Merry Christmas 2016!

As I sit here writing this I am keeping one eye on the window, watching for the anticipated snowfall that is threatening to shutdown Salem later today. I am a little anxious because I am scheduled to perform tonight in Silverton, OR. There is a very good chance the performance will cancel.

As I reflect on that thought, I am realizing that there have not been many cancelations in my 42 years of ministry. A few caused by weather, a few caused by family/medical emergences. But all in all, it is a rare event. In fact I think I could probably count the cancelations on two hands. (I estimate that we have given about 5,000 performances during that time—that is about .2%!) I count that is one of God’s blessings on this ministry. And we’re still going strong and busy as ever!

  • Performances— Over 100 performances by our artists again this year.
  • Ministry growth— In addition to my performances, my associates, Steve Wilent and Marcia Whitehead have been keeping busy.  Just this month we are adding a new artist to our roster. Wes Whatley lives on the East Coast and will be great addition to our team.
  • Child Sponsorship— One of the biggest blessings of this ministry is that we also get to advocate on behalf of the poor through our partnership with Food for the Hungry. This year about 400 more sponsors were added and over the life of our ministry over 6,000 sponsors have been joined us in tacking poverty around the world.

We fully realize that it is the prayer and financial support of people like you that make this work possible.  We so appreciate your partnership in the work that we do.  As you look forward to 2017, we would be so very honored if you would help us keep the story going by giving a gift to Master’s Image Productions.  We would be especially grateful if you could support us on a regular basis with a monthly pledge (if you are already doing that, thank you!). You can also designate your gifts for the benefit of a specific artist if you like.

May God bless you and yours this Christmas and in 2017!

Chuck Neighbors

Donate online (one-time or monthly):

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Master’s Image Productions, P.O. Box 903, Salem, OR 97302

Master’s Image is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Donations are tax-deductible.

Honesty in Church?

young man wearing a mask of himself

“You know, I find that one of the hardest places to be honest, as an artist, is in the church.”

Whoa! Say what? The statement took me aback a bit.

Then another voice chimed in, “Oh, I totally agree. There are a lot of audiences much more accepting of honesty in our culture. The church is one of the hardest places to speak the truth.”

Wham again! I mean of all places for honesty and truth, shouldn’t the church be at the top of the list?

The conversation was at an intimate gathering of Christian artists in a retreat setting—oddly enough, in a church. Most of the people in attendance were professional performers with a focus on ministry. For most, their audience was the church.

Among the attributes of an artist, speaking the truth is at the top of the list. And yet…

“Oh, you can be honest about some things—the ‘approved topics’ that the tribe accepts. Of course, you can talk about ‘Gospel’ truth. You can even talk about certain failings, certain areas of brokenness; the ‘acceptable sins.’ But there are lots of areas that you can’t touch.”

As the conversation continued I began to understand. There was much brokenness and hurt gathered in this room; divorce, betrayal, addictions, and other issues that are not easily dismissed. Stuff that real people deal with on a daily basis.

And they were saying that both personally and as artists they found it difficult and even impossible to speak about these things in the one place where issues of brokenness should be welcome.

I recalled a conversation with a friend who is a well-known Christian recording artist. He had echoed some of the same sentiment. His passion was to write songs about brokenness but was hitting a wall of resistance. He was told the songs he wanted to write would not be “marketable” to the church audience he was playing to. Only positive and uplifting music was desired and would be commercially acceptable.

In recent years I have been sharing personal stories from my life in my performances. One of the things I have found encouraging is that people are overwhelmingly affirming about the “honesty” and “transparency” I share in my stories… but to be even more honest and transparent, I filtered those stories to stay away from the taboo topics, that I knew deep down inside I couldn’t share. I knew my audiences wouldn’t accept those stories in the context of a church setting. I have to admit it would be very easy to be “more honest” about some of the issues if I were not playing to the church.

I am in a lot of churches… virtually a different one or two every weekend. A lot of churches advertise “come as you are” and try really hard to project an image of being a place where the broken are welcome. But are they being honest?

I don’t have an answer.

I do know that, for the most part, the group of artists gathered in this room are exceptionally qualified to speak honesty and truth, but are not feeling the freedom to do that for the audience they feel called to serve.

Thoughts?

Then vs. Now

ihscropped-COLLAGEFor many years I was used to hearing comments like, “You look younger in person than in your publicity photos.”

Then there was a time when I heard, “You look just like your publicity photos.”

Recently someone said, “You look older in person than in your publicity photos.”

Okay… I guess it is time for some new photos.

I believe in truth in advertising! I enlisted a good photographer, who happens to be my son, Jon, and spent a bit of time this month updating the website with new photos that I hope will give a more accurate depiction of what this actor guy really looks like. (If you like the photos and need a photographer, please consider Jon. Check out his work here:  Jon Neighbors Photography.)

chuck08-COLLAGEBut this whole issue of my not looking like I used to look got me to thinking about all the things we once took for granted that are no more. When it comes to my profession as a performer working in churches, I came up with these observations:

I used to hear, “We might book you for a potluck dinner.”
Then I heard, “We would like to book you for our worship service.”
Now I hear, “We don’t book outside artists or speakers.”

I used to hear, “Drama, that would be great for the kids.”
Then I heard, “We have our own drama ministry that performs in our worship services.”
Now I hear, “Drama, that would be great for the kids.”

I used to hear, “We can’t move the pulpit; it is bolted to the floor.”
Then I heard, “We bring out the pulpit after the band finishes their set.”
Now I hear, “What’s a pulpit?”

I used to hear, “No food or beverage allowed in the auditorium!”chuck11-COLLAGE
Then I heard, “Only water is allowed in the auditorium.”
Now I hear, “Grab your latte and find a seat.”

I used to hear, “Turn in your Bibles to Acts Chapter….”
Then I heard, “The scripture from Acts is on the overhead screen.”
Now I hear, “Click on your Bible app and scroll over to Acts…”

I used to hear, “We meet twice on Sunday and once in the middle of the week.”
Then I heard, “We only meet on Sunday mornings.”
Now I hear, “We watch our church service in our pajamas at home via livestream.”

I know, this all smacks a bit of the ol’ “Why, when I was a kid…” stories we heard from our grandparents. But maybe that’s not so bad. Times do change…some for better and some for worse.

For now I hope to hear once again, “You look younger than in your publicity photos…” Hey, a guy can dream!

What a Pastor would Like Artists to Know

Guest Blog from a Pastor (name withheld)

(In my previous blog I shared 3 Things that Artists Want Pastors to Know. I offered for a pastor to write a counterpoint to the article and got a taker. These are great insights for artists to heed as we work together in ministry!)

Pastor praying for congregation

Please allow me to offer some balance to the discussion.

Performers might not realize that in some cases the congregation is not really interested in having anyone come to sing or act during the time that is normally used for congregational worship and preaching.
From my experience it seems that more and more the preacher has to sell the church on the idea of a live performance . . . (I have personally had great experiences with performance ministry. I have taken part in it and have supported it through the years, so I know how good it can be) . . . so when things don’t go well, it turns out to be a bad reflection on me, the preacher, who made the decision to have the performer come.

Just for information sake areas of criticism include:

1. The performer was late and has kept people waiting and even caused the service to be delayed.

2. The quality of the performance or ability to connect well with the audience/people during the performance and/or after the service is lacking.

3. The information given at the end that’s used to raise money for the sponsoring ministry appears to be more important to the performer than the spiritual message of the performance itself.

4. The performer exercises too much poetic license and even distorts scripture during the performance.

Even if/when these sort of things happen, the performer leaves with money both contractually promised and graciously given while the preacher is the one who receives the criticism and must endure comments like, “I hope we never do that again.”

Those of us who make the decision to have performers come to our churches are putting a lot on the line and are placing a very important part of our own ministry/reputation in the hands of someone who may or may not do the job as well as advertised or anticipated.

As I see it, Performance Ministry is heavily dependent (now and certainly even more so in the future) on the relationship the performers have with church ministers. I think it good advice for the performers to consider the minister’s position in all of this and to understand that we have a lot riding on what you do when you visit our congregations both in regards to members and those who might happen to visit that day.

Make sure that what you bring is equal or better than what we are risking by having you bring it.

Don’t Drop, Fly, or Burn Jesus!

Jesus_FlamesChurch drama.

Sometimes even I have to cringe when I talk about what I do for a living.  I try to find different words to use. “I am a professional actor/storyteller in ministry” has a bit more credibility and helps to distance the gap from saying something like “I do skits in church.”  Let’s face it, church drama has suffered a (often a well deserved) bad reputation. I understand when people roll their eyes when the topic of church drama comes up. It’s no wonder that in many churches it is relegated to the children’s department and gets no respect when adults engage in this craft.

And yet, it can be done well, and is by many—both professionals and amateurs. It was seeing it done well that inspired me to pursue acting as a career. I can’t begin to tell you how many people credit a church production as being the thing that drew them to  church and, for many to faith as well.  If you read the bio’s of famous performers you would be amazed at how many credit the church with giving them their start. (Although considering the paths some of them have taken, that may not be a compliment!)

We have just finished Christmas, a time when many churches engage in this creative endeavor, and we are quickly approaching the Easter season, the other time of the year when even churches who don’t allow “church drama” will often make an exception and give that much maligned group of artists in the church a chance to ply their craft.

The Easter Pageant Season is upon us.

As a warning…maybe some things are better left to our imagination. A sensitive scene gone wrong will only inflict more damage on our reputation. It might be better to leave some special effects to Hollywood. I offer these examples of what not to do:

Don’t “drop” Jesus.

Don’t “fly” Jesus.

Don’t “burn” Jesus.


Our message matters! Make a memorable show, but to quote an old TV show “be careful out there!”

If you want some good quality drama, consider inviting me or one of our artists to your church. We promise not to drop, fly or burn Jesus!

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?

I Really Like Your Whatchamacallit

Silhouette of actors in the spotlight“I really enjoyed your… uh… sho–uh… your… uh”

I’m thinking, “Please don’t say it. Don’t say that other word that starts with an ’s’.”

“I mean, I liked your skit?… is that what you call it?”

Ah, she said it. There it is–the dreaded 4 letter “S” word that is like foul language to us theater types. Yet I understand. I mean, this is church and I think the word “skit” was invented at church youth camp. It is hardly the right word to use for those of us in the world of professional theater, but it’s okay. The church, for the most part, doesn’t quite know what to do with performers the likes of myself.

The next person I encounter struggles for a better whatchamacallit…

“That was a great… uh perfor… uh… presentation.  Is that what you call it?”

Ah, yes! “Presentation” that’s the safe word. I don’t like it, but it is better than “skit,” although I think presentation works better in the corporate training world. However, I find that even I use it when describing what I do. “Presentation” is one word that can mean many different things; it’s generic. A sermon, a concert, a testimony, a drama… all can fall under the banner of “presentation” and be suitable to use in the context of a church service.

The truth is, what I have just done is a performance, usually a drama or storytelling. The common descriptor in the culture would be a one-man-show. Ah… but that creates a problem in the world of the church. The church is not the place for “shows.” And for many this is especially true when it comes to the worship service–the place I do most of my performing. The problem is not with what I do. Once experienced, most agree it is totally appropriate for worship. I describe it to many as a “creative sermon.” The problem is what to call it. The church, especially today has placed a premium on authenticity and anything too polished or too professional that feels like a “performance” is suspect.

I get it. It’s sort of a backlash against the idea that worship is just a “show” a–“performance”–and not authentic on the part of those on the platform. But worship is also a place for those with gifts in the arts to use them, and use them effectively. For us it is our offering. 

So I will continue to struggle to find the right word. I’ll grin and bear it when you refer to my performance as a skit.

And then there are the other related issues:

“That was so moving… I wanted to applaud… but I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate!”

And this favorite from a friend:

“That was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud.”

Performing in the church: a conundrum.

 

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.

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?

Living In The Moment

Living in the Moment!

Living in the Moment! —Watch out for that tree!

Vacation in Hawaii! Lorie and I had planned this trip for a long time and by using our frequent flyer miles and a securing a special deal on a condo we were looking forward to a time of no stress, rest, and recreation. I had worked diligently to make sure all bills were paid and other business matters were attended to, so we could enjoy this vacation without thought of anything else for two weeks. We were going to live “in the moment” on vacation—life at home and at work was on hold.

We stayed at an airport hotel the night before departure to take advantage of the free parking. As we are about to board the shuttle to the airport Lorie said, “Oh no!”. I looked at her as she turned pale and begin to shake and then start to cry.

“I don’t have my ID” she said, as she frantically looked through her purse, her pockets and her backpack. Our vacation dream of living “in the moment” in Hawaii was suddenly in jeopardy by the thought of not being able to board a plane. Panic was the moment we were living in. THINK! What to do? No time to go home and come back.

Then a thought emerges seeming from out of nowhere. “Do you have a copy of your passport?” I ask. We had traveled enough overseas and had learned to always kept a photocopy of our passport in our luggage.

“Yes!” Sure enough there it was tucked in one of the zippered pockets of her suitcase. That along with some prescriptions in her name and a much too personal body search were enough to convince TSA to let her board the plane. Sigh of relief… back to vacation!

Then the email came. A business decision needed to be made and action taken immediately. It wasn’t something that I could postpone until I got home. The decision would have an impact on several people and their livelihood. I needed to consult with my board, make phone calls, and explore the opportunity placed in front of me. For the next several days I was either on the phone or emailing. When I wasn’t doing those things my mind was consumed with the decision I needed to make and the actions I would need to take once the decision was made. I didn’t sleep well. So much for a stress-free vacation.

As an actor, you learn the value of being “in the moment” on stage. It is the key to making each performance feel fresh and new for each audience. You may have performed the play a thousand times but the audience needs to feel like you are saying those words and living that experience as if it were the very first time. Intellectually, you know what happens next, but the character you are portraying can’t know—he has to live it in the moment.

Actors get into trouble when they stop living in the moment. It happens, and often the audience can tell. If an actor lets the outside world in while they are performing they can cease to live in the moment. A forgotten line, a camera flash, or thinking about things unrelated to the scene can take you out of the moment and ruin a scene. To live in the moment is force yourself to live as if the only thing that matters is what is happening right now in the present.

We are often forced to live in a moment not of our choosing, as happened to me on my vacation. Both our past experiences and our vision for the future can impact how we handle those situations. Here are three things that can help us to live more effectively in the moment:

 Listen – We actors often forget our lines because we are thinking ahead instead of staying present in the scene. If we would simply listen to the other actor we would often know exactly what comes next. The same is true in real life. How often are we in conversation but our mind is elsewhere? Learning to truly listen to the person we are talking to or to listen even to the sounds around us with new ears can help us live in the moment. I could have chosen to become angry at my wife, clouding my thinking in frustration. Instead listening and allowing my mind to focus on the situation allowed enough calm to remember the passport copy.

 Respond – Respond to what is in front of you. Answer the question, ask the next question. Take out the garbage, set the table. The old adage “actions speak louder that words” applies. Do things that show you are connected to the moment. Take action in response to an immediate need. Experience what is in front of you. This is often where a past experience might just inform your present situation.

What comes next? – Instead of dwelling on things that will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month, focus on what happens next! You need to write that speech or prepare that financial report then take the next step and do it. Often I find the things I am dreading are keeping me from living in the moment. While getting caught up thinking about the future can be a distraction from the moment, a little thought about what happens next can be the best way to live in the moment. My while my business decision was a “future” thing I had to think ahead in order to make my decision now, in the moment.

Worry is one of the biggest things that can keep us from living in the moment. We worry about things we have no control over. We let a past mistake or failure keep us from moving forward and enjoying the present. Moments can change, as my story about my vacation illustrates. I had to abandon one moment to deal with another. Sometimes life is like that. I think Jesus gives us the best advice on how to live in the moment:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” – Matthew 6:34

Living in the moment will help us all  to live a better story!

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