Baby Talk

It happened again… in yet another church service…. this time it was just as I was setting up a comedic bit in my newest presentation, Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. One of the funniest lines in the whole presentation, wouldn’t be so funny without the set-up.  The sound came from the back of the room—a baby just discovering her voice decided to try it out with some of the most adorable gibberish I have heard, rivaling anything I have seen on YouTube. The audience heads turn almost in unison to catch a glimpse of the little wonder, and I even heard an audible “awww” from a few in the crowd. (Probably similar to what you feel when you watch this popular YouTube video.)

My inner voice is screaming some not so adorable words at “Her Cuteness.”  I am not a child hater, really I’m not.  But this child just did what is referred to in the acting business as “upstaging”—taking attention away from where it is supposed to be directed. The fact that the noises are adorable makes it even worse than if the baby were crying—at least if she were crying the distraction would irritate everyone, not just me. By adding her unscripted voice to my show, she has taken my audience away from me.  It will be hard to get it back, if the distraction continues without intervention, which is too often the case.

When a child cries out it takes the attention away from the speaker/performer and sometimes at the worst possible times—the punchline of a joke, the most important key line in a scene, or the main point of a sermon. Being on stage you can feel the loss. One minute you have the audience right where you want them and the next minute they’re gone. It is not just babies, it could be someone getting up to go to the bathroom, a cell phone, or a sneeze. Obviously some distractions are inevitable and cannot be avoided—I once had a man have a heart attack in the middle of a performance—but others are easily avoided. I don’t mind children in my audience—in fact I love kids! But when they start to make noise and continue to make noise–then just like a New Year’s resolution… they should be carried out!

In the legitimate theater these distractions are not tolerated. An usher will escort the source of the distraction out of the auditorium. In the church we have to be much more forgiving and gracious. I have no control over those instances in my week to week travels, although I do have a standard intro that includes encouraging  parents to take out noisy babies and to tell the audience to turn off their cell phones (See our video No Call To Worship).

I know the arguments: “this is church and this is for family” and “this is how we train up a child to learn appropriate behavior” and “if I can’t have the child with me then I have to miss the service.” I can agree with those arguments…up to a point. I do wish however that people would, just for a moment, put themselves in the performer’s shoes and see it for what it is and does to them.

I am convinced that most people really don’t want to upstage a speaker—but in a church setting we are often afraid to set an expectation or enforce a standard, for fear of offending. However, if people are informed from the start what the expectations are, it can greatly reduce the instances of disruption. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish this:

  • Nursery Service – Obvious, of course. But in many churches I think it is presented more as an option rather than the expected thing. Promote the nursery as THE place for the very young to hang out!
  • Designated Seating – If parents insist on having babies and young children with them in the program, have a designated area near a door for them to sit.  Post a sign or instruct ushers to explain that crying or noisy children should be removed from the a auditorium. Even a parent who is sensitive to this issue compounds the problem if they are seated in the middle  or front of the room.  Not only do we have the issue of the crying baby but also the visibility of the parent removing the child in front of most of the audience.  And then there is the issue of them returning to the original seat after the child has been dealt with—an additional distraction!
  • Usher Power– A few years ago we produced a video titled Blessed Usherance (out of circulation), designed to train ushers and greeters for service in the church. We discovered that very few churches actually train ushers and tell them what to do in certain situations.  I have seen the look on so many pastors’ faces when there is a distraction and the pastor is desperately wishing and praying that an usher would handle it.  Empower the usher with the authority to go to the source of the distraction and politely offer to help them out of the room.  Believe me—95% of the audience is wishing for the same thing!

To be in front of an audience as a actor, teacher, preacher or singer is a hard enough job. Taking steps to minimize distractions will make a better performance/worship experience for everyone!

Do you have a story to tell about being upstaged?  Have a tip you can share to help prevent these things from happening?

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

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