The Measure of Success

For the corporate executive it is a corner office and the big salary.

For the doctor it is the right diagnosis time after time… and the big salary.

For the actor it is the starring role and an Academy Award … and the big salary.

For the minister it is….. probably not the big salary.

SuccessI have found myself often contemplating just what is the measure of success when it comes to ministry. The measuring stick can look very different from the one used by the rest of society. There are those who seem to find a way to do it. Some count the size of the congregation, the successful building program, and fundraising. A few actually have the big salary. In my raised-in-the-church background, I was well aware of the ministers and evangelists who measured success by “notching their Bibles.” They could tell you exactly how many people were “saved” by their sermons (I thought it was God who did the saving!).

While many in ministry cringe at talking about money, we mostly live in a paradigm that depends on the generosity of others to make a living. Those donors want evidence that what they are donating to is a good investment. And who can blame them… I am the same way. I want to be sure that if I am giving my money to a ministry, it is getting results. So again we are forced to try to quantify ministry by counting something to make it look valid…to make it appear “successful.” It is easier to quantify if your ministry is feeding the hungry or distributing Bibles…not so easy when your ministry is speaking or performing… it is an intangible thing that doesn’t translate well into numbers.

I get caught in the trap… I find myself measuring my ministry week after week by how many people were in the audience, how big the offering was, or how many sponsors I was able to obtain for World Vision. It can put me on an emotional roller coaster, feeling successful one weekend and ready to throw in the towel the next. It can be especially challenging for the itinerant minister/performer. We do our thing and leave. Often the real “fruits of our labor” are not known to us.

So I was contemplating success… again… when I got this email:

“Today, I met with a man…. He really needed to talk to someone because he was grieving over his brother’s suicide… He told me he’d been struggling for days over feeling guilty, wondering what more he could have done or what he’d overlooked… But then he heard your story (Truth Be Told)… He said you helped him to see that it was wrong for him to take on the responsibility for his brother’s death. He said your words helped to put it all into perspective. It helped him to find peace and remember that God has not deserted him in this terrible time. Well done, good and faithful servant!”

At once I was reminded that THIS is why I do it. Every once in a while a guy like me needs a reminder… something tangible that helps me to see that what I am doing… or better yet, what God is doing through me, matters. Success like that? I’ll take it!

Have you struggled with trying to measure success in ministry? If so, what has helped you?  

3 Reasons You Should Invite Artists to your Church

Many of you think of me as that “Christian Actor Guy” who goes around the country performing in churches, and while that is true, as with any job there is more to my work than meets the public eye. The traveling is mostly done on weekends. My “day job” is not all that glamorous. I sit at my desk and spend many hours each week doing the “business” of an arts ministry: paying bills, answering correspondence, and trying to convince pastors to invite me to their church!

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“A Device to Root Out Evil” – Dennis Oppenheim

I have a long list of the “reasons” why I am not invited (and maybe I will delve into those in another blog) but I think it is important to consider why you should invite artists to your church–and I am talking big picture here, not just me but artists in general–be they musicians, painters, dancers, poets, storytellers, comedians, or yes, even actors. Actually, the reasons are many, but I will focus here on my top 3 reasons you should be inviting artists to your church.

The Artist as a Prophet – Artists are people who see things differently. Often on the outside of a group or community, they can bring new perspectives to old things and sometimes make old things new again. Sometimes they can be disruptive, but that may be good, as things need disrupting in order for change to happen. Historically artists have played a major role in shaping culture, inspiring change, and speaking to the heart. If you need convincing, just Google “the artist as prophet” and you will get several examples. When that artist is a Christ follower, their art can speak volumes to your congregation and touch hearts and minds in a way that nothing else can.

Inspire and Affirm Other Artists – The church needs artists. In my earlier blogs I have addressed the fact that fewer and fewer churches are offering an outlet for artists to be a vital part of congregational life. In many churches, choirs are gone and musicians are few, drama is gone or replaced by a video screen, and the sanctuary, once a place of beauty, is replaced by a multi-purpose room indistinguishable from any other meeting place in town. Art in churches and schools is given a low priority yet is highly esteemed in the culture at large. I believe the church should be a birthing place for the arts. One of the most fulfilling things about my work is hearing other artists express their gratitude after seeing my art presented in their church. It gives them hope for their own artistic expression. The church needs to be affirming that! In our current culture it may well be the artists, more than the preachers, who can effectively call people to examine their lives and relationship to God.

Saying Things Differently – Let’s be honest, we can get numb in the pew. We get into a routine of hearing and seeing things the same way, week after week, and after awhile, we stop listening. Bring in an artist and suddenly we rediscover our eyes and our ears. The artist may not even be saying anything that the pastor hasn’t already said 100 times… but saying if differently can cause people to hear it, sometimes for the first time! The language of our culture, like it or not, is the language of entertainment. That’s one language artists know well. Allowing them to be heard can be transformational to both individuals and the body as a whole.

Like I said, there are many reasons you can give for not bringing an artist to your church–and many of them might be legitimate (lack of funds, scheduling conflicts, etc.). But I encourage you to seek out opportunities and encourage artists, both within and outside your church, to have a place in the life of your congregation.

What other reasons can you give for including artists in the life of your church?

Kirk Cameron and Me

Here I am as a "Christian actor" notice the beard and man-dress.

Here I am as a “Christian actor”—notice the beard and man-dress. (Circa 1991)

I

was reflecting the other day on my profession and made the observation that I have something in common with actor Kirk Cameron. If I asked you to make a list of “Christian actors,” we would both probably be on that list.  (It would be a very short list.) Kirk’s name would likely be very near the top of the list and mine near the bottom. Mine would only be on your list if I happened to come to your mind because I had recently performed at your church, and you remembered my name.  It would probably listed like: “That Christian actor guy that performed at our church a few months ago.”

I have commented in the past about being labeled a “Christian actor” as opposed to simply an actor who is a Christian.  When it comes to my profession and my faith I prefer to have both those words be nouns.

Somehow putting the word “Christian” in front of an occupation is either extremely limiting or sets up an expectation that is false or impossible to fulfill.

Examples:

Christian Plumber — When he finishes your pipes will only drip holy water.

Christian Carpenter — He makes lovely crosses but his doors won’t stay closed, they are always open.

Christian Mechanic — He converts all your parts, giving them new life.

Christian Doctor — No pills… but make sure he washes his hands before he lays them on you. You don’t want the last infection he healed.

Here I am as Count Dracula, a role performed by an actor who is a Christian. (Circa 1972)

Here I am as Count Dracula…a role performed by an actor who is a Christian. (Circa 1972)

You get the idea… I mean you don’t have to be a Christian to do a job well and frankly I have met some Christians in certain professions that aren’t very good at their jobs.  I want a plumber that can unclog a drain, a carpenter  who knows how to make a good cabinet, an honest mechanic that can fix my car, and a doctor who is willing to prescribe an antibiotic… I don’t care if they are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or an Atheist.

There are times when “Christian” as an adjective makes sense… Add Christian in front of minister, missionary, or maybe counselor and I understand that.

Add Christian in of  front actor and you feel doomed to play only parts that require a beard and a bathrobe (unless maybe your name is Kirk Cameron). And I happen to know there several famous actors who are Christians. I won’t mention their names out of fear that you might start thinking of them as “Christian actors.” Sometimes I want play the bad guy — every good story has one.  An actor who is a Christian can do that… a Christian actor… probably not.

What are some of your favorite misuses of the label “Christian?”

It’s Okay to Copy, Right?

Ever wonder what artists talk about when they get together?  Fishermen talk about “the one that got away.” Truck drivers talk about bad wrecks and near misses. Food service people talk about rude customers.  But what do artists, especially those musicians and actors who serve the church… what do they talk about?

The name of this blog is Backstage Blog… so today I thought I would give you some real backstage chatter. I recently received this true story from a fellow artist.  I have my own similar stories but rarely have I seen so many bad cliches come together in one narrative. So read and enjoy… or cringe… as the case may be!

When I was touring my one-man material back in the 90s (I know, so long ago, right?), I would send churches a checklist of things I needed. Top of the list: I need a place where I could change and please please have the platform area  be cleared of furniture before I got there. In my heyday of 2 or 3 performances a week, it got very tiring to move furniture, get changed, do the play, then move it all back. But over the years, my guess is about 70% of the churches didn’t do this for me. I’d walk into the sanctuary and the front of the church still looked like Sunday morning. Although a janitor was usually there to “help me” clear it off.

This became the beginning of true back pain.

One place, I remember it was in a little town in CA, I didn’t have anyone there to help at all. I wandered in Sunday afternoon, calling for help. Finally, an older gentleman came out and said he couldn’t help me, his back was bad and besides, I was a young whipper-snapper and couldn’t I just move those 6 heavy solid cherry-wood pews off the platform, along with the five huge potted plants, and the pulpit the size of a ship prow. I had just driven 6 hours, in the middle of summer, without stopping to go to the bathroom. So I made a stand: “I really need someone to come down and help me.” This made the older gentleman furious. He called the youth pastor/choir director down to help me. He showed up with Chuck E. Cheese on his breath, fit to be tied that I would make such a ruckus. I told him he signed a pledge the stage would be cleared and I can’t do it myself.  So, he helped me, but I got the youth pastor silent treatment the whole time. But this wasn’t the only insult to my injury.

Next I asked where I could get changed. He pointed to a storage room off the stage. I could barely get inside with all the boxes and music stands. One box I noticed right away. Actually, several boxes—all containing photocopies of my plays. Dozens of them. There were probably 3 of my books with all the plays copied over and over. The youth pastor/choir director came in and saw me looking at the plays. He said: “Yeah, the youth pastor up the street got ahold of these plays from someone else and he let me copy them all. They’re hysterical. Really good skits.” I just kept staring at him, trying to figure out how to tell him I was the author and how uncool this was. Then the lightbulb went off in his head.

He said, “Oh man, you wrote those skits, didn’t you? We use ’em all the time.”

I was still looking at him for any sign of guilt or remorse for blatantly breaking copyright laws. Nothing. So, I prompted him: “Yeah, um, this is my work.”

“Your work? I thought it was the work of the Lord.”

“No, ” I said, “I mean, it’s my work. My job. This is how I make a living.”

“So, it’s not a ministry to you?”

I’d heard this line a thousand times and I had my response: “Yeah, and isn’t what you do your ministry?”

“Absolutely.”

“And don’t you get paid for it?”

He shook his head. He was disgusted. “It’s not the same thing.”

Of course, I’d also heard this a thousand times too. This was just spiritual snobbery. “How come it’s not the same? I commit myself to God, the same as you. I’m preaching the word, the same as you. I went to school to study how to do this, the same as you.”

Man, this really cooked him up. Finally, his coup de grace: “Writing skits and doing plays is not the same as clergy ministry, okay? And if you were really serving Jesus, you’d be happy your work is being used.”

To which I replied: “Please don’t use Jesus to excuse your bad manners.”

Two weeks later, I got a note from the youth pastor. I, of course, expected a note of apology or understanding. He told me I wouldn’t be asked back. That I didn’t have a spirit of humility. And that he was going to write my publisher to tell them that I wasn’t representing their company well by demanding they buy copies. Oh sweet irony. Anyway, not many people I can share this story with now. Back in the old days when we were fighting the good fight to legitimize the use of theater in churches (it did get legitimized—then marginalized!)”

I can thankfully say that experiences like this one are rare.  The church… at least most…has come a long way in its understanding of art as it pertains to ministry… but some of those attitudes are still out there… He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

One In A Million with World Vision!

This year marks a pretty significant milestone for the Christian relief and development organization World Vision.  Through the efforts of numerous singers, speakers, comedians, visual artists and yes, even actors, nearly ONE MILLION children have been sponsored.  I am blessed to be among those who are making a difference, using our voice to help the poor.

If you are one of the nearly one million who have sponsored a child THANK YOU! If you haven’t yet made that decision I encourage you to do so.  You will make a better story for you, the child and the community in which they live!  Click the link to be ONE IN A MILLION!

Thanks a Million

 

To Tell the Greatest Story Ever Told

I have some exciting news. I have been invited to take our ministry to both Athens, Greece and Madrid, Spain this summer. I will be working with a ministry called Greater European Mission. Europe knows all about religion, but the knowledge and experience keep most from discovering a life-changing relationship with Jesus. Europe needs a new wave of people following Jesus in such a way that others are drawn to do the same. GEM is working to ignite discipleship movements in 50 cities in Europe over the next five years, and then working to rapidly create churches.

I will be a part of a team of artists and communication specialists that will be training individuals on the power of story as a means of sharing the Gospel.  The goal is to equip both long term workers and short term missionaries to be more effective in sharing the story of Christ as well as telling their own personal stories in order to communicate the Good News.  As one who believes in the power of story, I am sure you can see why this approach is exciting to me and one that believe can truly make a difference!

The dates of my journey are August 4-16. As with other mission trips of this type, I am going as a volunteer and will need to raise support to be able to be a part of the team.  Would you to prayerfully consider being a partner with me in this venture.  I will need to raise about $2000 to cover my travel expenses. If you can help please send your gift to:
Master’s Image Productions
P.O. Box 903, Salem, OR 97308

Or you can donate online through Paypal (including credit cards) by clicking this button:


Gifts are tax-deductible.

Even if you can’t support with dollars, we ask you to support us with your prayers. Pray for safety, that hearts will be open to the message and that opportunities will abound! Also pray for my wife, Lorie, as these longer trips are never easy for her. Thanks for joining us in the journey!

Serving the Lord dramatically,

Chuck Neighbors

Plant Those Feet!

It was a typical worship service in many ways… typical for an evangelical church in North America, at least. The service started with a three-song set of upbeat contemporary worship choruses.  The worship leader was trying to get the congregation to bring some life to the song she was leading, encouraging them to clap and sway to the music: “As long as the feet don’t move, it’s not dancing!” she quipped.

Sculpture by: Zenos Frudakis “Freedom”

Finally! I now have a definition I can use.  We need to plant those feet.  I had to laugh… but it got me thinking all over again about the “worship wars.” And how we define what is appropriate or inappropriate in worship.  I am not going to even try to answer that question… the dialog, especially on music styles, is long and tired on this topic, and there are no clear winners in the worship wars.

As a dramatist, I have had to fight my own battles—not as fierce or as divisive, perhaps, as those on the music front,—but battles nonetheless.  The other day I received this email from a church leader: “Dramas and plays have their place, but it is our reasoning that we do not allow them in our sanctuary.”

It surprised me to hear it stated so bluntly.  I have been in ministry, as a dramatist, for over 37 years.  I fear if I were not able to share my ministry in a church sanctuary I would have no ministry at all, or at least not the kind of ministry I have today.  Yet I know the sentiment is out there, just not verbalized so readily as this person was willing to state it.

Part of me wanted to engage, to fight back, to defend my art, my craft and especially my calling. I wondered what standard I might apply so that what I did would not be considered “drama” at this church.  If I limit my movement or don’t change my voice for different characters, is it not drama?  If I only quote scripture, is it not drama? I wondered if the pastor was ever accused of “acting” or being theatrical if he told a good story. As one who does this as his life’s work, it was hard not to take it personally.  I could easily have taken offense… and perhaps I did just a bit.

I understand it though, really I do.  This particular church denomination had in its history   taken a stance against the “theater.” At the time they took the stance theater was associated with the worst of the entertainment industry.  “The church should not be a place of entertainment” is the cry. We so easily justify “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” when something goes too far in one direction.  We especially see this in the church with the arts. Music, dance, and drama—all have had seasons of being embraced and then rejected by the church. (For more on this topic see Redeeming Entertainment and The Pendulum Swings-Worship Trends)

It leaves the artist struggling to find a way to share—what many feel called to share—in a way that gives them a voice without being rejected.  We look to find the proper balance.  We want to know were we stand.  It leads to compromise… sometimes that can be a good thing… and yet the artist also has a prophetic voice and compromise can sometimes  render the art impotent. I personally believe that the artist’s voice is especially needed in the church today—needed both inside and outside the sanctuary.

“As long as the feet don’t move, it’s not dancing.” Planting your feet may be the standard… but maybe we really do need to dance!

Have you struggled as an artist to find ways of expressing yourself in the life of your church?  As a church leader how do you determine if a certain artistic expression is appropriate for your church?

No Prophet is Welcome in His Hometown…

We enjoyed having Chuck Neighbors…He is a true professional and an extraordinarily talented artist. His one-man play “The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass” …was touching as well as humorous. I would recommend Chuck for your next event or service. It is crazy that he’s based out of Salem, Oregon and it took this long to have him at one of our events!”

Pastor John Fehlen
Salem, OR

I love this quote. I love it not only because it says nice things and I appreciate the endorsement… but even more I love the fact that Pastor John acknowledges the fact that I live in the same city as his church, have for over 20 years, and yet his church has not had me come and share until recently.

I have often wondered why it is that I do so little performing in the area that I live.  If you follow my performance schedule from year to year, you will see that I travel all over the country and around the world.  But I will tell you, the hardest place for me to get a booking is in “my own neck of the woods.”  I think it is safe to say that most of the churches/pastors in my area are familiar with who I am and what I do.  Those who have opened their doors to me have said nice things, like Pastor John, and most have had me back time and again. But considering the number of churches in the area, there are so many more with which I have not had the opportunity to share my ministry. Friends call and ask when I am performing locally so they can see a performance… and I have little to offer them.

I speculated on this for years and think that a couple of possible reasons for this oddity might be:

Since I live locally, I am perceived as a local guy and “must not be that good.”

or

Since I live locally they reason, “he lives here, we can have him in anytime.” And with that “anytime” they never get the proverbial “round to it.”

Airports... I live here.

I know that “no prophet is welcome in his hometown”… not sure I classify myself as a prophet, but when it comes to being an international touring artist, I often feel that the welcome locally is indeed lacking.

I marvel when I check out local events and see that artists I know from across the country are sharing their talents here at churches that have never extended an invitation to me. In talking with some of the same artists, I have discovered that many of them have experienced the same phenomenon in their own communities.  I think I feel it more here because for me to go to other locations from the Northwest almost always involves getting on an airplane. Some of my fellow artists live in more densely populated parts of the country so the next major city might only be a one-hour drive away. (Not to mention the fact that the venue has to pay travel expenses on top of whatever the artist requires for honorarium, so booking a local artist becomes a bargain in this economy.)

A few years ago I wrote an article that was published in a national magazine. A few weeks after the article was published I received a call from the publisher in New York informing me that a church in Salem had called wanting to know how to get in touch with the actor who wrote the article. What a surprise to find out he lived just a few miles from the church. It turns out it was a church I had contacted many times over the years. When I had contacted them they were “not interested.”  However, this article had gotten their attention and they wanted to book that actor for their church. I had to laugh. I have since shared my ministry with this church several times.  But I marvel that it took a New York City connection in order for them to notice what was right next door!

So to the churches that are local (and local to Salem, Oregon actually includes south to Eugene and north up the I-5 corridor to Seattle), I encourage you to sample an international artist who lives locally.  I would love to have a few weekends a year free from airports, rental cars and hotels… really I would.

Chuck Neighbors

Chuck Neighbors

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