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.

3 Things Artists want Pastors to Know

brownmandmsI recently returned from a few days of retreat with some fellow artists who are ministry minded. Many, myself included, make their living serving in churches where they perform almost every weekend.  With a gathering like this, you are almost guaranteed to hear a statement resembling this:

You are not gonna believe this one church I performed at….”

If you are a pastor or church leader, you most likely will not want to be the leader of the “church” the artist is about to reveal. Oh sure, it might be a wonderful testimony about God’s grace and power, but more likely it will be a horror story about how the artist was treated by said church. We all have our stories, both good and bad. We have our stories about wonderful life-changing events where things went perfectly, and we have our stories about being bumped off, turned off, and ripped off at our performances. (And to be fair, I’m sure a gathering of church leaders could offer some equally amazing stories about artists that you have invited to your church—I have heard a few myself…oh my!)

As I reflected on the stories that were shared, I thought it might be good to come up with a list of a few things artists would like churches to consider in order to make a great event.

  • Be Prepared. Yes, the Boy Scouts’ Motto is good for all of life. I’m not talking about a greenroom and a candy dish with all the brown M&Ms removed (Just Goggle the most ridiculous artist riders). But if the artist has provided a list of “needs” for their time with you, take the time to go over the list and do what you can to accomodate. Sound needs, props and rehearsal time all need to be considered. I actually covered a lot on this topic in a previous blog here: A Stage That Is Hard to Fathom. The artist is a guest and needs to be hosted. By this, I mean there needs to be someone to greet and orient the artist to the appropriate people/places for set up, rehearsal, etc. If not the pastor, then another person to act as sort of a personal assistant. This person can also be a great help at the end of the event. The artist needs to be free to interact with people after the event. They will often have a resource table to staff in addition to visiting with the people that want some of their time afterwards. There is often that person who monopolizes the artist’s time with their own stories, and making it impossible for the artist to greet and speak to other people. This is where an assistant from the church can be a huge service, serving to rescue the artist from the monopolizing fan.
  • Honor the Agreement. It’s no surprise to me that many of the stories artists talk about fall under the catagory of the church not doing what was agreed upon. Most of the time we are talking about things that were agreed to in a written and signed document. At the top of the list is not honoring the financial arrangement and not giving the artist the time alotted. I had one pastor want to change the agreement moments before I took the stage and when I tried to challenge this he accusingly said, “I brought you here to serve!” — implying that satisfying our agreement meant I was not serving.  Another church had agreed to a freewill offering for my ministry and informed me they were just going to give me a gift; “but don’t worry it will be generous” (it was far less than what I have received in offerings from churches half their size). The offering, for many of us is our livelihood. A single worship service on a weekend will often translate into a week’s wages. With that in mind, please be careful how you explain the offering to your congregation. To say simply “defray the cost of having an artist come” is not accurate or fair. The audience will be thinking they are covering a tank of gas and a pizza rather than providing for the actual livelihood of the artist.
  • Trust the Art. If there is one thing that makes an artist bristle, it’s for someone to get up and try to tell the audience what the artist just said throught their art, be it music, acting, dance, painting, or spoken word. I understand that this can be a tough one for a pastor who is concerned, and rightly so, that the message be recieved. The artist’s gift is to communicate the message differently. If they are good at what they do, let the audience be free to absorb and receive the art…even though they may not all get the same message. It’s okay to add a few words of commentary and/or personal impact about the art. We just want you to resist the urge to preach a sermon on what they have just seen and heard.

I’m sure there are other things artists would like the church to know, and perhaps some of them will chime in through the comments. And we who are artists are not without sin. There are examples of us not being prepared, not honoring the agreement and not trusting the church as well! I am also certain a posting from the pastor’s perspective might be in order. Perhaps one of you would like to submit a guest blog to me on “3 Things a Pastor wants Artists to Know!”  Any takers?

UPDATE:

We have a response! Check out the next blog: What a Pastor would Like Artists to Know

Beware the Offering Plate

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I‘ve have been fortunate to make my living with my art as a ministry for over 40 years. Much of that “living” comes through the generosity of others via the offering plate that is passed after a performance at a church. The offering plate has been my friend, and has greatly blessed me and my ministry over the years.

But not everything I receive in an offering plate is money. I have also received Starbucks gift cards, lottery tickets, drawings from children, candy and gum, and of course pocket lint. Sometimes all poured into in a brown paper bag and handed to me as I walk out the door.

Something else that occasionally shows up in the offering plate is notes of encouragement. People will often write a “thank-you” and other words of appreciation on a scrap of paper and these are treasures to be sure!

And then there are the critiques…not as often as the notes of appreciation, but they show up from time to time. I have one of these tacked to a bulletin board in my office. It serves to remind me that just because they call it a “love offering” doesn’t guarantee that everything in the plate comes with “love.”

IMG_4554

Would love to laugh—you are not that funny—But God loves you.”

This note was after a performance of a piece that is billed as a comedy. If there is one thing I have learned by performing comedy, it’s that it is subjective. What one audience might find hysterical can be totally lost on another audience. There is nothing worse than doing comedy when nobody’s laughing. If I didn’t have a history of this performance being well received by hundreds of other audiences, I might have been offended at the note. Actually, it just made me laugh. But I do look at it from time to time and allow it to serve as a reminder that you can’t please everybody all the time and to not take myself too seriously.

It also makes me wonder just how much of this the average pastor must have to put up with on a regular basis. I can just imagine the pastor coming into the office on a Monday morning to a stack of “reviews” on his desk, all from the offering plate. Maybe it’s time to reassess the purpose of the plate.

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On a side note, as our society becomes more cashless, when people pay with their credit cards and smartphones, we may soon see the offering plate become obsolete. In one church I was in recently there was a kiosk at the back of the church for collecting offerings with credit cards.

So if I was at your church recently and you didn’t have your wallet and you would like to leave me a love offering, you can do so here: cash.me/donatemip. (I bet there a few less “surprises” in the offering plate when done this way!)

And if you want to leave me a note or even a critique, I will accept them in the comments below! (I reserve the right to delete the critiques!)

 

10 Random Observations about the Church

A row of Church pewsI travel and perform/speak in a different church almost every weekend and have for the past 40 years—that’s a lot of churches. You do the math. And these are churches of all denominations and sizes and colors. Lunch with the pastor after a morning service is typical. I can almost always count on being asked a question like this:  “Chuck, you are in a lot of churches… what are some observations you’ve made about the church today?”

I know they want an answer with some profundity, but I don’t know if my answers will satisfy. So here are 10 random observations about the church, for what they are worth, and in no specific order.  This is not a scientifically researched treatise… just my observations.

1) The medium-size church is disappearing. I am often in church buildings designed to hold 500-1000 people with less than 100 in the worship service. There seem to be churches of under 100, and the mega church with thousands of people, but not much in between—churches of 200-500 are few. Pastors routinely over-estimate their attendance. They will tell me they have 150 people in worship but when I arrive there are less than 100… this happens a lot!

2) Based on my experience it would seem that the average age in most churches today is over 50. There is plenty of gray hair and there are not very many millennials in the pews.

3) The “Meet and Greet” moment in the worship service needs go. Most churches do it and in most churches it feels forced and awkward. I see plenty of meeting and greeting before the service that seems genuine. If your main goal is to make a visitor feel welcome, I think there is a better way to do it.

4) I have rarely visited a church that matches the negative stereotype portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. (That being the extremes of super fanatical or super boring). I’m not saying they don’t exist… but they are certainly not what I have found under the majority of steeples in the country.

5) People really do “play hooky” from church when the pastor is gone. I often fill in for a pastor who is away at a conference or on vacation. I almost always hear the head deacon say, “I don’t know where everybody is today.”

6) Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the church is filled with people who care about the poor and are involved in ministries that are truly striving to make a difference.

7) At the risk of sounding like my parents… your music is too loud!

8) People still sit in the back (maybe because the music is too loud) or are very spread out in the sanctuary, making those 100 people in a space that hold 500 feel even more empty.

9) There is not much being done to encourage and elevate the arts in most churches. Other than the worship team/band, the opportunities for an artist to be involved in the life of the church are very limited. (I’ve blogged about this one before, but I have to throw it in here.)

10) It can be a challenge today to figure out a church’s denominational affiliation. Oh it still exists, but you won’t find it on church signs and in printed material like you used to. This can be good thing. It can also be embarrassing if, say, you are charismatic and think you are in a Pentecostal church, only to find yourself being stared down after raising your arms and shouting hallelujah in a Baptist church.

Like I said, no science here… just some observations from that “Christian Actor Guy!”

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?

Who Are You?

Who Are You?For a number of years I toured with a professional theater ministry. One popular sketch we performed was called “Who Are You?” A man on the street would be repeatedly asked that question. First responses were followed with obvious answers like the man’s name but the questioner persisted with the simple question causing the victim to struggle for a better answer. He would give labels: father, son, husband. Then he would struggle for more answers: his job, his race, his religion, his citizenship, his political party.  Still not satisfied the questioner repeated, “Who are you?” Finally the man answers in frustration; “I don’t know who I am.” The questioner then says: “Now we can begin!”

As an actor, discovering “who you are” is also where you begin and is a big part of the job. The script may give you a brief description, but usually not enough information to really create a character. “A successful salesman” might be all the script tells you, but as you work through the script you may discover a salesman who is struggling to keep pace with a new, younger generation of employees, a man whose marriage is failing and who spends a hour at a local bar before returning home from work. Now we are beginning to get a glimpse of this guy, but really just a tiny glimpse. There is more to the guy than those tidbits and the actor’s job is to flesh it out… to make it real, to get inside the guy’s head and figure out why he is threatened by the new employees, what is wrong with his marriage, what his favorite drink is at the bar and how many of those he has before going home. Sometimes as an actor, you may feel you know more about a character you are playing than you do about yourself. It can be safer to ask those really tough questions about a fictional character than to answer those same questions about yourself.

I have been contemplating my own life lately and asking that “who are you?” question again. Life changes tend to do that to you. Sometimes I coast on those surface labels: husband, father, Christian, actor… those tell you a little about me but it doesn’t tell you everything. And some of those labels are evolving. New labels, like empty-nester, soon to be grandfather, guy who gets the senior citizens coffee at McDonalds, are becoming more prominent.

There is a famous adage that has been going around a lot the last few years: “You are who you are when no one is watching.”

That can be a jarring reality, and one that I am not always comfortable with. If I am being totally honest, I don’t always like that guy. Sometimes the “me” that others see is more who I want to be than who I really am. I want to be that guy on my Facebook page where only what I want you to see is posted. The me that I am when no one is watching can be lazy, envious and sometimes thinks thoughts that are too much like the bad guys I play on stage.

Who am I, really?

Truth be told… the truth that I cling to when I have those moments of doubt and confusion about my identity is found in the way that God sees me. Only through the filter of his mercy and grace does my life really make sense at all.

What do you think?

Who are you?

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.

 

New Promo Video!

I just finished this new promo video that gives an overview of all my productions. Please view, like, comment and share!

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?

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