Willow Creek Is Great But…

I hear it all the time.  The question comes up at conferences, workshops and casual conversations at churches I visit around the country.  “We want to do drama in worship just like they do at Willow Creek, but…”

For those who don’t know, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL, is a model for hundreds of churches around the country that are a part of The Willow Creek Association.  One of the distinctives of this model is the use of drama to introduce or set up the sermon. It is an excellent way to incorporate drama into the life of the church.  However, for the model to work it requires PLANNING well in advance. Themes need to be worked out and lots of communication is required to make sure the drama and the sermon can work cohesively together. If those elements are there and the right team spirit is in place then it is a powerful way to impact the congregation.

But what do you do if you don’t have that chemistry in place? I want to offer a couple of suggestions and one alternative approach to the use of drama in the context of worship.

1)       Creative Team

The Willow Creek model depends on a team approach to worship design.  Most churches have a pastor and a worship leader who plan the worship service.  The pastor plans the sermon and the worship leader plans everything else. They may communicate some basic information but usually do their work independently of each other.  To make the Willow Creek model successful a team approach is usually incorporated.  This team would include the pastor, the worship leader, the media specialist, the drama director and usually a person designated as the programmer who actually chairs this meeting.  Services are designed and planned as a team, with each person contributing in their area of expertise.  The primary goal of the meeting is clear communication so that all the elements can work together in the strongest way possible. It takes time and planning but the results can be well worth it.

2)       The Sermon Questionnaire

Clearly the biggest obstacle I have encountered in making thematic drama work in the worship service is the lack of communication between the pastor and the drama director.  The pastor is often intimidated by the need for advance information about the sermon­—which is needed weeks ahead of time, before the sermon has been created. What needs to be understood is that the sermon does not have to be written in order to give the drama department the tools to do their job.  I have found that a simple four-question form can often work to get the job done.  This is especially effective if the sermon will be in a series that is several weeks long.

1. Title of the Sermon?

2. Key Verse?

3. A question that will be answered in the sermon?

4. Main Points? (aka the classic three point sermon)

Most of that should be fairly easy to provide.  Number 3 is the most important—in fact the job could probably be done with number 3 alone.  Once you realize that the job of the drama is not to do the same thing as the sermon, but simple to raise an issue that the sermon will address, the job is not as overwhelming as many perceive it to be.

3)       Alternative Approach

If the drama tied to the sermon still doesn’t work in your church situation, don’t give up.  There are other ways to use drama in worship that don’t rely on the Willow Creek model.  Consider doing dramas that are not sermon-dependent.  There are plenty of dramas that can be done in worship that don’t need to complement the sermon and can still be effective. Consider dramatic scripture readings, hymn stories, and other readers’ theater presentations.

In addition, use sketches as:

Call to Worship

Call to Prayer

Offertory Prelude

Creative Announcements

Intro to Communion


Inserting a drama into the service between a couple of the songs can be a great addition to worship and these dramas can stand on their own—no sermon required.

You will find plenty of published dramas that can work in these situations.  We offer two collections specifically targeting this approach written by Steve Wilent and myself. Check out Short Scenes for Worship and Worship Center Stage, available in our online store!


Chuck Neighbors

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