Redeeming Entertainment

Chuck Neighbors
Keynote Address
Drama Improvement Conference, October 2003
Sunset Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon
copyright © 2003

(Note: this is an reprint of a previously published article)

I want to say things tonight that will inspire, encourage and challenge you. I realize that to speak to a group like this is, in essence to “preach to the choir.” But maybe that is not all bad. This is one choir that doesn’t get together all that often, so maybe a little preaching to the choir is just what we need. To speak the truths of the things that we all agree on–to have those ideals reinforced and encouraged–is certainly not out of line for this gathering. Yet, I am not satisfied to have you walk out of here with a sort of ho hum, same old same old, theme.

So I had to turn the question in on myself and ask, “What would I like to hear? What do I need to hear fleshed out a bit more?”

For too long I have felt the need to apologize to the church for the fact that what I do, what we do, as theatre artists, is to in fact entertain. I have had more conversations than I can count with people who want to challenge and even condemn the notion that doing drama on a Sunday morning in church is entertainment and that church should not be a place of entertainment. So tonight I am going to challenge that notion, rather than apologize for it as I have so often done in the past. Tonight I want to redeem entertainment! First to redeem the word — that is the feel-good part of my talk. Second, to talk about entertainment that is redeeming–that will be perhaps the challenge part of what I want to say tonight. And third, how in following our calling as entertainers for the cause of Christ we can experience a measure of redemption not only for our art, but also for our souls.

Redeeming the Word “Entertainment”

Much of what I want to say tonight has to do with definitions. As actors and writers we know that words mean things. According to the dictionary “entertainment,” as pertaining to performance, has three distinct parts: to hold attention, to amuse, to divert.

To hold attention? Think about that part as I substitute and turn a phrase or two.
• The church should not be a place of entertainment = The church should not be a place that holds our attention. (Clearly some have succeeded if that is the goal).
• This is a place of worship not a place of entertainment = This is a place of worship service not a place that holds our attention.
• I came to hear a sermon not to have someone entertain me = I came to hear a sermon not have someone hold my attention.

If entertainment means “holding attention” then it certainly is something to be desired by the church today!

I must admit that I thought my premise for this talk was in trouble when I got to the next word: to AMUSE. When you hear the word ‘amuse’ or ‘amusing’ do you, like me, think that it automatically means ‘funny’ or ‘humorous?’ (And thinking of the church as a place of humor–for some of us that may be a stretch.) Some, on the other hand, are quite amusing but they just don’t know it! When I hit that word I thought, “there goes my talk–I am doomed.” I couldn’t find a scriptural reference talking about being amused in church or in worship. Then I had a thought, what does the word ‘amuse’ actually mean? Here are some synonyms for amuse: to please, gratify, entertain, exhilarate, delight.

I read that list and I thought to myself, hmm….sounds an awful lot like what worship ought to be. If we define worship according to the dictionary it is both a verb and a noun. As a noun worship is ceremonies, prayers or other religious forms by which love is expressed. As a verb it is the act of showing love and honor to a deity. So imagine that to amuse God is, in fact, worship. To please him, to gratify and delight him. Now delight–there is a very biblical term. I was delighted to find the following passages — or should I say I was amused to find the following passages. Consider:

Psalm 1: 1-2 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 35
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD and delight in his salvation.

Psalm 37
4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 43
4 Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

Imagine David – an artist, using his art – song and harp – in worship. Entertaining an audience of one– God!

Psalm 111
2 Great are the works of the LORD ; they are pondered by all who delight in them.

And if you think of this as just an Old Testament thing, consider this reaction by those listening to Jesus after his teaching in the temple courts:
Mark 12
37…. The large crowd listened to him with delight.

I hope you can see that in this context, being amused can be a godly, biblical thing. Godly and biblical things happening in church would be a good thing, right?

It, of course, can go the other way. Consider:

Psalm 62
4 … they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.
Proverbs 2
14 who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil,

We are not making the word “delight” holy. We are not making the word “entertainment” holy. Like anything including drama they can be used for good or evil.

The last word in the definition is “divert.” Once again I thought my premise might be in trouble. Especially since some of the sources I used said not only divert, but added “divert attention away from that which is serious.” I thought “this is not good, because spiritual things ARE serious.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought “no problem.” You see, at least for me, that which I perceive as being serious is more often not the spiritual stuff of life, but rather the “life stuff.” In essence I NEED to divert my attention away from that which really occupies my mind — the serious stuff to do with my work, my family, health, all of life’s problems–and instead divert my attention on being entertained, delighted, and amused by the things of God. Now that’s entertainment at its best. Entertainment that is directed toward God–be it music, dance, paintings, or drama–that is, or certainly can be, worship.

I realize that when we get down to it that it is not the words as I have defined them but rather the perception of those words. It is not the meaning of the word ‘entertainment’ as much as what that word has come to mean in our culture. Steve Pederson, the director of drama at Willow Creek says this in his book Drama Ministry:

“The problem for some who oppose the use of drama in the church is the idea that drama is merely entertainment. These people assert that the church should be about the task of saving souls, not about entertainment.
Yes, drama is entertainment, but this fact does not need to be a negative–even in church. Those who object to entertainment in the church usually have a limited definition of it. To them it connotes that which is cheap, glitzy, and worldly–the worst of Las Vegas.
But entertainment can also be truthful and enlightening. Good drama can bring out wholesome laughter or move us deeply. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake has no place in church, but entertainment that touches someone’s heart and makes that person more open is not only valid, it is desirable.”

My assessment is that the church is very much about entertainment, we just don’t call it that. The very structure of the sanctuary to the structure of a worship service, whatever your tradition, is designed to hold and focus our attention. While most pastors would reject the label, we all know that the very best preachers are purposeful entertainers. Why else do they tell such good stories and add humor to their message if not to hold our attention and amuse us?! Not for entertainment’s sake, but so we will listen and receive the message contained within the entertainment.

I want to take this one step further. I think God loves entertainment and loves to be entertained. One need only look at Creation and God’s repeated delight in what He created. Creating land and water, light and dark, plants and animals, He repeatedly looked and saw that it was good! Read Exodus 35 & 36 to see how God gifted artists, as the scripture says “by his Spirit,” to do works of art in building the tabernacle. Read the Psalms and see the enduring art of poet and song writer David–the man after God’s own heart. Look at the theatrics of the old testament prophets. I have to think that God was amused and entertained by Elijah. Can you just imagine the great theatre on Mt. Carmel when Elijah called down fire from Heaven–what great entertainment!

Drama is about telling a story. Jesus was a master of the parable (defined as a simple story told to illustrate a truth.) Isn’t that what we are doing when we do drama in worship? The Gospel–the divine drama–is referred to as the greatest story ever told. Art is about entertainment. Few artists create art merely for their own enjoyment, rather they want others to share in the creation. That is true of God–He created man to enjoy and share in His creation. It is true for me when I write a play. My first impulse is to share it with my wife. I want someone else to enjoy my creation. Sometimes she does. Art can be for our human entertainment but it can also be for God’s entertainment. When it is, I believe that is an act of worship.

Some might be wondering “Chuck, are you suggesting that our churches become theatres?” My answer is “they already are!” Again, going to definitions – theatre is derived from the Greek word theatron which means “seeing place.” Don’t we want the church to be a place where come to see about God as well as hear about him? A place that holds our attention? Not, of course, in exclusion to all the other things that take place in the church like fellowship, teaching and coffee drinking.

“Redeeming” Entertainment
So now the challenge. I want to encourage you to make your entertainment redeeming in it’s content and value. Not entertainment for entertainment’s sake but rather something that amuses and diverts our attention toward the things of God.

As a Christian artist I have always had a struggle with the old adage “art for art’s sake.” The popular notion in the world is that “art needs no defense.” “Art just is.” I am not saying that there is no room for art that is merely there for no other purpose than our enjoyment, art that “merely entertains.” In fact, I think it is possible that even God as an artist made much of creation just because it amused Him with no other purpose in mind. This could be true of the Grand Canyon and it could be true of the duckbilled platypus. It might even be true of some of us here in this room! But as a Christian artist I think we need to be purposeful in the art we create–maybe not exclusively, but at least in the majority of our time and energy. I say this because I think there is too much at stake not to be purpose driven in our art. If we as Christian artists are not driven with a grander sense of purpose, who then? Certainly there are artists on the other end of the spectrum that are purposeful in their attempts to communicate values and messages most of us would oppose. It is not a secret that that we have become an entertainment-oriented culture. We as Christian artists, we as the church, have the challenge of communicating to and reaching that culture. The church needs Christian artists today more than ever. And we need them to spend their energies creating art that will reach this culture. We need Christians at work in theatre that is both overt and subtle. We need them at work in both the church and in the broader culture calling us to the Truth of the Gospel.

I have heard it stated among Christian artists that we do not need to try to get a message across–we should just concentrate on telling a story. That as long as we are Christians producing art, our message will come through who we are. I think this statement may well be a reaction to some of the poorly written and performed plays that have been done in the name of ministry in the past. One of the tendencies we must resist is to simply use our drama to preach rather than tell a story–which is what drama is supposed to do. The drama we need to be doing should communicate, challenge, foster identification, entertain and stir us up. It may 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 to risk defeating the greatest strength of drama in the first place–that is, communication without preaching.

But on the other hand, to suggest that redeeming entertainment will just happen without forethought, with no regard to message bothers. Oh, this may happen on occasion, but I am troubled by the notion that somehow my work as a writer and as an actor will just happen to have a purposeful value and content simply because I am a Christian. I believe we need to be more intentional than that.

For the last few years I have had the privilege to work with and develop an improv team that now performs a weekly show in Salem. At this time, to the best of my knowledge, all the performers are Christians. We have had some truly great, entertaining moments on stage, but being improv–even at our very best–I would have to say that what we do on stage would appear to be pretty much “entertainment for entertainment’s sake.” We are Christians performing, but I would hardly call the art we produce of a lasting redeeming quality. There is no “great art” happening here, merely because we are Christians. Even though I love what we are doing, if that was the extent of our work in Salem, I think I would come to the conclusion “what a waste.” What a waste of time and energy.

You might wonder why we do it if that is all it is? Am I contradicting myself? Didn’t I just challenge us all to be more purposeful in the art we create? Yes I did, but I don’t think what we are doing contradicts my challenge and I’ll tell you why: I think our culture needs clean, family-friendly entertainment options. Our improvisations may appear to be “merely entertainment” but it is a safe and family-friendly alternative for people to attend. That, in and of itself is a much needed ministry. But it is more than that. This venue provides an opportunity for subtle evangelism–people notice that we are different from all the other stuff in town and wonder why. We have the opportunity to tell them. We are providing a place for the Christians in our audience to have a good neutral location to take their friends who may not like or trust the church, a place where they can build relationships that eventually can work their way into a healthy relationship with God and the church. Third, improv is giving me a great vehicle to train actors so that when we do work on more intentional productions we will do a better job. And last, while it is yet to happen, I am hopeful that eventually there will be some non-believing theatre types that will be attracted to what we are doing–that they will want to join us–and through that process they will come into relationship with Jesus Christ. For these reasons it is no longer “art for art’s sake,” or “merely entertainment.”

For me redeeming entertainment is entertainment that changes people.

It is the young teenager who sought me out after a performance–not to talk to Chuck Neighbors–but rather to talk with the character I portrayed on stage because she thought that character could help her. You see, this young gal was unmarried and pregnant–the play challenged her and she thought my character could help her. That’s redeeming entertainment!

It is the missionary who said to me, “When I came in here tonight I had made up my mind that I was not going back to the mission field–now, after seeing your play, I realize I have to go back.” That’s redeeming entertainment!

It is the countless number of people who have sat through a one-man comedy and afterward said to me, “I needed that! I needed to laugh!” That is redeeming entertainment.

It is those few times when an entire congregation stands to their feet–not in a standing ovation for the performer–but rather to recommit their lives to following Jesus after–of all things–a one-man play! That is entertainment that redeems! That is the kind of entertainment the church, our society, and our culture need more of.

Being Redeemed as an Entertainer

And as for me, as an artist, I find that I am at my very best when I am about my Master’s business. Creating, producing, working, rehearsing, writing and rewriting all for the sake of the One who created me and wired me to be the unique work of art that I am–that each of us is. When I do this “drama thing” it is an act of worship.

Do you remember the movie Chariots of Fire? Some of you are old enough to remember actually seeing it in the theater. I have always been struck by the scene from “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddell is talking to his sister, who wants him not to run in the Olympics but to be a missionary to China. He responds that he has decided to serve as a missionary to China. . .but only after he has run in the Olympics. She is crushed and thinks that he’s making the wrong decision. He responds, “God made me to run, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

To feel God’s pleasure. Have you ever done something where you felt God’s pleasure? I believe that when Eric Liddell ran he was, in fact worshiping–doing what God designed him to do. When I perform–not every time, of course, but those times when I am truly in tune, in sync with God when I step on stage, I can truly say that I feel God’s pleasure. Like Eric Liddell running the race, I may not always win. Sometimes I merely survive. But then there are those other times when I am “in the zone,” I feel the audience, and it is as if we become as one. At those moments I, too, feel His pleasure. That, to me, reflects the heart of Christian artists. A heart of worship, giving our talents and creativity back to the One who gave them to us in the first place. 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 and amuses God and others. He redeems me and He redeems my art. That is entertainment.

So I charge you to go forth and grab attention, amuse and divert–for the sake of the Kingdom. Go forth and entertain–just be careful where you use the word because to some it is still the dreaded “E” word.

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

Whatever Happened to Potlucks?

The scene was all too familiar.

It was a regular event almost every Sunday night. We would roll into the church parking lot in our Dodge van, with four balding tires. The van contained four starving actors, Christians on a mission, performing plays for the Kingdom. We quickly sprung into action, preparing for our performance that evening. While we gathered props and turned the chancel into a stage, our audience would arrive (the members of the congregation) heading for the fellowship hall, carrying dishes of food covered in tin foil. Then the smells of hot coffee would begin to waft down the hall and into the sanctuary. Ah yes, hot coffee mixed with another all too familiar odor of tuna fish casserole. It was time for another church potluck dinner.

The potluck dinner, a staple of Christian performers and speakers. I grew up with church potlucks and they evoke warm memories of my childhood. The potluck dinner was an opportunity. An opportunity for the congregation to sample each other’s culinary delights (no matter what you add to a tuna fish casserole it still tastes like tuna fish) not that I am complaining, mind you). An opportunity for fellowship and for building community in the congregation.

An opportunity for the speaker/performer because the serving of food almost always guaranteed an audience. It is an opportunity that seems to be turning into a thing of the past. Whatever happened to all those potluck dinners?

The scene described above was common for me in the ’70’s and early ’80’s when I traveled in a repertory company. As a performer I have a love/hate relationship with potluck dinners. I loved them for what they were, food, fun and fellowship. I hated them because they were always just before a performance and it’s not easy performing on a full stomach. (Just try to turn down food at a potluck when you are the guest of honor) it doesn’t exactly endear the people to you!)

We depended on potluck dinners not only for a free meal but also for income. When you travel in Christian ministry, Sundays are “prime time.” We had to find a place to minister both Sunday morning and evening. It was a matter of survival as each performance also meant another offering, which in turn paid the bills of doing ministry. Today fewer and fewer churches are holding evening services and not surprisingly, there are fewer potluck dinners as a result.

Potlucks are a part of our culture; a culture which is constantly changing. Many churches have replaced evening services with small group meetings in homes. Not a bad thing; it accomplishes much of the same objective as those potluck dinners. There is certainly fellowship and often food and fun. Perhaps these groups offer even more; the chance for in-depth Bible study. But a part of me still misses the potlucks of old.

There is an alternative which is growing in popularity. We get an increasing number of requests for Dinner/Dessert Theatre. The focus of these events is a bit different. The goal is outreach rather than fellowship (although there is fellowship as well). These events are designed as an opportunity for the members of the church to invite their unchurched friends to an evening of entertainment with a purpose. Some are willing to come to these “non-churchy” events, people who might not otherwise darken the door of a church. After seeing the church in this new light, individuals may be more willing to consider coming to church on a Sunday morning. It is about building bridges into thecommunity (certainly a worthy goal) and it is working for many churches. These evenings have a touch of class to them and the approach is not to hit people over the head with the Gospel, but rather to do productions that raise issues (usually with some humor) and reveal some aspect of God’s truth. They provide the church members a chance to share their faith in a non-threatening environment.

Many of the plays in our repertoire are perfect for this setting. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass is some of the finest Christian humor you will find anywhere. A.D.Something is probably the most entertaining of the shows that we have offered, with an excellent blend of music, comedy, drama. For something a little more serious, Calvin Miller’s The Valiant Papers is an excellent story on the human condition and our need for God.

One other nice thing about these Dinner Theatre events; I have yet to be served tuna fish casserole! If you would like more information about how you can bring one of these productions to your church for an evening of Dinner/Dessert Theatre, give us a call at 503/399-0415 or e-mail us at chuck@mastersimage.com.

(Oh, and we will still do potluck dinners, tuna fish and all!)

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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