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  Live actors have been replaced by media.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

9 thoughts on “The Pendulum Swings-Worship Trends

  1. Dania says:

    I direct a Theatre Arts ministry for a church here in Portland, OR. The group was restarted two years ago after having a hiatus of a few years. The group is small and we perform about once a month in the services. One of the most beneficial peices to our ministry has been the inclusion of me in the service planning, we set up the theme, work with the sermon and are able to plan dramas about a month ahead of time. The Worship and Creative arts ministry at our church is increadible supportive and encouraging to our ministry. There is also a church in Gresham (East Hill I think it is called) That has a large theatre arts ministry program.

    Story, and particularly live story and theatre is such a strong way to share what it means to be human.

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  2. Lori Borger says:

    Great article, Chuck! We fortunately haven’t experienced that waning yet, but I am blessed with a great team of dedicated actors and technicians and a dynamic preacher who loves this ministry and uses it a lot. We also have found drama very useful for opening up special events or meetings, so we look for ways to expand beyond just worship. (We also have a liturgical dance team and a Sunday School drama team.)

    To piggyback on your article, I believe one of the greatest reasons to use live actors when you can is that the people in the pews see someone who is a part of their faith community expressing thoughts they may identify with personally – and that’s more powerful when it’s live, I think.

    For example, if we do a drama about doubting God in times of great trial, there is something powerful about seeing a live human being in front of them confessing those doubts, as compared to a stranger on a screen, which distances us. A person in the pew who is having those same doubts feels “wow – if they’re saying that right out loud in a drama and not judging, maybe I’m not alone here.” The personalization of the fears, quirks and foibles that we ALL SHARE breaks down walls and helps people realize that churches are not full of perfect people – they’re full of regular people JUST LIKE YOU.

    It’s surprising the number of times that people forget that we’re acting, and approach actors personally about a particular problem they were portraying in a drama as if it was truly their story! Sometimes that’s not so good – 2 years after a drama, one of my actresses was still being approached by people believing that her husband had left her and wasn’t paying child support!! LOL! But the GOOD thing about that is, it gives us an opportunity to be in real dialogue with people about problems they may personally relate to… and we’ve become approachable because we’re not some image on a screen, but real flesh and blood who have been vulnerable with them.

    Keep up the great work Chuck! We enjoy you sharing your thoughts and amazing experiences!

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  3. Mimi says:

    As with anything, too much of the same-o, same-o creates lack of interest. With so much visual media bombarding our senses, and the incessant noise of video, music, games etc. in the background of many people’s lives, one more video could be quite ineffective. A large portion of American’s lives is spent “looking at a screen”.

    How can that ever compare with the intense eye contact, the intimate setting, the emotional “hands on” learning that takes place with drama? As a retired teacher, I was often frustrated with the opinions and fads of the masses. Sadly, even though I knew what worked well for teaching my second graders, and had results to prove it, because the pendulum kept swinging, we changed approaches with the new textbooks that followed fads. Our children suffered because of it.

    Once again, if the Master used drama to teach life-lessons, and we know that it is effective to relay the message, churches should take a closer look at incorporating drama into their services. Don’t let your congregations suffer because of the lack of this effective ministry.

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  4. Jeff Smith says:

    Chuck;

    A hearty AMEN. You and I have good reason to be following this trend closely and I think you captured the essence of what is going on in the natural. But, in the supernatural, we keep on ‘keeping on’ because of passages like Ephesians 2:10 and the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. “Do not grow weary of well-doing (church drama. For in a due season (sounds cyclical to me) you will reap a reward. (Galatians 6:9) We’ve got to continue to hold a light up to the world for the all through the arts for the all the reasons, you so eloquently captured in your article. Thanks.

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  5. Sharon says:

    Well articulated, Chuck! Thank you for the words of encouragement and hope to keep pushing on when there is so much out there that seems “slick and noisy”, as Bedford Bear would say. I love performing live theatre for church audiences, it is part of what God created me to do, and I rejoice at every opportunity I’m given to do it. Blessings to you!

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  6. Robbie says:

    Sadly, I believe you have accurately captured the current trend. For years, I was part of an excellent drama ministry that finally disbanded. The minister was supportive of creative arts, but didn’t plan far enough ahead to permit their effective use. While videos can be quite effective, the easy access to them just makes this lack of planning easier to get by with.

    Another concern of mine is that I think we often trade “content quality” for “production quality”. A good drama team could probably produce quality videos (in both respects), but it goes back to your argument about time and convenience.

    Still, I often use drama in children’s ministry and the kids love it. Who knows? Maybe one of them will grow up to be the next Chuck Neighbors.

    Anyway, thanks for your encouragement.

    P.S. As your blog suggested, I recently auditioned for a community theatre and got a part. Gotta do what you love!

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  7. Rose Grayson says:

    Yes, we are definitely experiencing a change in attitudes about drama in worship. Every point you made is so valid. Those of us who were so involved in the upswing that we saw in the late 80’s and 90’s- the full conferences about drama in worship, the publications, the performance opportunities, etc. – we’re seeking direction. Part of me says, “It’s my age, I don’t have the energy,” and drama does take energy. However Jeff Smith is so right-“Don’t grow weary in well doing.” As long as we continue seeking the Lord’s direction and guidance, we will find the way HE wants us to minister. God bless you Chuck!

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  8. Nancy Minsky says:

    Dear Chuck,

    I appreciate you and your wife and your ministry over the years. I remember at a drama conference that you were a blessing to me and you prayed for my husband Barry, a retired U.S. Army Chaplain, who currently is a pastor.

    Barry has had serious medical issues the last two years, and still does. However, Barry is a committed servant. He is a modern day apostle Paul. Barry had 6 years of Hebrew school, had a barmitzvah, and came to know the Lord at 19 through a campus missionary at Temple Un., Philadelphia. Barry’s parents disowned him when he became a Christian. Barry worked full time and earned 2 doctorates, 3 masters, and a bachelors degree. He got straight “A”s.

    Barry is a Bible expository preacher. He studies from the orignal Hebrew and Greek text. He teaches God’s Word 3 times a week at his pulpit and he makes 6 radio programs a week. Barry is a faithful dedicated servant of the Lord. You can hear Barry’s sermons at: //www.minskyministries.org/sermons

    Today in churches, people want entertainment. Many have provided that.

    We provide excellent Bible preaching and life application, good music, and excellent drama ministry. I am producing my 55th play this Thanksgiving. It is called “God’s Great Iron Screw”. The play is about the godly pilgrims who in faith crossed the Atlantic in a small boat, lost half of their people, and established a free land at Plymouth where people could freely worship God. The Lord provided an Indian guide Squanto who immediately became the pilgrims friend and taught the women how to plant and sow and taught the men how to hunt and use skins for warm covers and the meat for food. On his deathbed, Squanto prayed that he could go to the Englishman’s Heaven. What a story! Please pray for me and my cast as we rehearse and present it on Thanksgiving weekend.

    God bless you, as you serve our king,

    Nancy Minsky

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