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A Tale of Three Churches: Using Drama in Worship

This article is the fruit of my work with CITA (Christians in the Theatre Arts) and their grant project on Worship and Theatre funded by a Worship Renewal Grant through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The substance of the article is the result of workshops offered at the 2001 CITA annual meeting in Oakland, California, and the 2003 Calvin Symposium of Worship and the Arts, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thanks to all whose cumulative wisdom and insight contributed to this article. For information about CITA visit www.cita.org.

Information about Friends of the Groom and the opportunity to purchase the sketch “The Lord’s Prayer” and others suitable for use in worship are available at www.friendsofthegroom.org.

Questions

How can we add drama to our worship service? It seems like such a simple question. After all, many churches are doing it. Many of the largest and fastest growing churches integrate dramatic sketches or theatrical pieces into their worship. Willow Creek Community Church, one of the most often imitated, has a regular theatrical piece as part of its worship. Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, these vignettes are almost always integrated with the sermon as illustrations of the theme for that particular service. Why can’t every church just do something like that?

Probably because every church doesn’t fit the Willow Creek model of worship. Churches seldom ask, How must we change our worship to incorporate drama? They’re much more likely to wonder, How can we incorporate drama into our worship? Many factors go into answering this question: the configuration of the worship space, the resources of the local congregation, and more. Yet the more fundamental question is, What is the worship style of our church? In other words, How can we add a new liturgical element without disrupting the flow of worship within the service, not to mention the ongoing worship life of the congregation?

What follows is a short survey of three churches (representing three distinct worship traditions) integrating the same drama sketch into their worship.

For this exploration, we’ll use a piece written by Tom Long and Friends of the Groom called “The Lord’s Prayer.” Of all of the theatre pieces used in worship, this is one of the most familiar. It introduces the congregation to a woman (or man) who prays the Lord’s Prayer, only to have God interrupt her and enter into a dialogue with her about her prayer, faith, and life.

Meet the Churches

Each of the three fictitious congregations introduced here represents an important liturgical tradition in North America. Obviously each is a stereotype. And though no real congregation fits exactly into any category—nor are these three categories exhaustive—they illustrate how different congregations could appropriate drama into their own worship tradition.

St. Bede the Venerable Church of the Sacred Liturgy

St. Bede’s worship falls along the lines of the classic four-fold pattern of worship that can be traced back to the earliest liturgies: Gather, Word, Table, Dismiss (for more about the history and theology of this style, see Robert Webber, Worship Old and New, Zondervan, 1994). Though St. Bede’s makes every attempt to balance the two main parts of the service—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Lord’s table—most of the parishioners would see the latter as the more important of the two. The new pastor of St. Bede’s is concerned about the lack of understanding of the Christian faith of many new members and visitors to the parish, not to mention the lack of attention by many of the younger people. The assigned gospel reading for an upcoming Sunday is Luke 11:1-13, which includes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer as well as parables on prayer. Using the Lord’s Prayer sketch would be a wonderful teaching opportunity and could be integrated without breaking the flow of the service, he thinks. Nor would it distract from the worshipful attitude that marks St. Bede’s services.

That Sunday, the service began as usual. After the prayers for the day, the assigned lessons were read in the liturgy of the Word, including a responsive reading of the appointed psalm. Before and after the reading of the gospel, for which the people stood, traditional acclamations were sung. Then the people were seated. Normally a short, seven- to twelve-minute homily would follow. Instead the congregation’s attention was drawn to a young woman seated in a chair facing the congregation. She began, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” A deep voice came over the PA system, “Yes . . .?” So began the scene. After it ended, the woman left, taking the chair with her, and the pastor stood before the pulpit to preach his homily. He used the scene as touchstone for asking questions about the congregation’s prayer life and their level of awareness when using liturgical prayer such as “Our Father.” Then he invited all those gathered to pay careful attention to the Lord’s Prayer that day as they recited it later in the liturgy of the Table.

Fanny Crosby Memorial Revival Tabernacle

Fanny Crosby’s worship style comes out of what liturgical historian James F. White calls “frontier worship” (Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989). It has its origins in the revivals in North America; its focus is the transformation of people’s lives through the preaching of the Word. A typical service consists of preliminaries, preaching, and response. The preliminaries often include the singing of hymns and choruses as well as music performed by the choir or musical groups, and at times personal testimonies. The sermon, often thirty minutes or longer, is the centerpiece of the service. The pastor reads a passage of Scripture, offers a brief prayer, then exposits the text at great length, using numerous illustrations and applications. After the sermon, the pastor prays for the Word of God to touch the lives of the people. The congregation responds with affirmations of faith or by offering their lives to Christ, or both.

The pastor wished to include the Lord’s Prayer as a sermon topic in a series he was preaching on prayer. He decided to use this sketch as a sermon illustration. At first he intended to simply describe the scene; then he thought he would read the entire sketch. In the end he decided to invite one of the choir members seated in the choir loft behind him to stand and begin praying the Lord’s Prayer at the appointed time within the sermon. A booming voice interrupted through the sound system, and the scene was underway. The pastor sat during the scene and resumed his place in the pulpit after it had finished. He concluded the service by inviting the congregation to pray the Lord’s Prayer while thinking through what they were praying. Then he invited those who wished to claim Jesus Christ as their Lord to come forward and to live the life of a disciple as defined by the Lord’s Prayer.

Seekers’R’Us Bible Fellowship

This church follows the worship patterned developed by Willow Creek Community Church in the late 1970s as it arose out of the relational youth ministry model of Young Life and Youth for Christ. Although similar to frontier worship in its appeal to the unchurched, its ritual pattern is distinct in many important ways. The service begins with contemporary Christian music performed by a praise team on a stage. The music is fairly loud and upbeat and segues into a theatrical scene. Careful attention is paid to costuming, props, and scenery. This segment of the service is often lighthearted; the actors take liberties to engage the audience and play for laughs. The scene is followed by more contemporary Christian music, this time a bit softer and slower, setting the tone for a talk by one of the pastors addressing the needs of a typical middle-class family—marriage and career issues or self-improvement, for example. These are not biblical sermons but rather talks that often include biblical themes. A brief prayer follows the talk. The immediate goal of this service is not to invite people to accept Jesus Christ (although that is the ultimate goal). Instead, it’s to invite visiting seekers to a small group Bible study where the gospel can be communicated more personally.

Including the Lord’s Prayer sketch into the worship of Seekers’R’Us was not as easy as it seemed. Although they regularly include drama sketches in their worship, this particular sketch was problematic because the pastoral team could not assume the average visitor would know the Lord’s Prayer. First they discussed writing a different beginning to the scene that would have the young woman being taught the Lord’s Prayer, and then transition into her prayer itself. Instead they decided to begin by introducing the Lord’s Prayer and its place in the Christian tradition. After the opening sequence of upbeat music, one of the pastors introduced the scene, which was followed by the slower musical transition to the talk. Another pastor then described his own prayer life and its joys and struggles. He referred to the sketch and briefly mentioned the Lord’s Prayer, but for the most part focused on the nature of prayer as communication with God. He closed with a prayer asking that people might be surprised by God interrupting their lives and gaining their attention, and invited the congregation to participate in a new small group exploring prayer.

Back to the Question

What we learned about including drama in worship really is part of the larger question, How do we include [fill in the blank] in our worship? The fixed part of the equation is a congregation’s pattern of worship. The variable is how to include drama, music, visual arts, or any new element in ways that maintain the integrity of the congregation’s worship and its tradition. In each case the congregation incorporated the exact same sketch into the worship service according to its own specific liturgical tradition. Our worship of God, regardless of its style or tradition, has its own internal logic and history.

Using drama in worship can be a difficult task because by nature it draws attention to itself. Prayer and careful preparation are essential. But if we begin by asking ourselves how to introduce drama in a way that allows people to focus their attention on God, and not on the drama, we can make space for a powerful and effective proclamation of the gospel while still honoring our church’s particular liturgical tradition.

Our worship of God, regardless of its style or tradition, has its own internal logic and history.