Pew Survivor

Can you imagine what a church worship service would look like if it was conducted like one of those reality-based TV shows? Imagine a show called ‘Pew Survivor.’ The objective: to live in a perpetual marathon worship service. An endless rotation of prayers, hymns, offerings and sermons. After each sermon someone is voted out of the service by everyone else in the congregation. (In some instances this might actually be the reward!) The winner gets a free pass to heaven and everyone else goes to, well, you know…

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? However, shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? are big hits with our culture today. I am not sure why these shows are so popular, but one thing seems to be clear­we like things unpredictable. There is one thing that these shows have in common: no script. (The idea of no script is terrifying to me as an actor!) They are all based on a concept of creating a conflict or situation and then waiting to see what will happen next. Perhaps it is because our own lives have become so mundane, so predictable, that we find this entertaining. Don’t get me wrong, I am not necessarily knocking it. I enjoy some of these shows and am entertained with the rest of the country. From everything that I have read and heard, this form of entertainment will be around for awhile.

I have always been one to try to find creative ways to communicate and build bridges to our culture. One of the reasons that drama has grown in popularity in our churches today is that it connects with the culture. In a play we see real people reflecting the real life situations that we live each day. We identify with these characters and want to see how they deal with life issues. Drama used in a church setting is exceptionally good at raising those issues, and when coupled thematically with music and sermon can be powerful, effective, and yes, unpredictable.

There are many creative things that the church can do, through drama, to connect with this ‘reality-based’ phase that the culture is going through. Certainly, using ‘slice of life’ short dramas in worship is one way. Another is to design some outreach events that can be entertaining and cutting edge. In my work as ‘Artist in Residence’ at Salem Alliance Church we have been exploring this area and have seen some positive results.

One major outreach of this church is an event called ‘An Evening in December.’ While the program contains some elements you would expect from a church Christmas production (choir music, drama and a message) it is far from the traditional church program. The dramas are what I call ‘edgy.’ They deal with nitty-gritty life issues and while the endings are positive, they are not predictable and all wrapped up in a nice tidy package with everyone living ‘happily ever after.’ The show in 1999 dealt with a homeless, alcoholic bag-lady and her struggle to find hope in a hopeless situation. This year’s program could have come from recent headlines, as Christians were pitted against atheists in a battle over the public display of a manger scene­and the Christians were not the heroes in this story. Entertaining? You bet! Relevant? Absolutely. Reality-based? No question! The results speak for themselves. The show sold out both years (over 4500 seats), with publicity only going out to the members of the church.

In the summer we offered an Evening of Improvisation (much like the TV show Whose Line Is It?) expecting a modest crowd of maybe 100 people to show up. We were wrong! There was standing room only, with over 300 people crowding in the room to see the show. When we announced the conclusion of the performance there were audible disappointed groans from the audience. While this event was not ‘evangelical’ in nature–it was simply some good clean fun in a Christian environment–it did serve to provide an opportunity for the members of the church to invite their unchurched friends to an event that was non-threatening and opened the door for ministry on an individual basis. The program served to shatter the stereotypes that so many hold about the church and the people who call themselves Christians.

The bottom line is this: While the Gospel doesn’t change, how we communicate the Gospel constantly needs to be changing if we hope to reach the culture that we live in. If we want to see ‘Survivors’ in the pews we need to do our best to be relevant to the world we live in. Jesus is ‘reality-based.’ He, after all, became one of us­one of the players­to show us how to win in this game of life. Now that’s a reality I can live with!

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