My Mind Boggles

My mind boggles at my own mind. I am amazed at my memory. I mean, I am getting older—this stuff is supposed to get harder as you get older, right?

I just finished putting my costume and props for my Christmas play, Merry Christmas, Mr. Jones, into storage for another year. Every year around Thanksgiving I take them out and plan for a rehearsal before my next season of performances of this beloved piece. I have been doing the play every December for over 25 years. Each year I am anxious as I go into rehearsal. I am sure I will have forgotten my lines in the 11 months since I last spoke these words. I set the script nearby, just in case I need it as I walk through the show, recalling lines and motivation and movement. Except for a couple momentary pauses, mostly on lines that are similar to another line in the play, I make it through without even opening the script. I do a quick scan of the script just to be sure..

“Yep I said that… and that…yep remembered that too.”

Mind boggling, right? I have addressed memorizing a few other times in this blog here and here. But one of the principles I learned early in my acting career was the importance of owning my lines—knowing them so well that I don’t have to stop and think, “what comes next?”

Stop for a moment and just think about all the stuff in your brain that fits that definition. Everything from the alphabet and numbers to addresses, phone numbers, nursery rhymes, The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge of Allegience and certain scriptures. We have intentionally crammed a lot of stuff in to those brain cells. And that doesn’t even address the stuff we recall that we didn’t intentionally memorize. Think of song lyrics, movie lines, bits of conversations…our brains are amazing.

A few years ago I was on tour in New Zealand. I was performing at a ministers’ retreat and one of the speakers was talking about the importance of continuing to repeat certain creeds, prayers and scriptures in the church service as a part of liturgy. The concern was that in becoming more contemporary as a church, we are neglecting these elements that the speaker felt were essential. They went on to share that often people on their death beds and even at the scene of life threating accidents will default to quoting these often repeated–memorized lines.

Interesting that in our final moments, these things in our memory can be called up to give us comfort. Of course that assumes that we have placed them there to be called up in the first place.

That gives me pause…the old theories of “what goes in must come out” or “garbage in, garbage out” come to mind.

I haven’t intentionally memorized anything new in a while.

I’m going to ponder that as I put Mr. Jones on the shelf for another year.

Don’t Drop, Fly, or Burn Jesus!

Jesus_FlamesChurch drama.

Sometimes even I have to cringe when I talk about what I do for a living.  I try to find different words to use. “I am a professional actor/storyteller in ministry” has a bit more credibility and helps to distance the gap from saying something like “I do skits in church.”  Let’s face it, church drama has suffered a (often a well deserved) bad reputation. I understand when people roll their eyes when the topic of church drama comes up. It’s no wonder that in many churches it is relegated to the children’s department and gets no respect when adults engage in this craft.

And yet, it can be done well, and is by many—both professionals and amateurs. It was seeing it done well that inspired me to pursue acting as a career. I can’t begin to tell you how many people credit a church production as being the thing that drew them to  church and, for many to faith as well.  If you read the bio’s of famous performers you would be amazed at how many credit the church with giving them their start. (Although considering the paths some of them have taken, that may not be a compliment!)

We have just finished Christmas, a time when many churches engage in this creative endeavor, and we are quickly approaching the Easter season, the other time of the year when even churches who don’t allow “church drama” will often make an exception and give that much maligned group of artists in the church a chance to ply their craft.

The Easter Pageant Season is upon us.

As a warning…maybe some things are better left to our imagination. A sensitive scene gone wrong will only inflict more damage on our reputation. It might be better to leave some special effects to Hollywood. I offer these examples of what not to do:

Don’t “drop” Jesus.

Don’t “fly” Jesus.

Don’t “burn” Jesus.

Our message matters! Make a memorable show, but to quote an old TV show “be careful out there!”

If you want some good quality drama, consider inviting me or one of our artists to your church. We promise not to drop, fly or burn Jesus!

Kirk Cameron and Me

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up

I am very excited about our newest presentation, Truth Be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. Last Friday was the premier performance followed on Sunday by the first  booking at a local church. The response has been better than even I had hoped for as people are really connecting with these stories. The exciting thing is this is causing them to revisit their own stories. A very good thing indeed!

Here are a few of the comments I have received so far:

It was authentic and such an encouragement to so many who thought they didn’t have a story worth telling. I pray they now have the boldness to share their story with others, pointing the listener(s) to our LORD. Thanks for making me laugh, cry and think!!!”

“I was delighted with your new presentation. As a pastor I look at most things with an eye of how it would work in church. Your authentic and up personal presentation of your own story gives those in the audience a chance to look at their own stories from a new perspective. Congratulations on a job well done.”

“Thanks for a delightful evening! We enjoyed ‘your story.'”

“Thank you for allowing us to hear some of the most intimate events of your life…Your story reminded us that we all have stories to tell and is a great encouragement for us to share the grace and mercy of God with others.”

“This was my favorite piece I’ve seen you do, although I certainly love the way you make Scripture come alive in other works.  But, I liked this most because it was so real.  It was real stories, from real life, showing the wide range of ways we get to trust God. You, in a sense, acted out your stories; you didn’t just stand up there and speak casually to us…telling them with dramatic emphasis and an actor’s skills.”

“So authentic and real….it made me realize I too have a story to tell.”

“Story is a powerful tool for God to use, and He is telling His Story through your story! I was really moved by this presentation.”

“Your piece really touched me. I know others who have dealt with grief or guilt will also be touched.”

“It was great Chuck. I dreamt about your story all night long. So clearly, it had an impact.”

“I LOVED your presentation last night, Chuck! You did a great job not only compiling your story but the way you presented it. I could hear it over and over again… I believe everyone needs to hear your story. And thank you for impressing on all of us that were there that we have a story to tell!”

I am looking forward to sharing this new presentation and would love to bring it to a venue near you. Truth Be Told is perfect for a worship service, dinner/dessert theater, outreach event, or conference. I have also developed a retreat package to make this a great weekend event for a congregation or group who want to become better at telling their own stories! Contact me for more information or to request a booking!

The Beatles LOVE – Cirque du Soleil, AMAZING!…

and yet it left me wanting….

Finally after all these years I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show. It was everything I had heard it would be and more. Every single aspect of the performance was flawless.  I am awestruck by the talent, the athleticism, the precision, the costumes, the lighting, the sound and the multimedia. It was sensory overload. In fact there was so much happening at once that it is impossible to take it all in! Where to focus my attention was a dilemma!

Knowing that I am in theater, some people indicated they were anxious for my critique.  If by critique they expect criticism, I have none. If they meant review, as I said, it was amazing and flawless.

Why then was I beginning to get restless during the final half hour of the 90 minute show?  I was surprised to find myself checking my watch.  I’ve puzzled this for the last couple of days and I think I know at least part of the answer.

  • After having my senses bombarded for 60 minutes I was actually starting to feel tired.
  • After 60 minutes I felt I had seen it all… a sense of “you can’t top anything you have already done.”
  • After 60 minutes I finally realized that this was indeed a circus and there would be no story, no climax, no resolution.

And that last point really says it all.  Being a theater person, I am all about story.  I forgot that this was a circus and for some reason I had the expectation that there would be a story. And yes, for those who have seen the show, there is a thread of story and characters to LOVE, but it is fleeting, and with so much happening, easy to miss. The show is many things, all good, but it is not about a cohesive story. Nothing wrong with that. You just need to know going in that you are not going to experience a story.

Would I go again?  Absolutely! But if given a choice of going to see a show that has story or variety show or a circus, I would probably choose story… but, then that is just the kind of guy that I am. Give me the choice of a good movie or a good concert, and I will probably pick the movie.  What about you? Are you a “wow me with an experience” person? Or are you a “tell me a good story” person? (Yes, I know  they are not mutually exclusive–one can also be wowed by the experience of a good story!)

Drama Ministry—The Basic Training

A blog is probably not the best place to try to teach acting skills.  You can’t teach someone to sing by reading a book nor can you teach acting by simply telling them the basics.  Both have to be learned through experience, by “doing” rather than merely reading and studying about them.  However you can come to some understanding of some of the basics that need to be considered.  Here is an overview of the basics to be considered for those who want to develop drama ministry in the church

What Does it Take to Make it Work?

Here is a chance at the outset to help people identify some of the things that are going to be required to have a successful drama ministry. The goal is to help people realize that good drama ministries don’t just happen. They take work, planning, and discipline.  Consider:

  • People – you need actors, director and support people.
  • Material (scripts) – are you going to write your own or purchase?
  • Rehearsal space – ideally you need to have not only rehearsal space but an opportunity to rehearse on the actually stage before the performance.
  • Leadership/Director- drama doesn’t work well in committee. You need a director!
  • Commitment – it takes time to do drama well. . .you need people willing to give that commitment (rule of thumb — one hour of rehearsal for each page of dialog).
  • Costumes, sets, and props – even the simplest of productions will have these needs
  • Technical support – lighting, sound, etc.
  • Good communication between the drama team leader and the pastoral staff.

That last one is huge, especially if your plan is to include drama on a regular basis in your worship services.  And to be honest it is often the downfall of many drama ministries.  Make sure you share a vision with the leadership of the church.

Performance Basics

There are resources out there to help you train and develop your team. I wrote a book based on my drama workshops called Drama Now, which serves as a sort of basic training for drama ministry.

Here are the performance basics you will need to consider:

  • Inhibition.  One of the first obstacles to getting started for beginning actors is fear.  Fear of getting on stage and making a fool out of themselves, fear of blowing their lines, fear of not be accepted by their fellow actors or by the audience.  We need to tackle this fear head on.
  • Body Control.  Acting is a visual medium.  Our bodies are instruments to be used to communicate our message.  Often what we say with our bodies is just as important as the lines we recite.  Actors need to become aware of this and learn to use and train their bodies to say what we want them to say.
  • Body Movement.  Body Control has to do with becoming aware of our body and how it can be used to communicate.  Body Movement has more to do with the rules of the stage (yes, there are rules!).  This is where we will get into the proper way to stand, sit, and walk on stage.
  • Eye Contact/Focus.  Our eyes, while a very small part of our body, are extremely important in the communication process, both in real life and on stage.
  • Voice Projection.  Today almost every actor uses a microphone. While this technology has many benefits, it is still important for actors to know how to project their voices.
  • Diction.  You can have great projection but if we can’t understand you because you have bad diction or you are talking too fast, then we have a problem.
  • Memorization.  An actor’s goal is to know the lines so well that he or she doesn’t have to stop and think, “what comes next?”  The focus should be on character, not lines, when it comes time for performance.
  • Characterization.  The real fun and creative part of being an actor is in creating believable characters on stage.  This is where we get to use our imaginations; where we revert back to what many of us did so well in our childhood—pretend.

There is more, much more to consider, but this is a good overview of what you will need to consider.  There is a sort of mantra that people in the church drama movement have adopted and I think this is a good place to insert it:

“I’d rather see no drama than bad drama.”

To do drama well takes time and dedication.  Is it worth it?  I think so… but if you are going to do it be sure you do it well!

Chuck Neighbors

The Pendulum Swings-Worship Trends

The pendulum swings.  What is in one season is out the next, and then before you know it, it is back again.  This is so true of cycles in worship ministry as well.  Hymns are out, worship choruses are in. . .then hymns come back and choruses are out.  The sermon is a methodical preaching of a chapter at a time through a book of the Bible, and then it is a topical sermon on how to eliminate stress in your life, and them back to the Bible again.  If there is an area of ministry that has felt this pendulum swing the most profoundly it would have to be drama in worship.  Whereas music and sermons are a given (it just changes format), drama it seems is either “in” or “out.”  There doesn’t appear to be any half measures. . .well, except it is always “good for the kids,” so it will often be found in Sunday School, even if not in the sanctuary.

There are several factors that contribute to this.  If you look at the history of theater in the church, it has always been in one season and out the next.  Historically drama has its roots in the church; the very first plays were religious plays.  But drama has a way of saying things–sometimes too effectively–and runs the risk of offending, so out it goes. Drama ministry also seems to center around the passion of a few individuals.  If you have such people in your church, you might have a drama ministry but if those people don’t exist, or leave, so goes the drama ministry.  Unlike music ministry, there will probably not be an all-out search for the next drama ministry leader.

Sadly, I have to say that drama seems to be on the “out” again, this time not for being too amateur or too edgy, but for being too time-consuming and inconvenient.  Live actors have been replaced by media.  Countless churches that had effective drama ministries are no more.  A few clicks on the computer and you can download a video that can be played in seconds.  The quality can be as good as Hollywood, and slipping it into a worship service seamless.  I wrote more about this in my blog, The First Church of YouTube.

But before we do the proverbial “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” let’s revisit the benefits of doing live drama in worship.

  • Drama has immediacy and energy to it that you cannot get from video.  The sense, when done well, of being “in the moment.”  Connecting to an audience in a way that no other media can touch.
  • Jesus told stories – parables – to get his point across.  Drama does much the same thing.  And doing this live makes it very personal.
  • We live in a culture of entertainment; it is the language of our culture.  Drama is entertaining and entertainment is not a bad thing.  We all like to be entertained.  We may not want to admit it, but the worship services at most churches are well planned.  The pastor wants the service to hold the attention of the congregation.  The best sermons are sprinkled with humor and stories.  Why?  Because if it entertains us, it holds our attention. (For more on entertainment in the church see Redeeming Entertainment.)
  • There is a lot of drama in the various elements of worship.  Consider communion, baptism, responsive readings, etc.  These and many other parts of worship have drama all their own.
  • Drama is visual.  People remember more of what they see than what they hear.
  • Drama has the unique ability to tap into our emotions and our intellect at the same time, and this is especially effective because the audience member will identify and connect with a certain character being portrayed on stage.
  • While the Gospel doesn’t change, our culture does.  We (the church) need to find effective ways to minister to our culture without compromising the truth of the Gospel. In this regard drama is made to order!
  • It provides a place of service and ministry to those who have talent in this area. If the church does not provide a place for this artistic energy to be used, then rest assured those who have a passion for the performing arts will find another outlet for it.

For me, this last point is perhaps the biggest tragedy. The church needs to be a breeding place for the arts.  Not just music, but all art.  Many have chosen to sacrifice good art for the sake of expediency.  Speaking for myself, I would probably not be an actor today if it were not for the encouragement and experiences that I had doing my first church dramas as a kid.  I encourage you to develop a worship ministry strategy that includes a variety of artistic expression:  music, drama, dance, painting, sculpture and more.  All of these can be wonderful expressions of worship to our Creative God.

Chuck Neighbors

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

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