Willow Creek Is Great But…

I hear it all the time.  The question comes up at conferences, workshops and casual conversations at churches I visit around the country.  “We want to do drama in worship just like they do at Willow Creek, but…”

For those who don’t know, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL, is a model for hundreds of churches around the country that are a part of The Willow Creek Association.  One of the distinctives of this model is the use of drama to introduce or set up the sermon. It is an excellent way to incorporate drama into the life of the church.  However, for the model to work it requires PLANNING well in advance. Themes need to be worked out and lots of communication is required to make sure the drama and the sermon can work cohesively together. If those elements are there and the right team spirit is in place then it is a powerful way to impact the congregation.

But what do you do if you don’t have that chemistry in place? I want to offer a couple of suggestions and one alternative approach to the use of drama in the context of worship.

1)       Creative Team

The Willow Creek model depends on a team approach to worship design.  Most churches have a pastor and a worship leader who plan the worship service.  The pastor plans the sermon and the worship leader plans everything else. They may communicate some basic information but usually do their work independently of each other.  To make the Willow Creek model successful a team approach is usually incorporated.  This team would include the pastor, the worship leader, the media specialist, the drama director and usually a person designated as the programmer who actually chairs this meeting.  Services are designed and planned as a team, with each person contributing in their area of expertise.  The primary goal of the meeting is clear communication so that all the elements can work together in the strongest way possible. It takes time and planning but the results can be well worth it.

2)       The Sermon Questionnaire

Clearly the biggest obstacle I have encountered in making thematic drama work in the worship service is the lack of communication between the pastor and the drama director.  The pastor is often intimidated by the need for advance information about the sermon­—which is needed weeks ahead of time, before the sermon has been created. What needs to be understood is that the sermon does not have to be written in order to give the drama department the tools to do their job.  I have found that a simple four-question form can often work to get the job done.  This is especially effective if the sermon will be in a series that is several weeks long.

1. Title of the Sermon?

2. Key Verse?

3. A question that will be answered in the sermon?

4. Main Points? (aka the classic three point sermon)

Most of that should be fairly easy to provide.  Number 3 is the most important—in fact the job could probably be done with number 3 alone.  Once you realize that the job of the drama is not to do the same thing as the sermon, but simple to raise an issue that the sermon will address, the job is not as overwhelming as many perceive it to be.

3)       Alternative Approach

If the drama tied to the sermon still doesn’t work in your church situation, don’t give up.  There are other ways to use drama in worship that don’t rely on the Willow Creek model.  Consider doing dramas that are not sermon-dependent.  There are plenty of dramas that can be done in worship that don’t need to complement the sermon and can still be effective. Consider dramatic scripture readings, hymn stories, and other readers’ theater presentations.

In addition, use sketches as:

Call to Worship

Call to Prayer

Offertory Prelude

Creative Announcements

Intro to Communion


Inserting a drama into the service between a couple of the songs can be a great addition to worship and these dramas can stand on their own—no sermon required.

You will find plenty of published dramas that can work in these situations.  We offer two collections specifically targeting this approach written by Steve Wilent and myself. Check out Short Scenes for Worship and Worship Center Stage, available in our online store!


Chuck Neighbors

It’s Not Just For Kids

(originally published in the Lillenas Drama Newsletter)

Pet peeves.  Everyone has them right?  Maybe for you it is people who are late for appointments, spouses who don’t make the bed, cat hair on your clothing, cold food at McDonald’s . . . the list can go on and on.

I lead an exercise called “Fret & Fuss” at my drama workshops. I ask people to find a partner and then share, in animated fashion, one of their pet peeves.  The exercise is to help break down inhibitions and also to make observations about how we communicate.  Although I have used this exercise many times, I rarely get to participate, as I am leading the group rather than playing along with everyone.

But, I have often thought that I would like a turn at this game.  So if you will permit me 60 seconds, I would like to fret and fuss to you about one of my pet peeves.  After I finish my rant, I will calm down and explore this frustration more rationally.

Ready?  Here goes…

Drama is not just for kids!  For crying out loud, I am forty….. something years old, do I look like a kid to you!  I hate it when I go to a church and they say something like “oh, that’s great for the young people.”  Don’t get me wrong—it is great for the young people—but old people like to act too!  Think of all the great plays and movies you have ever seen and then go and replace every actor with a high school age student. Give me a break! There would be no Dustin Hoffmans, Meryl Streeps, Paul Newmans, and Katherine Hepburns.  People who like to act don’t suddenly stop liking to act when they become an adult. It is a gifting, a God-given talent, and done well can have tremendous and life changing impacts. It’s no wonder that Christian drama gets a bad reputation when it is left to “just the kids.”  I wish the church would elevate the dramatic arts and tap into this powerful medium!  We are making progress, but just this week I was on the phone with yet another pastor talking about doing a drama workshop for their church and once again he was stuck in this “great for the young people” box.  We don’t do that with our music programs—many churches pay big bucks to have the best in Christian music, but when it comes to drama —we get no respect!

Okay, take a deep breath.

There, I feel better.  It is amazing how much better you feel when you take a few minutes to get something that bugs you off your chest.

Now let’s look at this issue more closely. At the heart of the issue is how drama is perceived by a number of adults in the church.  The perception by some adults is that drama is childish, unprofessional, and of little substance.  It is a good thing for “the kids to do” because it is sometimes “cute,” harmless fun, and is an activity that can “keep them out of trouble.”  It is a great experience that helps the young person develop skills in front of an audience, and we adults love to watch our kids perform.  While all these things may be true and even valid reasons for doing drama in church, it comes down to drama being an event that you can invite the grandparents to attend and take some pictures for the family scrapbook.

There’s nothing wrong with that!  I thank God that I had just those opportunities and have a scrapbook full of cute pictures from my childhood productions.  Indeed, I credit those very experiences in helping me discover my passion and calling to theatre today. No question, drama is a good thing for kids!

But contrast that attitude with experiencing a drama that is done on a professional level with material of substance by performers in my own age and peer group.  This drama is not a “cute skit,” but a play on real life issues that cuts to the heart of the Gospel leaving audience members in tears or stunned silence.  You don’t get that kind of quality and impact when drama is left exclusively to the youth of the church. Think back to the plays or movies that you have seen that impacted you, made you cry, or lie awake at night thinking about life.  Schindler’s List comes to mind for me.  The scene at the end when Oscar Schindler finally comes to the realization of how many more lives he could have saved, was powerful and for me theological—I thought about it for days.  Drama, done well, can do that to people.

Some of the blame for this “drama is for kids” attitude falls on the shoulders of those who were writing material for the church audience in years gone by.  Poor quality material is hard to turn into award winning drama.  And while there is still some pretty poor stuff out there, I am happy to say that there is a lot of good quality material available today!  There are quite a number of churches that have discovered the power of good drama done well.  The bar has been raised for these churches and the quality of their work shows it.

Do you want to raise the bar for your church?  Do you want to see your church perform drama that can change the lives of those in the audience/congregation?  If so, here are some practical steps you can take to make it happen:

Change your vocabulary. Don’t call the plays “skits” and don’t call them “cute.”  Drama, sketch, play and vignette are much better alternatives.  A skit sounds like something done at camp on talent night—let’s leave it there.

Cultivate an inner-generational drama team. Don’t exclude the youth, but include the adults. There is no reason to have a 16 year-old play a 60 year-old man if you can get the real thing! Talk up drama with the adults in your church.Find out who did plays in school, college or community theatre and go after those people.

Be on the look-out for talent. Use social functions at the church as a time to find talented adults to add to the drama team.  They are usually easy to spot—they’re the ones who make large groups of people laugh or can tell a good story.

Get some training. Take a class on theatre at a community college.  Attend a church drama conference (there are several to choose from, call me for details). Go see plays so you can begin to see the difference between good drama and bad. Hold a drama workshop for the team to teach the basics to all those involved. (You can even book me to do this!)

Find good material to perform.

You can start with the books offered by this ministry.  Send me an email or give me a call if you want help finding other printed resources.

I am convinced of the power of drama to reach people.  I believe that, in light of our current entertainment oriented culture; it is one of the most effective avenues available to communicate with this world.  Let’s not use it lightly by leaving it in the hands of children. Let’s give it our best for the sake of the Gospel!

Chuck Neighbors

The Play is the Thing

The following article was first published in Worship Leader Magazine, November 1995

“I hate sketches!”

The words startled me as I craned my neck in the darkened auditorium to see who had uttered them. I was startled a second time to see that the complaint came from the mouth of a respected Christian artist whose name many of you would instantly recognize.

He was not the only one to echo those sentiments at a drama conference I recently attended. Indeed not only at this conference but throughout the growing ranks of the current “Christian drama” movement–there seems to be a love/hate relationship developing over the most popular utilization of drama in the church–the sketch (aka: short play, vignette, and the most hated by the theater purest: “skit”)

I was reluctant to agree with the sentiments of the person who spoke those words of contempt–after all, I have written several “sketches” myself–but at that moment I felt pretty much the same way. I’m sure some of the feelings were due to the fact that it was a three day conference filled with performances dominated by sketches. To those who are devotees of the stage, sketches are like candy on the menu of all that the theater has to offer. I like candy in small amounts but not as the main meal–eat a meal’s worth of M&M’s and say hello to Maalox. To put it another way sketches are the equivalent of the TV sit-com in the theater world. Although I enjoy watching Home Improvement, I don’t think I could sit through three straight hours of reruns. I use the word “reruns” intentionally, as there is a certain sameness to much that is done through sketches. When it comes to sketches–like sit-coms– it seems there really is “nothing new under the sun.” You are left with the feeling of “Gee, haven’t we seen that one before.”

“But wait,” you say, “I thought all you drama types were excited about the way the church has finally opened up to drama.” Yes, we are! The church is finally opening up to this dynamic art form and “drama types” are thrilled at the possibilities. But let’s explore those possibilities–otherwise we run the risk of letting the sketch become the sole definition of Christian drama in our age.

Now, having said all of that, let’s deal with reality. And the reality is that, for now, to paraphrase Shakespeare: “The sketch is the thing.” While many of us may long for the day that the church catches a bigger vision for the dramatic arts we need to do our very best with what we are given. And that is the sketch. It is being used primarily in two ways by the local church. The most common is the style made popular by churches such as Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. These sketches usually precede the sermon and are topical, designed to raise an issue that will be addressed in the sermon. The sketches are open-ended and often humorous.

The second is more overtly worship oriented. These sketches are popular in more traditional/liturgical settings. Here the sketch may serve as a Call to Worship, Prayer Meditation or Benediction. These performances are often more serious and may not even be a sketch at all–incorporating other forms of artistic expression such as readers’ theater, poetry and interpretive movement.

In order to produce drama, and in particular sketches, to the very best of our ability, let’s consider some quality control criteria.

Identifying the Target I recently attended two drama conferences where a good portion of the works presented were what I classify as plays designed to “preach to the choir.” These plays bolstered consensus but did little to challenge the viewers. Granted, some of them were written and performed at a high level of competence. The audience responded positively with laughter and applause. But I question whether the sketches were appropriate for their audience.

In order to select the “right sketch” we have to know our audience. Is the audience a traditional vs. contemporary congregation? Is the service “seeker” targeted? What is the average age, socio-economic statis and cultural background of the group?, etc.

After we have evaluated our audience we should define our purpose in presenting the drama. What is the theme of the service? What do we want to communicate? What is our goal? What effect do we want to leave on the audience?

Perhaps this is a good place to underscore the importance of a “team concept” in regard to your drama ministry. It is essential to have the support and input of the church staff–especially the pastor. Usually a drama team without the support of the church leadership is dead in the water. Only with a unified vision and purpose will your drama program flourish and grow. In most churches utilizing drama there is an emphasis on designing the service around a specific theme. The music, drama, scripture and sermon all have a common thread running through them. How can a drama team possibly compliment this focus without the input of the pastor and other worship leaders?

Selecting the Play Quite simply, a play is a story. What we are looking for in a play are, in essence, the same elements that make up a good story. At its most basic we are looking for:

  • An interesting story which contains a beginning, middle and an end.
  • Conflict. A story with no conflict is spelled B-O-R-I-N-G.
  • Believable characters.
  • Believable dialog–the characters should talk the way real people talk.
  • An open-ending. Perhaps the one major difference between most stories and a good sketch is that often a sketch will end with an intentional lack of resolution (although, there are exceptions).

As previously mentioned, there are too many plays being done that “preach to the choir.” I would like to suggest something that many may have a hard time reconciling in their concept of ministry: It should not be the goal of drama to preach. Yes, drama should communicate, challenge, foster identification, entertain, and stir us up. It may even 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 in essence to risk defeating the greatest strength of drama: To communicate without preaching!

I have read numerous sketches that should have ended well before they actually did. The playwright has a great scenario going–an interesting conflict with some good characters and sparkling dialog. But on page three, Joe Christian enters and says “just the right words” that suddenly solve the conflict and the characters all live “happily ever after.” Instead of ending the play with something we can think about and struggle with, Joe Christian gives us the “right answer.” By doing so he lets the audience off the hook. Those who agree with Joe say “amen.” Those who aren’t so sure find Joe’s solution a little too pat.

Remember, we are talking primarily about sketches here–although some of these principles apply to longer plays as well. In my opinion the sketches that lack a resolution are the best. Present a conflict that contains a “slice of life” and raises an issue, but don’t tell me how to solve it. You can even point me in the right direction but an open-ending leaves me with a challenge.

Perhaps the best example of the power of a good sketch is in the parables of Jesus. He told His followers a short story, often ending it with a question. His listeners were left with something to think about and the parable raised even more questions in their own minds. Often, they would confront Jesus, asking him to explain the parable. Sounds like a good model for the use of the sketch as a prelude to the sermon, doesn’t it?

More often than not sketches tend to be humorous. Generally this is good, as humor will cause an audience to drop their defenses. Once they laugh you know that they are identifying with the situation. One word of caution: keep the humor on a high level. Resist humor that goes for the gag. Often these funny bits are out of place with the story. Make the humor come from the story and/or the character. Don’t go for the laugh just for the sake of the laugh. If you do, the audience remembers only the funny bit instead of the salient point of the play.

While humor is great, don’t be afraid of doing the occasional totally serious drama. These can be very effective in churches that have become accustomed to having drama on a regular basis. Explore new styles and try to avoid ruts. Try mime, or readers’ theater for variety. Keep the audience wondering what you will do next week. Otherwise they may start to think of you as the “sit-com” before the sermon.

One other consideration in selecting material is, of course, the issue of your group’s talent and ability. Fortunately, you will find that most sketches are for smaller casts. It is very difficult to do drama on a regular basis with a very small talent pool. Be realistic in selecting material that your group can handle.

Resources It is not surprising that many of the churches performing drama on a regular basis are writing their own material. It’s impossible to find published plays that are going to hit your specific theme each and every week of the year. So if you have the talent in your group to create your own scripts it is probably the best option for on target communication.

But what if you don’t have your own budding Shakespeare in the fold? Thankfully, there is much more drama on the “market” than ever before, but not all of the new material meets the quality test. Just because a play is published doesn’t necessarily mean that it is of superior quality. And even though a published play may deal with the topic that you need, it still may not be right for your specific situation. I’m afraid you cannot do a very effective job of play selection based on a short synopsis provided by the publisher. In other words, you will still need to do your homework, which means a lot of reading.

There are several publishers that are offering drama series specifically designed for worship. Among them are Baker Books, Lillenas, Word, and Zondervan (Willow Creek Resources). Check them out. Hopefully they can help you “get your act together.” Check out the sidebar for a more complete list of resources.

In the meantime, let’s keep exploring, improving and expanding this most effective medium of the arts. To finish the quote from Shakespeare: “The play is the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Perhaps we’ll capture a conscience or two for The King as well!

Chuck Neighbors

Christian Drama – How to get into the Act!

The following article was first published in Bookstore Journal, June 1992. The article was targeted toward Christian book retailers.

“I want a divorce!”

You could tell the words spoken stung her as she attempted to speak.

“Wha . . .”

“Look I have thought about it for a long time and it just is not working out. I don’t love you any more. I’m sorry.”

He turned and left the room, leaving her stunned and speechless.

Later a woman told me she felt uncomfortable, like she was eavesdropping on something that she wasn’t supposed to hear. I was pleased. That was the effect I wanted. I wanted her and the other five hundred people watching to feel the same way. It was the perfect set up for what was to follow.

You see, the man seeking the divorce and the woman in shock are not really married. They are actors in a play. And the play is not being performed in a theater, but rather, right in the middle of our Sunday morning church service. On this particular morning the pastor is teaching on what the Bible has to say about divorce. The play got the audience’s attention in no uncertain terms, and provided the perfect illustration for the sermon that followed.

This is just one example of using drama effectively to enhance communication. The possibilities are endless. After more than seventeen years of ministry through drama I am happy to see that the church is reclaiming this area of the arts. One of the churches that is leading the way in this resurgence of drama is Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where Bill Hybels is pastor. Drama is a weekly feature in their services. As I travel the country I am encountering a number of churches that are following the model they have set forth.

Statistically speaking, one of the least effective forms of communication available to us is the lecture, yet it is the one mode of communication the church has relied upon most heavily. We live in a visual society. We are visual people. We retain much more of what we see than what we hear. In my workshops on drama and communication, I often ask the participants if they can remember what last Sunday’s sermon was about. Most cannot. If they do remember anything, most often it’s the illustration, or perhaps the children’s sermon. Why? Because it is usually a story. Stories create visual images in our mind. We retain those images. It is obvious that Jesus knew this. He told parables – stories – to the people he encountered. It is interesting to note that we have many more parables than sermons from Jesus. Parables and dramas have a lot in common. Drama requires the audience to participate. It captures their imagination and enables identification with people and situations. That is why the parables were so effective – people could relate to the stories.

As the church awakens to the effectiveness of the dramatic arts I have become increasingly aware of the need for quality material and the availability of that material. The following is just one example of the frustration that is being experienced by the local church:

It had gone extremely well. I was surprised at the turn-out: from a congregation of just under two hundred people, I had thirty participants and most of them were adults. I was there to conduct a drama workshop. We had covered the basics of performing and explored the many possibilities for incorporating drama into the life of the church. This group had impressed me, not only with their talent and creativity, but especially with their enthusiasm. They were ready to take what they had learned and put it to use!

We were on the home stretch when the dreaded question came up:

“Where do we find good scripts to perform?”

I call this the “dreaded” question because it is sort of the bad news part of the workshop. We have just spent several hours getting excited about the great possibilities for using drama in the church. We are pumped up and ready to do something right now! Let’s run down to the local Christian bookstore and buy a book of plays, right? Wrong.

Unfortunately, the local Christian bookstore, if it is like most, will have very little or nothing at all to offer. Why? Because that is not the way plays are marketed. However, the average church layperson doesn’t know this. And the average clerk behind the counter at the bookstore doesn’t offer much help, because he may not know how the system works either.

Typically, what has to happen is this: you order a catalogue from one of the companies that offer plays for production (it might surprise you to know that there are several). Hopefully, this catalogue will offer a short synopsis of plays, or books of plays. Based on this information, you then order and pay for a copy of the prospective play. When you receive the play, you read it and decide if you like it. If you like the play, then you order more copies; usually one for each cast member is required. There may also be other restrictions and/or requirements that you need to pay attention to. Some will require additional royalties, some will stipulate that the play only be performed by amateurs, and special permission may be needed for professional and/or multi-performance usage.

If you don’t like the play, then you are “back to the drawing board,” so to speak, and have to start all over again. This can be very frustrating because much time has been wasted. I have found that people can be great procrastinators. They wait until February to decide they want to do a play for Easter. They may have waited too long to start the procedure and if they don’t like the first play they read, then they are stuck with either doing a play they don’t like, trying to write their own play, or doing nothing at all.

One of the other frustrations that people often encounter is the lack of quality material. Unfortunately, Christian drama has suffered a bad reputation in the years gone by. All too often, drama has been something that the “kids” do, or it has been confined to the Easter or Christmas pageant. To borrow a phrase from a former director of mine, people tend to think of Christian drama as “beards and bathrobes and cardboard camels.” I am not knocking the legitimate use of pageantry. Indeed, when done well, these can be powerful presentations. Nor is there anything wrong with drama done by youth. Again, when done well this can also be powerful, as well as a good experience and training for those involved. The issue is quality.

I am happy to say that the picture is changing. I am performing regularly in churches that ten years ago would not have considered using drama as a part of worship. Now more and more churches are using drama as a regular part of their ministry. They are discovering ways to use this powerful art form in new, contemporary and innovative ways. Since they have seen the impact these productions can have, churches are beginning to demand that these presentations be of quality, both in writing as well as performance.

I believe there is some good material being written today, but there is also a lot of mediocre material out there. They are often listed side by side in some of those same catalogues. Is it possible to change the way that these materials are made available to the local church? I think the answer is yes, and by so doing more drama would be done and the quality material would surface to the top of the stack.

One of the issues at the core of the present system is that of collecting royalties. I believe that writers need to be paid for their work. However, the present system results in few sales of plays compared to what would be possible if the materials were more easily accessible to the average layperson. Now, I am not a publisher, and I don’t pretend to know their business. However, the music industry has come up with a very creative way to solve the problem of collecting royalties from the local church. They have created a licensing agency which collects a flat fee from churches for the rights to use and reproduce music from a number of publishers. From what I understand, it has been enormously successful. I doubt the flat fee idea would work with drama, but the point is they tried something different, and it worked. Perhaps we need to find a similar creative solution for the use of plays.

I have an idea I would like to see explored. The first place people think to look for plays is at the local Christian bookstore. It seems logical to me then, that the local Christian bookstore is where they need to be! As a writer, I would gladly settle for a royalty built into the purchase price, if the play was made easily available to the consumer through the local bookstore. I believe that more people would buy the material because of the accessibility, even if this meant a slightly higher price (there are already a few playbooks available on this basis). Since quality is an issue, why not have perusal copies of plays available to loan out, or to be read on the premises at the local bookstore. This “hands-on” accessibility could greatly promote the sale of plays, and more importantly, their performance.

This is just an idea, of course. One thing is certain, however. While the Gospel doesn’t change, our culture does, and one of the biggest influences on that change comes through the visual arts, of which drama is a big part. One need only look at our media – television, movies, commercials, etc. – to see their effects. In training missionaries to go to foreign countries we teach them to be effective in the culture of that country. Yet we do not do so well with our own culture, which has changed drastically in the last fifty years. We live in a very entertainment-oriented society. We are bombarded by the media at every turn. One could argue the pros and cons of this, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists. One of the unfortunate side effects of our changing culture is the lost art of concentration. We are beginning to see the results of the “Sesame Street” generation – shorter and shorter attention spans. If we want people to hear our message – the gospel of Jesus Christ – then we need to be giving careful and creative thought as to how that message is being communicated.

The church is discovering how important drama is in communicating to our world today. Since drama is so powerful and churches are recognizing this, we need good writers and the support of publishers to produce this material. We also need the help of Christian retailers to get the material into the hands of people who desire to put it to good use! I urge the Christian retailer to do all they can to help the local church find the material they are seeking (see sidebar).

I would love to be able to have some “good news” to report at my next workshop when asked the question, “Where do we find good scripts to perform?”

My answer for now will be: ” Get out the the catalogues and. . . good luck.”

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