Redeeming Entertainment

Chuck Neighbors
Keynote Address
Drama Improvement Conference, October 2003
Sunset Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon
copyright © 2003

(Note: this is an reprint of a previously published article)

I want to say things tonight that will inspire, encourage and challenge you. I realize that to speak to a group like this is, in essence to “preach to the choir.” But maybe that is not all bad. This is one choir that doesn’t get together all that often, so maybe a little preaching to the choir is just what we need. To speak the truths of the things that we all agree on–to have those ideals reinforced and encouraged–is certainly not out of line for this gathering. Yet, I am not satisfied to have you walk out of here with a sort of ho hum, same old same old, theme.

So I had to turn the question in on myself and ask, “What would I like to hear? What do I need to hear fleshed out a bit more?”

For too long I have felt the need to apologize to the church for the fact that what I do, what we do, as theatre artists, is to in fact entertain. I have had more conversations than I can count with people who want to challenge and even condemn the notion that doing drama on a Sunday morning in church is entertainment and that church should not be a place of entertainment. So tonight I am going to challenge that notion, rather than apologize for it as I have so often done in the past. Tonight I want to redeem entertainment! First to redeem the word — that is the feel-good part of my talk. Second, to talk about entertainment that is redeeming–that will be perhaps the challenge part of what I want to say tonight. And third, how in following our calling as entertainers for the cause of Christ we can experience a measure of redemption not only for our art, but also for our souls.

Redeeming the Word “Entertainment”

Much of what I want to say tonight has to do with definitions. As actors and writers we know that words mean things. According to the dictionary “entertainment,” as pertaining to performance, has three distinct parts: to hold attention, to amuse, to divert.

To hold attention? Think about that part as I substitute and turn a phrase or two.
• The church should not be a place of entertainment = The church should not be a place that holds our attention. (Clearly some have succeeded if that is the goal).
• This is a place of worship not a place of entertainment = This is a place of worship service not a place that holds our attention.
• I came to hear a sermon not to have someone entertain me = I came to hear a sermon not have someone hold my attention.

If entertainment means “holding attention” then it certainly is something to be desired by the church today!

I must admit that I thought my premise for this talk was in trouble when I got to the next word: to AMUSE. When you hear the word ‘amuse’ or ‘amusing’ do you, like me, think that it automatically means ‘funny’ or ‘humorous?’ (And thinking of the church as a place of humor–for some of us that may be a stretch.) Some, on the other hand, are quite amusing but they just don’t know it! When I hit that word I thought, “there goes my talk–I am doomed.” I couldn’t find a scriptural reference talking about being amused in church or in worship. Then I had a thought, what does the word ‘amuse’ actually mean? Here are some synonyms for amuse: to please, gratify, entertain, exhilarate, delight.

I read that list and I thought to myself, hmm….sounds an awful lot like what worship ought to be. If we define worship according to the dictionary it is both a verb and a noun. As a noun worship is ceremonies, prayers or other religious forms by which love is expressed. As a verb it is the act of showing love and honor to a deity. So imagine that to amuse God is, in fact, worship. To please him, to gratify and delight him. Now delight–there is a very biblical term. I was delighted to find the following passages — or should I say I was amused to find the following passages. Consider:

Psalm 1: 1-2 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 35
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation.

Psalm 37
4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 43
4 Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

Imagine David – an artist, using his art – song and harp – in worship. Entertaining an audience of one– God!

Psalm 111
2 Great are the works of the LORD ; they are pondered by all who delight in them.

And if you think of this as just an Old Testament thing, consider this reaction by those listening to Jesus after his teaching in the temple courts:
Mark 12
37…. The large crowd listened to him with delight.

I hope you can see that in this context, being amused can be a godly, biblical thing. Godly and biblical things happening in church would be a good thing, right?

It, of course, can go the other way. Consider:

Psalm 62
4 … they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
Proverbs 2
14 who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil,

We are not making the word “delight” holy. We are not making the word “entertainment” holy. Like anything including drama they can be used for good or evil.

The last word in the definition is “divert.” Once again I thought my premise might be in trouble. Especially since some of the sources I used said not only divert, but added “divert attention away from that which is serious.” I thought “this is not good, because spiritual things ARE serious.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought “no problem.” You see, at least for me, that which I perceive as being serious is more often not the spiritual stuff of life, but rather the “life stuff.” In essence I NEED to divert my attention away from that which really occupies my mind — the serious stuff to do with my work, my family, health, all of life’s problems–and instead divert my attention on being entertained, delighted, and amused by the things of God. Now that’s entertainment at its best. Entertainment that is directed toward God–be it music, dance, paintings, or drama–that is, or certainly can be, worship.

I realize that when we get down to it that it is not the words as I have defined them but rather the perception of those words. It is not the meaning of the word ‘entertainment’ as much as what that word has come to mean in our culture. Steve Pederson, the director of drama at Willow Creek says this in his book Drama Ministry:

“The problem for some who oppose the use of drama in the church is the idea that drama is merely entertainment. These people assert that the church should be about the task of saving souls, not about entertainment.
Yes, drama is entertainment, but this fact does not need to be a negative–even in church. Those who object to entertainment in the church usually have a limited definition of it. To them it connotes that which is cheap, glitzy, and worldly–the worst of Las Vegas.
But entertainment can also be truthful and enlightening. Good drama can bring out wholesome laughter or move us deeply. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake has no place in church, but entertainment that touches someone’s heart and makes that person more open is not only valid, it is desirable.”

My assessment is that the church is very much about entertainment, we just don’t call it that. The very structure of the sanctuary to the structure of a worship service, whatever your tradition, is designed to hold and focus our attention. While most pastors would reject the label, we all know that the very best preachers are purposeful entertainers. Why else do they tell such good stories and add humor to their message if not to hold our attention and amuse us?! Not for entertainment’s sake, but so we will listen and receive the message contained within the entertainment.

I want to take this one step further. I think God loves entertainment and loves to be entertained. One need only look at Creation and God’s repeated delight in what He created. Creating land and water, light and dark, plants and animals, He repeatedly looked and saw that it was good! Read Exodus 35 & 36 to see how God gifted artists, as the scripture says “by his Spirit,” to do works of art in building the tabernacle. Read the Psalms and see the enduring art of poet and song writer David–the man after God’s own heart. Look at the theatrics of the old testament prophets. I have to think that God was amused and entertained by Elijah. Can you just imagine the great theatre on Mt. Carmel when Elijah called down fire from Heaven–what great entertainment!

Drama is about telling a story. Jesus was a master of the parable (defined as a simple story told to illustrate a truth.) Isn’t that what we are doing when we do drama in worship? The Gospel–the divine drama–is referred to as the greatest story ever told. Art is about entertainment. Few artists create art merely for their own enjoyment, rather they want others to share in the creation. That is true of God–He created man to enjoy and share in His creation. It is true for me when I write a play. My first impulse is to share it with my wife. I want someone else to enjoy my creation. Sometimes she does. Art can be for our human entertainment but it can also be for God’s entertainment. When it is, I believe that is an act of worship.

Some might be wondering “Chuck, are you suggesting that our churches become theatres?” My answer is “they already are!” Again, going to definitions – theatre is derived from the Greek word theatron which means “seeing place.” Don’t we want the church to be a place where come to see about God as well as hear about him? A place that holds our attention? Not, of course, in exclusion to all the other things that take place in the church like fellowship, teaching and coffee drinking.

“Redeeming” Entertainment
So now the challenge. I want to encourage you to make your entertainment redeeming in it’s content and value. Not entertainment for entertainment’s sake but rather something that amuses and diverts our attention toward the things of God.

As a Christian artist I have always had a struggle with the old adage “art for art’s sake.” The popular notion in the world is that “art needs no defense.” “Art just is.” I am not saying that there is no room for art that is merely there for no other purpose than our enjoyment, art that “merely entertains.” In fact, I think it is possible that even God as an artist made much of creation just because it amused Him with no other purpose in mind. This could be true of the Grand Canyon and it could be true of the duckbilled platypus. It might even be true of some of us here in this room! But as a Christian artist I think we need to be purposeful in the art we create–maybe not exclusively, but at least in the majority of our time and energy. I say this because I think there is too much at stake not to be purpose driven in our art. If we as Christian artists are not driven with a grander sense of purpose, who then? Certainly there are artists on the other end of the spectrum that are purposeful in their attempts to communicate values and messages most of us would oppose. It is not a secret that that we have become an entertainment-oriented culture. We as Christian artists, we as the church, have the challenge of communicating to and reaching that culture. The church needs Christian artists today more than ever. And we need them to spend their energies creating art that will reach this culture. We need Christians at work in theatre that is both overt and subtle. We need them at work in both the church and in the broader culture calling us to the Truth of the Gospel.

I have heard it stated among Christian artists that we do not need to try to get a message across–we should just concentrate on telling a story. That as long as we are Christians producing art, our message will come through who we are. I think this statement may well be a reaction to some of the poorly written and performed plays that have been done in the name of ministry in the past. One of the tendencies we must resist is to simply use our drama to preach rather than tell a story–which is what drama is supposed to do. The drama we need to be doing should communicate, challenge, foster identification, entertain and stir us up. It may carry the impact of a sermon, but it should never have preaching as its goal! Leave it to the pastor to preach. To use drama to preach is to risk defeating the greatest strength of drama in the first place–that is, communication without preaching.

But on the other hand, to suggest that redeeming entertainment will just happen without forethought, with no regard to message bothers. Oh, this may happen on occasion, but I am troubled by the notion that somehow my work as a writer and as an actor will just happen to have a purposeful value and content simply because I am a Christian. I believe we need to be more intentional than that.

For the last few years I have had the privilege to work with and develop an improv team that now performs a weekly show in Salem. At this time, to the best of my knowledge, all the performers are Christians. We have had some truly great, entertaining moments on stage, but being improv–even at our very best–I would have to say that what we do on stage would appear to be pretty much “entertainment for entertainment’s sake.” We are Christians performing, but I would hardly call the art we produce of a lasting redeeming quality. There is no “great art” happening here, merely because we are Christians. Even though I love what we are doing, if that was the extent of our work in Salem, I think I would come to the conclusion “what a waste.” What a waste of time and energy.

You might wonder why we do it if that is all it is? Am I contradicting myself? Didn’t I just challenge us all to be more purposeful in the art we create? Yes I did, but I don’t think what we are doing contradicts my challenge and I’ll tell you why: I think our culture needs clean, family-friendly entertainment options. Our improvisations may appear to be “merely entertainment” but it is a safe and family-friendly alternative for people to attend. That, in and of itself is a much needed ministry. But it is more than that. This venue provides an opportunity for subtle evangelism–people notice that we are different from all the other stuff in town and wonder why. We have the opportunity to tell them. We are providing a place for the Christians in our audience to have a good neutral location to take their friends who may not like or trust the church, a place where they can build relationships that eventually can work their way into a healthy relationship with God and the church. Third, improv is giving me a great vehicle to train actors so that when we do work on more intentional productions we will do a better job. And last, while it is yet to happen, I am hopeful that eventually there will be some non-believing theatre types that will be attracted to what we are doing–that they will want to join us–and through that process they will come into relationship with Jesus Christ. For these reasons it is no longer “art for art’s sake,” or “merely entertainment.”

For me redeeming entertainment is entertainment that changes people.

It is the young teenager who sought me out after a performance–not to talk to Chuck Neighbors–but rather to talk with the character I portrayed on stage because she thought that character could help her. You see, this young gal was unmarried and pregnant–the play challenged her and she thought my character could help her. That’s redeeming entertainment!

It is the missionary who said to me, “When I came in here tonight I had made up my mind that I was not going back to the mission field–now, after seeing your play, I realize I have to go back.” That’s redeeming entertainment!

It is the countless number of people who have sat through a one-man comedy and afterward said to me, “I needed that! I needed to laugh!” That is redeeming entertainment.

It is those few times when an entire congregation stands to their feet–not in a standing ovation for the performer–but rather to recommit their lives to following Jesus after–of all things–a one-man play! That is entertainment that redeems! That is the kind of entertainment the church, our society, and our culture need more of.

Being Redeemed as an Entertainer

And as for me, as an artist, I find that I am at my very best when I am about my Master’s business. Creating, producing, working, rehearsing, writing and rewriting all for the sake of the One who created me and wired me to be the unique work of art that I am–that each of us is. When I do this “drama thing” it is an act of worship.

Do you remember the movie Chariots of Fire? Some of you are old enough to remember actually seeing it in the theater. I have always been struck by the scene from “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddell is talking to his sister, who wants him not to run in the Olympics but to be a missionary to China. He responds that he has decided to serve as a missionary to China. . .but only after he has run in the Olympics. She is crushed and thinks that he’s making the wrong decision. He responds, “God made me to run, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

To feel God’s pleasure. Have you ever done something where you felt God’s pleasure? I believe that when Eric Liddell ran he was, in fact worshiping–doing what God designed him to do. When I perform–not every time, of course, but those times when I am truly in tune, in sync with God when I step on stage, I can truly say that I feel God’s pleasure. Like Eric Liddell running the race, I may not always win. Sometimes I merely survive. But then there are those other times when I am “in the zone,” I feel the audience, and it is as if we become as one. At those moments I, too, feel His pleasure. That, to me, reflects the heart of Christian artists. A heart of worship, giving our talents and creativity back to the One who gave them to us in the first place. That which holds His attention, and the attention of others. That which diverts attention away from the busy, stressful world that occupies our time and toward our Lord and Savior. That which delights and amuses God and others. He redeems me and He redeems my art. That is entertainment.

So I charge you to go forth and grab attention, amuse and divert–for the sake of the Kingdom. Go forth and entertain–just be careful where you use the word because to some it is still the dreaded “E” word.

Chuck Neighbors

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