. There are certainly events that are life-changers: birth, graduation, job, marriage, children, death… and so many more.

But can just the simple hearing or reading of a story actually change your life? I’m not talking about making us laugh or cry, or evoking emotions of compassion or anger. Those are a given. I’m talking about tangible change that results in action. Change that makes someone do or live differently.

As a storyteller I have heard “life-changing” applied to my craft. I have often accepted the statement as a compliment, but not taken it too much to heart. I am not sure I really believed that someone was going to live their life differently because they heard a story I told them.

I decided to put it to the test. Could I actually point to life-change in my own life because of stories that I heard or read? Once I seriously considered the question I was surprised at how quickly the answers followed.

• It was through hearing and reading the Gospel story in my youth that I became aware of a need for Christ in my life. It was the added stories (testimonies) of other believers that convinced me to become a follower of Jesus, a change that resulted in me living my life differently.

• It was hearing the stories from a missionary to South America at a youth retreat in Michigan that I became convinced that I wanted to actually serve God as a vocation. One of the few Spanish phrases I can actually remember is the translation to a familiar song that he taught us: “He decidido seguir a Cristo” (I have decided to follow Jesus). I didn’t know the path I would take, but I have never considered a job for more than a brief season of my life that was not also a ministry.

• It was through first seeing plays as a kid and then performing them that I discovered my passion was to be on that stage as a performer. I wanted to tell stories like the ones I was seeing–I wanted to live them. It became the inspiration and motivation for me to find a way to combine my desire to serve God with my desire to be a performing artist. My first job after college was 10 years on the road with a professional touring theater ministry.

• It was reading the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon that challenged me with the famous question “What would Jesus do?” Little did I realize that years later that same story would keep me awake at night–a still small voice saying “tell that story.” Later adapting that book to the stage has indeed been life changing. It launched my current ministry and set the course of my professional/ministry career from 1984 to this day.

I am still thinking through the question but these thoughts flooded in once I opened the door to the question, “Can a story change your life?”

My answer is without a doubt, yes!

Story really does matter!

 

Is it Live or…

Remember the old commercial with the slogan “Is it Live or is it Memorex?” The conclusion that Memorex wanted you to draw was that quality of the recording would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That you would prefer the recorded music to a live performance.

Technology has come a long way since that commercial (1972). If we are talking about sound quality alone, a professional recording would be hard to match in a live performance these days.

As a professional performer with a focus on ministry these last 40 plus years, I have seen the tides change on the “live vs. recorded” question, especially in the area of drama. I have written about it a few times, most notably here. For the church today, the consensus seems to be that live performance is “out,” video is “in.” And why not? Quality video is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. You don’t have to worry about an actor forgetting lines, and you don’t have to move anything on the platform to accommodate a living room setting (sofa, coffee table, and lamp) for a scene that only lasts 5 minutes. It is rare to find a church today that does not use video in some form at their church services every week.

And yet I hear from people in churches all the time that they miss live performance. So I decided to conduct an informal poll on Facebook. I wanted to see if the perception were true that, due to cultural shifts, more people would prefer video to live performance. I asked this question:

Informal poll for my church-going friends:

A pastor has decided he wants to launch his next sermon series with a powerful 5-minute dramatic scene. He has the option of having two professional actors perform the scene live, or those same two actors perform the scene on video. Both options will be professional in every way. Would you prefer the “live” option or the “video” option?

(along with your answer would you give your age group with a simple: teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s?) Additional comments are welcome.”

There was great participation, with over 135 people responding to the question on 3 different FB sites in 24 hours.

Here are the results:

  • Prefer Live: 77%
  • Prefer Video: 17%
  • It Depends or 50/50: 6%
  • 75% of responses were people between the ages of 50-70.
  • 25% of those in the age 60’s category preferred video.
  • Of the 31 responses in the age of 40 or younger, 80% preferred live to video.

I know this not scientific. There is a bias in that most responders were in an age bracket closer to mine (between 50-70). It would be interesting to see how a mostly millennial sampling would have responded. And because of my connections in the arts, there are more responses from people in the performing arts than you might find in a more random poll. One responder questioned if the responses favored “live” over “video” because I, a theater person, was asking the question, rather than a person who does video for a living asking the question. Fair question and I am sure the results were skewed some because of that, but I don’t think that the vast majority were answering the question to satisfy the poller.

Note that there are also several pastors responding to the poll. One of the more interesting responses from a pastor was this:

Live would be more impacting, BUT, as a pastor I would have to consider the actors afterwards. Will the focus be on them and their performance? Would the video allow the people to more easily integrate it into my message?”

The implication being that the live performance might “upstage” the sermon. I have long suspected that a pastor might feel that way, but had never heard someone actually verbalize it.

There were a few other surprises. There were some theater people that I would have suspected would choose “live” who actually preferred “video.”

Many of those who chose video over live cited more practical reasons dealing with “easier for more people so see and hear in a large auditorium” as opposed to the artistic impact on the audience. And there were many who, rightly so, said it would all depend on the actual piece; that some pieces would translate better on video than live.

I am frankly surprised at the results. I would have expected video to come out ahead, given the shift in how often it is used in the church. But maybe the overuse of video has a lot to do with these responses.

My take-away is that the shift away from live performance in so many churches today does not reflect the preference of the people in the audience. Many have suggested that this is a pendulum swing and that live performance will once again come back.  Me, I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

In the meantime, let me know if I can come to you “live.” No Memorex, I promise!

Play it Again, Chuck

Do you have a favorite play, movie, or TV show that you don’t mind watching over and over again? I have a few that fall into that category; not many, but a few.

As a kid, before the VCR, DVR, and Streaming, there would be those movies on TV we would watch again and again. The Ten Commandments at Easter, It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, and of course The Wizard of Oz. All of these would air once a year on network TV and it was an event you actually made plans to watch.

Times have changed, and with the overwhelming amount of content generated on TV, we often find ourselves struggling to keep up with the latest episodes of our favorite shows.  Who has time for a rerun?

With this mentality in mind, I am always a bit taken aback when a pastor asks me to perform something that I have already performed at that same church just a few years earlier. I have a handful of churches that I perform for every year and they are often the ones that motivate me to write a new show. I think to myself, “If I don’t come up with something new I won’t be invited back!” (I wonder how many of my pastor friends have that same thought when it comes to writing their sermons?  “Will they remember if I preach that same sermon I preached two Easters ago?”)

My friend, Jon Karn, is a pastor in Southern California. I have followed Jon around from church to church beginning in the Pacific Northwest back in the 1980’s and at several churches he has served in California. Jon has probably seen my adaptation of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps more than any other pastor. I can say this because not only have I performed In His Steps at every church Jon has served (at least 4 churches), but Jon has requested that I perform it multiple times for at least two of those churches. Jon really likes In His Steps!

I was back at Jon’s church a few weeks ago. I was slated to do one of my newer shows, Truth Be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. A couple of weeks before my scheduled performance, I get a message from Jon: “Chuck, we have decided we want you to do In His Steps again!”

Somehow I was not surprised. I mean it is Jon, and he really likes In His Steps. I asked Jon why he wanted me to do that instead of a piece that he hadn’t seen before. He replied:

“People always need to see what following Jesus looks like. I doubt the congregation will read Sheldon’s classic but they will happily watch the drama. I guess I’d say In His Steps sounds like something I’d preach. Personally, I probably need to see it for my own spiritual health, at least once every year or two.”

If I’m being totally honest, I get a bit tired of the rerun. I mean, I have performed that piece well over 1,000 times since 1984. But I need that reminder that it is not about me – that art can speak to people in powerful ways and a good story bears repeating, which is one reason we call Sheldon’s book a classic.

Anybody up for a rerun? I’m booking dates for 2018!

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