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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