Christian Drama – How to get into the Act!

The following article was first published in Bookstore Journal, June 1992. The article was targeted toward Christian book retailers.

“I want a divorce!”

You could tell the words spoken stung her as she attempted to speak.

“Wha . . .”

“Look I have thought about it for a long time and it just is not working out. I don’t love you any more. I’m sorry.”

He turned and left the room, leaving her stunned and speechless.

Later a woman told me she felt uncomfortable, like she was eavesdropping on something that she wasn’t supposed to hear. I was pleased. That was the effect I wanted. I wanted her and the other five hundred people watching to feel the same way. It was the perfect set up for what was to follow.

You see, the man seeking the divorce and the woman in shock are not really married. They are actors in a play. And the play is not being performed in a theater, but rather, right in the middle of our Sunday morning church service. On this particular morning the pastor is teaching on what the Bible has to say about divorce. The play got the audience’s attention in no uncertain terms, and provided the perfect illustration for the sermon that followed.

This is just one example of using drama effectively to enhance communication. The possibilities are endless. After more than seventeen years of ministry through drama I am happy to see that the church is reclaiming this area of the arts. One of the churches that is leading the way in this resurgence of drama is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where Bill Hybels is pastor. Drama is a weekly feature in their services. As I travel the country I am encountering a number of churches that are following the model they have set forth.

Statistically speaking, one of the least effective forms of communication available to us is the lecture, yet it is the one mode of communication the church has relied upon most heavily. We live in a visual society. We are visual people. We retain much more of what we see than what we hear. In my workshops on drama and communication, I often ask the participants if they can remember what last Sunday’s sermon was about. Most cannot. If they do remember anything, most often it’s the illustration, or perhaps the children’s sermon. Why? Because it is usually a story. Stories create visual images in our mind. We retain those images. It is obvious that Jesus knew this. He told parables – stories – to the people he encountered. It is interesting to note that we have many more parables than sermons from Jesus. Parables and dramas have a lot in common. Drama requires the audience to participate. It captures their imagination and enables identification with people and situations. That is why the parables were so effective – people could relate to the stories.

As the church awakens to the effectiveness of the dramatic arts I have become increasingly aware of the need for quality material and the availability of that material. The following is just one example of the frustration that is being experienced by the local church:

It had gone extremely well. I was surprised at the turn-out: from a congregation of just under two hundred people, I had thirty participants and most of them were adults. I was there to conduct a drama workshop. We had covered the basics of performing and explored the many possibilities for incorporating drama into the life of the church. This group had impressed me, not only with their talent and creativity, but especially with their enthusiasm. They were ready to take what they had learned and put it to use!

We were on the home stretch when the dreaded question came up:

“Where do we find good scripts to perform?”

I call this the “dreaded” question because it is sort of the bad news part of the workshop. We have just spent several hours getting excited about the great possibilities for using drama in the church. We are pumped up and ready to do something right now! Let’s run down to the local Christian bookstore and buy a book of plays, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, the local Christian bookstore, if it is like most, will have very little or nothing at all to offer. Why? Because that is not the way plays are marketed. However, the average church layperson doesn’t know this. And the average clerk behind the counter at the bookstore doesn’t offer much help, because he may not know how the system works either.

Typically, what has to happen is this: you order a catalogue from one of the companies that offer plays for production (it might surprise you to know that there are several). Hopefully, this catalogue will offer a short synopsis of plays, or books of plays. Based on this information, you then order and pay for a copy of the prospective play. When you receive the play, you read it and decide if you like it. If you like the play, then you order more copies; usually one for each cast member is required. There may also be other restrictions and/or requirements that you need to pay attention to. Some will require additional royalties, some will stipulate that the play only be performed by amateurs, and special permission may be needed for professional and/or multi-performance usage.

If you don’t like the play, then you are “back to the drawing board,” so to speak, and have to start all over again. This can be very frustrating because much time has been wasted. I have found that people can be great procrastinators. They wait until February to decide they want to do a play for Easter. They may have waited too long to start the procedure and if they don’t like the first play they read, then they are stuck with either doing a play they don’t like, trying to write their own play, or doing nothing at all.

One of the other frustrations that people often encounter is the lack of quality material. Unfortunately, Christian drama has suffered a bad reputation in the years gone by. All too often, drama has been something that the “kids” do, or it has been confined to the Easter or Christmas pageant. To borrow a phrase from a former director of mine, people tend to think of Christian drama as “beards and bathrobes and cardboard camels.” I am not knocking the legitimate use of pageantry. Indeed, when done well, these can be powerful presentations. Nor is there anything wrong with drama done by youth. Again, when done well this can also be powerful, as well as a good experience and training for those involved. The issue is quality.

I am happy to say that the picture is changing. I am performing regularly in churches that ten years ago would not have considered using drama as a part of worship. Now more and more churches are using drama as a regular part of their ministry. They are discovering ways to use this powerful art form in new, contemporary and innovative ways. Since they have seen the impact these productions can have, churches are beginning to demand that these presentations be of quality, both in writing as well as performance.

I believe there is some good material being written today, but there is also a lot of mediocre material out there. They are often listed side by side in some of those same catalogues. Is it possible to change the way that these materials are made available to the local church? I think the answer is yes, and by so doing more drama would be done and the quality material would surface to the top of the stack.

One of the issues at the core of the present system is that of collecting royalties. I believe that writers need to be paid for their work. However, the present system results in few sales of plays compared to what would be possible if the materials were more easily accessible to the average layperson. Now, I am not a publisher, and I don’t pretend to know their business. However, the music industry has come up with a very creative way to solve the problem of collecting royalties from the local church. They have created a licensing agency which collects a flat fee from churches for the rights to use and reproduce music from a number of publishers. From what I understand, it has been enormously successful. I doubt the flat fee idea would work with drama, but the point is they tried something different, and it worked. Perhaps we need to find a similar creative solution for the use of plays.

I have an idea I would like to see explored. The first place people think to look for plays is at the local Christian bookstore. It seems logical to me then, that the local Christian bookstore is where they need to be! As a writer, I would gladly settle for a royalty built into the purchase price, if the play was made easily available to the consumer through the local bookstore. I believe that more people would buy the material because of the accessibility, even if this meant a slightly higher price (there are already a few playbooks available on this basis). Since quality is an issue, why not have perusal copies of plays available to loan out, or to be read on the premises at the local bookstore. This “hands-on” accessibility could greatly promote the sale of plays, and more importantly, their performance.

This is just an idea, of course. One thing is certain, however. While the Gospel doesn’t change, our culture does, and one of the biggest influences on that change comes through the visual arts, of which drama is a big part. One need only look at our media – television, movies, commercials, etc. – to see their effects. In training missionaries to go to foreign countries we teach them to be effective in the culture of that country. Yet we do not do so well with our own culture, which has changed drastically in the last fifty years. We live in a very entertainment-oriented society. We are bombarded by the media at every turn. One could argue the pros and cons of this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists. One of the unfortunate side effects of our changing culture is the lost art of concentration. We are beginning to see the results of the “Sesame Street” generation – shorter and shorter attention spans. If we want people to hear our message – the gospel of Jesus Christ – then we need to be giving careful and creative thought as to how that message is being communicated.

The church is discovering how important drama is in communicating to our world today. Since drama is so powerful and churches are recognizing this, we need good writers and the support of publishers to produce this material. We also need the help of Christian retailers to get the material into the hands of people who desire to put it to good use! I urge the Christian retailer to do all they can to help the local church find the material they are seeking (see sidebar).

I would love to be able to have some “good news” to report at my next workshop when asked the question, “Where do we find good scripts to perform?”

My answer for now will be: ” Get out the the catalogues and. . . good luck.”

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