The Trouble with Labels

Sign_Theatrical SermonI cringed when I saw the sign in front of the church:
Chuck Neighbors Theatrical Sermon

The image that leaped into my mind was not one I wanted to embrace. First I don’t really think of what I do as a sermon, and second a theatrical sermon conjures up the very worst of what I would expect from a televangelist.

When I walked into the church one lady asked me:
“Are you our entertainer?”

I stuttered…

I realized I had not communicated clearly with this church what it is that I do… but then, when it comes to what I do, it is not easy to articulate in a way that everybody understands. I’m an actor, yes; I’m a storyteller, yes. I do most of my performing in the context of a worship service, but I’m not a preacher. Giving a “sermon” is not what we are accustomed to seeing done by people who bill themselves as actors and storytellers. I’m a minister, yes–but not to be confused with the acting and storytelling done by pastors in the pulpit week after week.

SigncollageAm I an entertainer? Yes… but if I told people I was an entertainer they would be very hesitant to book me, especially in place of a sermon during the worship service.

The trouble with labels.

Sometimes I feel like Rodney Dangerfield when he said, “I get no respect.” In the world of the church one needs to have the title “pastor” or “minister” to be qualified to speak behind the pulpit and give a sermon. In the world of the theater, one can hardly be a “legitimate actor” if their audience is the church. Preaching and theater are often at odds with each other. I have come to detest the dreaded “what do you do for a living?” question. How I would love to have a simple answer like waiter, letter carrier, doctor, sales person. Those are pretty clear-cut. My answers stumble out more like “I’m an actor, but…” or “I’m a minister, but…”

That also spins me around again to the question of defining who I am by what I do, a trap most of us fall into. We mistake what we do for who we are, and not just in the area of our work. Those labels can define parts of us, but not the whole of who we are. I’m also a father, a son, a husband, a writer, a traveler, and a not-very-good occasional golfer. I am a Christian—and there is a label that has become very confusing and divisive lately. I’ve noticed that more and more Christians are becoming uncomfortable with that label—a lot of people are struggling to find a different word or words to use instead of “Christian.” A “Christ follower,” a “believer,” a “disciple of Jesus.” All good labels, but labels can mean different things to different people and they can change over time depending on what attributes we associate with the labels. To some, the word “entertainer” would imply that you work in Las Vegas. Lately, thanks to shifts in our culture, it seems the word “Christian” means you must hate something. We keep adding and modifying our labels to try to be more accurate in describing who we are, what we do, and what we believe. It is making our conversations clumsy.

I’m an actor… but
I’m a minister…but
I’m a Christian… but

The “but” negates what comes before it. Maybe it is time to practice a principle I learned in improvisational acting called “yes, and.” The point is you are not allowed to reject anything when building a scene through improvisation, but rather accept and build to the next thing.

Wouldn’t that make for interesting conversations?

I’m an actor, yes and…
I’m a minister, yes and…
I’m a Christian, yes and…

What would you put after the “and” in your labels?

2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Labels

  1. Ellen Jervis says:

    I’m a fan yes and … I wanted you to know. 🙂

    Reply

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