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

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