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?”


“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.

Some thoughts on being a “Christian” actor…

I bill myself as an actor. I have been acting, and acting up, all my life. Just ask my mom… on second thought don’t… some of my stories I don’t want you to hear.

But I admit… I love to tell people I am an actor… up to a point.

Guy: So what do you do for a living?
Me: I am an actor.
Guy: Really?

This is where he stares at me. Looking for that “A-ha” moment of recognition. It never comes.

Guy: Have I seen you in anything?

This is where the fun ends.

Me: Probably not.
Guy: Movies? On stage?

If I weren’t a Christian this is where I would love to make stuff up. Talk about the films I did with Robert DeNiro and being on stage with Meryl Streep. But my brushes with stage and screen stars I suspect are about the same as the rest of you guys. So I tell the truth.

Me: You go to church?
Guy: Huh?
Me: I do one-man stage shows that deal with the Christian faith and belief. I do most of my performing in churches and Christian colleges and conferences.
Guy: Oh….

And that usually ends the conversation. Yep, I am one of “those.” I am a “Christian” actor. Translation: “you must not be very good…or good enough to make it.”

Truth is I am a working actor, have made my living as an actor for over 36 years. In a profession that has something like a 95% unemployment rate, that puts me in the top 5% of my profession. But I don’t say this to the guy. I am a Christian. I must be humble. I have learned a long time ago that when you put the word Christian in front of anything to do with the arts (Christian actor, Christian singer, Christian author) you better be ready to be treated like a second-class citizen by the rest of the world.

On the other hand Christian in front of other occupations carries a whole other connotation: Christian mechanic, Christian plumber, Christian lawyer… Add Christian to those professions and as a Christian you think fair, honest, ethical… as a Christian… ever wonder what the rest of the world thinks? I want my mechanic to be good at fixing my car, my plumber to be good at stopping leaks and my lawyer to give good legal advice. It is nice if they are also fair, honest and ethical, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be those things. I go to these people for their skills not their faith. All three of my sons have worked in the food service industry and they will tell you the worst customers are often the after-church crowd. It turns out that the Christian customers are often the rudest and the worst tippers. Perhaps the word Christian works better as a noun than an adjective. I would prefer to be known as an actor who is a Christian rather than a Christian actor.

26 Years of In His Steps

What comes to mind when you hear or see “WWJD?,”  the now famous acronym that stands for “What would Jesus do?”  The question was the focus of Charles Sheldon’s classic, In His Steps, written back in 1896. It has been popularized in recent years, showing up on bracelets, bumper stickers, tattoos, and a whole host of magazine articles, songs, and books.  The question, once meaningful to many, has become a fad and been trivialized and even mocked.  That’s what happens when something becomes a part of popular culture. Many who use the acronym have no idea of its origin.

Since 1984, long before WWJD? became a fad, I began performing my adaptation of In His Steps.  The story is a powerful one, and proves its status as a classic over and over again.  I have been amazed at the number of people who have shared with me how the book and/or my presentation of it, has impacted and even changed their lives.

The book has always had its critics.  When it was first published, it was unpopular with more conservative evangelicals who labeled it “social gospel.”  In more recent years, it is  commonly embraced by evangelicals and often criticized by the mainstream as being too simplistic or dogmatic.

After performing this play for 26 years and well over 1,000 performances, I have considered retiring the show.  I sometimes think maybe the story has lost its place, its relevance to today’s audiences and the church.  But just when I begin to think those thoughts, I get a wake up call.  It seems the story still has a place, still needs to be told. For the last couple of years, I have been performing my newest drama, Not The Way I Heard It, almost exclusively.  Being new, it has been easy to promote that presentation over my others.  In His Steps sort of got pushed to the proverbial “back burner.”

Over the last two weekends I have performed In His Steps again.  After one performance a man shared how he has been considering becoming a pastor.  He said the play had been a confirmation to him that he was to “accept the call.”  Then last weekend I received a standing ovation from a congregation of about 300 in a Sunday morning worship service.  That doesn’t happen very often.  In addition 19 children were sponsored after the service with World Vision. It seems that God was doing something through this story yet again.

Over the years I have been privileged to see how stories can impact and move people.  This story, in particular has been an instrument to challenge and change thousands of lives.  I am privileged to continue to share it and see how God uses art, story, and performance to draw people to Himself.

What would Jesus do?  This actor, for now at least, will keep performing this play and encouraging audiences and individuals to ask that question for real in their lives.

That’s a Wrap! The end of my tour Down Under

Highlights of a Weekend in Sydney, Australia

One Weekend in Christchurch

Highlights of the Anglican Clergy Conference

The First Church of YouTube

As a professional dramatist who has been performing and working in the church drama arena for over 35 years, I have ridden the roller coaster of the church’s up and down relationship with this art form.  Drama is, at best, the stepchild of church arts ministries, in favor one season and out the next. Music is a staple, a given. Drama on the other hand has been a take it or leave it proposition and currently it seems that the church, for the most part, has decided to leave it.  It has been an uneasy relationship between church and theater, a repeated cycle of acceptance and rejection (the very first plays were religious plays, after all).

In recent years churches like Willow Creek have helped to change that landscape. Drama had a place, and a prominent one at that.  For many churches it was an essential, adopting the format of using a short drama to complement the sermon. It was a great time to be a dramatic artist.  I conducted workshops to help launch drama ministries, wrote sketches that were performed across the country, and toured my one-man shows to more and more churches that were open and eager to integrate drama into the context of worship.

But another shift has occurred and drama has again taken a backseat.  One elephant in the room that has certainly had an impact in the last year has to be the economy. Churches have been forced to cut back, and as it is with secular society the same holds true for the church—if a budget needs trimming, start with the arts. I know of several churches that have cut staff and budgets in areas that are arts related. But economy aside, there are at least three things that I believe have contributed to the decline of church drama in recent years:

1)  It’s Too Much Work. Church drama has come a long way, thankfully.  Go back 30 years and anything classified as church drama was usually hokey, contrived and generally just not very good.  Today’s audiences are more sophisticated.  They know the difference between a “cute skit” and good drama.  They want and demand quality and to get that quality they have learned it isn’t as easy as it looks.  It takes a lot of time and energy to do it well. The feeling was that we would rather see no drama than bad drama (a good standard).Throw in the aspect that the model most churches desired was drama that was a thematic tie-in to the sermon… and well, that is just a lot to try to do on a regular basis.

2)  The Video Clip. The other day I got a note from a friend: “We have disbanded our drama ministry, we now use video clips instead.”  I wish I could say this was an exception and not the rule. The solution to the hard work dilemma is an easy fix… show a video!  Thanks to YouTube, there are a ton of them out there.  Everything from a glorified Powerpoint presentation to scenes from mainstream cinema are only a click away on the Internet.  A quick look at shows over 15,500 videos available for instant download. Videos are an expedient  and effective way to accomplish much of what live drama brought to the worship service. Something culturally relevant, entertaining, and thought provoking.

3)  Authenticity vs. Excellence. When the Willow Creek model took off, one of the distinctive attributes was that everything on the platform be done with excellence.  Music, lighting, sound and yes, drama.  The emphasis was on quality.  It helped change the way that many perceived the church, making it more relevant to our culture.  But, in recent years there has been a backlash to that.  Excellence was viewed as being slick and too polished and “not real.”  Worship was becoming a “performance,” it seems, and so the call was now for everything on the platform to be “authentic.”  Since drama is, after all, a performance, it is easy to see how many have taken the proverbial “throw out the baby with the bathwater” approach. Those who continue with drama, want the dramas to be more testimonial —a “tell us your story” approach. Gone are the short “Saturday Night Live” genres of sketch.  Indeed even the word “drama” it seems is out.  “Story” is the metaphor of choice and not just any story, but a real-life authentic story, if you please.

While I understand the shift, and in many ways can even agree with some of the trends, I think much of what has happened is an over-reaction and I am longing for the middle ground.  Yes, doing drama in church IS hard work.  But to cease to do it because it is hard is a terrible reason to give up on it.  I believe that the church can and should be a breeding place for artists.  My early experiences doing church dramas ignited my passion and talent for the theater.  Countless musicians, both Christian and secular, would echo the same thing.  If we don’t give young artists a way to discover and use their gifts within the church then they will take them somewhere else. They run the risk of losing the connection to a spiritual foundation and an understanding that their gifts are indeed gifts from God and of value to the church.

While video can be effective and certainly expedient, it is no replacement for live performance.  There is a certain magic to live drama done well that connects on a profound level—not necessarily better than video –but different and potentially more personal and more authentic! And video is common—too common. We sit in front of a video screen too many hours a week.  We watch shows and movies on televisions, Youtube on our computers, and now we go to church and watch more video.  Live drama is not as common and thus has the potential to grab people’s attention powerfully. I acknowledge that film-making is also an art form and I am not suggesting that we abandon video, but let’s not make it an either/or proposition.  There is room for both. I am aware of one church in the Los Angeles area that has a thriving drama ministry.  Because they have a number of Hollywood professionals in the church they have the luxury of deciding whether a particular drama should be live or on film and are capable of producing either.  They should be the envy of every church!

Authenticity and excellence are not mutually exclusive.  They can co-exist together.  Sadly, it seems that the middle ground for many churches has become mediocrity. Because I am a touring artist, I am in a different church virtually every week.  It is my observation that churches are caring less about how they present themselves on the platform.  Since excellence is no longer the distinctive, they care less about how the platform looks. In striving to be authentic, they care less about the whether the person singing or speaking is actually a good performer or a good communicator.  They need to care more! Those on the platform are, in essence, modeling worship for the rest of the congregation. Our worship is for the King of Kings and it should never be done with mediocrity. The churches that do “authenticity” well have found a way to do it with excellence. Sorry to say it, but even that takes some skill and practice! You may have a great story but if you mumble and don’t use eye contact with your audience… it is not going to be effective. Since “story” is the current metaphor, drama is perhaps one of the best mediums out there to share story. People remember and identify more when it is presented in a visual format.

The church struggles in every generation to communicate to the masses. Churches need to learn the language of the culture, and like it or not, our culture revolves around entertainment.  The church should have, at its core, a purposeful heart of worship, offering up talent and creativity to the One who gave it in the first place. It should strive to offer 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 God and others. That is entertainment.  And that is truly authentic worship.

Chuck Neighbors

A Report on Chuck’s Ministry Trip to Egypt

Dear Friends,

Imagine for a moment that whatever skill it is that you have (leadership, teaching, painting, music, etc.), imagine that that skill was considered one of the most sought after skills by the people in your community, church, school or business. How would that make you feel? No doubt your sense of self worth would go up a bit, am I right?

Now imagine sitting down with your pastor or even bigger, the head of your denomination, and having that person tell you that your skill is one of the most important and viable means available to bring people to Christ in the country. How are you feeling now? Is a certain “wow factor” setting in? Is there a sense of your importance in the big picture? Or perhaps you’re a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility that it implies?

If you can identify with those feelings then you have a tiny glimpse into what I felt while on this recent ministry trip to Egypt! God is doing great things in the Arab world and it was amazing to be a part of what is happening there.

I left on my journey on Feb. 26th. Upon arriving in Cairo I hooked up with the others on the team that would be conducting a three-and-one-half day conference on drama ministry in Upper Egypt. In addition to myself there was Dr. Julisa Rowe, a missionary, and drama specialist serving on the faculty at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya; Kimberly Creasman a theater professional who lives in Singapore, and works with Church Resource Ministries; and fellow Oregonian, Mark Eaton, playwright and theater professor at both George Fox University and Warner Pacific College. After a day of orientation with leaders from Arab World Evangelical Ministers Association (AWEMA), we boarded a bus for a four-hour trip across the dessert to our destination in Abu Korkas, a retreat center in the midst of beautiful farmland along the Nile.

There were 120 eager participants waiting for us, mostly university students and young professionals. We launched into an intensive training schedule on acting, directing, and playwriting. The goal was ambitious-to improve the skills of our students in using drama to spread the Gospel throughout Egypt. Most of those attending were already working in teams before we arrived but with very little background and training in theater. I have conducted countless workshops on drama over the years and have rarely met a group that equaled the enthusiasm and sense of purpose I found in these students. They were fast learners and quick to apply the things they were learning.

It was a learning experience for us teachers as well. We had to consider cultural differences-what works in the USA may not work in Egypt. Yet there was more in common than differences as, like so many places in the world, thanks to Hollywood, they understand our culture better than we do theirs and many hope to one day get to the United States. Then there was the language–while many could understand some English, we had to teach through translators. I was fortunate to have a young man named Peter Fahim as my translator. This 18-year-old student was amazing. Mature beyond his years and his English was exceptional. We formed a special bond and “adopted” each other… he calls me Dad and I referred to him as my son! (We have hopes of a visit from him in the not too distant future!)

On one morning I led devotions and performed one of my short character pieces from the drama Encounters. It was a first for me to perform with a translator-a challenge for an actor to have to utilize the “dramatic pause” while your words are repeated. But Peter followed me perfectly and the play was enthusiastically received.

The conference culminated with an evening of performances by the teams, as they showcased original plays they had created during the conference-and applied the things they had learned.

After returning to Cairo we met with the General Director of AWEMA, Maher Fouad, one evening for dinner. This is where he blew our minds. They are so amazed at the response to this conference and convinced of the effectiveness of drama to communicate to the people. They have numerous ideas and plans for expanding this ministry not only in live drama but for producing film, radio and television that will be creative way to communicate truth to the masses. He looks at each of us and asks us what can we do? How can we help? The message from him is clear-this is the method we can use to reach the people. In a country where it is illegal to evangelize, they see drama as an open door to get the job done.

I am challenged and praying about what my role will be in the future of this movement in Egypt. They clearly want me to return and at the very least do another conference next year. I must say that the sentiments Maher expressed are the ones I have longed to hear church leaders in our own country express, because I believe what he is saying is true not only for Egypt but for this country as well. It is so encouraging to see this vision for the arts embraced for the cause of Christ. I must say it gave me a sense of renewed purpose to continue on, even when at times it seems that others “don’t get it”!

We spent a few days being tourists before the long journey home. But even then our conversations were full of “what ifs” and vision casting for this great work here.

Thank you so much for helping to make this trip possible. Your gifts went a long way in encouraging a group of people who are determined to make a difference for Christ. I felt your prayers and am honored to have had the opportunity to be used of God in this great work.

I will keep you posted as plans unfold for next year!

Blessings to you!

Chuck Neighbors

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

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