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.

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