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The Gospel's the Thing: Don't turn your worship over to a good actor

"Hey you guys, let's put on a play!"

"Great idea, Lucy! My dad has some old boards laying around for a set. I'll get them"

"Mom threw out some curtains the other day. We can make costumes!"

"Fantastic. Who can get some paint?"

"Abby, you do publicity. Barney, see if Mom mill give you some of her lipstick.

"Can I be the bad guy? "

"I'll be the director. Listen up everybody. We'll have auditions after lunch."

If you've ever watched the Little Rascals, that dialogue probably sounds familiar. Lucy, Barney, and the gang were forever planning something dramatic. And as they planned and imagined, most of us knew just what they were talking about. We could understand the appeal of dressing up and putting on a show in the backyard—because many of us had done the same thing.

We may not put on backyard shows now that we're adults, but most of us can still relate to Lucy's suggestion. That's because as we mature, we don't lose our desire to perform or to watch others perform. Even today we happily give in to the call to build a production, rush around in a fever until all is ready, and then, with hearts racing, step out in front of the crowd. From impromptu extravaganzas in the living room or on the school stage, all the way to the multimillion dollar productions of "Miss Saigon" or "Phantom of the Opera," we love a play.

Way Off Broadway

Drama isn't a phenomenon restricted to the secular stage. Throughout the two thousand years of New Testament church history, enactments of the stories of our faith have been a frequent, if irregular, feature of the life and worship of the church.

Frequent, because the church has always recognized that redemption is itself the greatest drama and that its enactment accomplishes something other vehicles of worship cannot. Everyone knows the appeal of a story. And a play is the pinnacle of storytelling. It takes a story and "puts flesh on it." More than a tale and a voice, drama gives us characters and movement and action. It provides the church with a vivid and exciting way to present the good news—a way that is likely to succeed where mere words might fail.

But the church's relationship to drama has been highly irregular too. Church and show-business folk have not always gotten along. The conflict can be stated like this: Drama's role has always been to entertain and to provoke; the church's role has always been to present the gospel. Can the church and its dramatis personae work together for the kingdom of God?

The church has often invited actors into its worship spaces. For example, during the third and fourth centuries the church used drama to try to communicate to the great barbarian hordes. In the Middle Ages, plays became "books" for the illiterate. Throughout the church's history, drama has enjoyed great success in bringing the Christian story to people.

But an alarming thing has regularly happened too. Church leaders, at first enthusiastic about drama, gradually start to view it as a threat to the gospel—perhaps because they see the great delight it brings to worshipers. And each time the old question resurfaces: "Is it entertainment, or is it worship?"

As the plays grow more and more elaborate and as the actors grow more and more innovative and bold in their treatment of the biblical account, the church perceives "show business" rearing its self-indulgent head. In an effort to correct something that they consider out of control, the church drives the plays out into the street.

A Troublesome Pattern

This cycle has occurred so frequently that it has become something of a pattern—one we need to understand if we are to use drama today in church worship.

The reasons for this "Hey, lets do a play!"/"Well, that will be enough of that!" pattern are complicated, but it is accurate to say that now, as then, dramatists are artists who take art and art's task in society very seriously. At first they are grateful to the church for the invitation to present their work. But they soon tire of being used as a vehicle for some ulterior purpose, even for so lofty a purpose as presenting the gospel.

Drama, like all art, has its own God-given reason for being: in drama's case, provocative entertainment. Dramatists are not eager to have their art form, with a legitimacy all its own, perpetually relegated to the status of teaching tool.

It's not that actors and show folk are bad people; neither are they insensitive to worship issues or to the plight of those who need to hear the gospel. They simply are dramatists, to whom "the play's the thing." And that's the seat of the trouble.

For the dramatist, the love of laughter, the inherent desire to provoke, and delight in playing "the heavy" all too soon run at cross-purposes with the goals and priorities of the church. The attitude that "the play's the thing" eclipses the church's primary message: "the gospel's the thing." In the plays of the medieval church, for example, Herod and Pontius Pilate became the most coveted roles. They were the buffoons who wore outrageous costumes and always got the big laughs. These plays became farcical and earthy and the church soon judged them counterproductive to worship. Church leaders said, "This isn't what we had in mind," and sent the actors back to their theaters— places better suited for theatrical fare.

It was an all too predictable pattern. (1) The church had a need to communicate the gospel to biblically illiterate people; (2) the church saw the tremendous power of plays to tell the story; (3) the actors came and played to great success; (4) the church grew uncomfortable as the plays grew more provocative and entertaining; and (5) the church sent the actors and their plays away.

The Gospel's the Thing

Communicating the gospel is the primary goal of the church. What does that goal mean for us today? Does it mean that plays would best be left permanently outside of the church? Not at all. What it does mean is that here (as in all other areas in which sinful human beings attempt to lead God's people in worship) we need to be alert to the hazards and be reminded that "the gospel's the thing." We can take a hint from President Clinton and put a plaque on our wall saying, "It's the Gospel, Stupid."

Think of it in terms of other church leaders: The preacher—deeply in love with the finer intricacies of systematic theology—needs to be thwarted from engaging in self-indulgent and obscure exercises he would like to call sermons. The highly trained church musician also needs to understand that the music of the church is intended to serve the church rather than to be a format for a display of technical prowess or impeccable taste. So, too, the church dramatist needs to be reminded continually that the reason for including plays in church worship is to spread the gospel and to edify God's people. Only when drama sees itself as a handmaiden to the gospel can it make a positive contribution to the worship of the church.

We Need Plays

Surely we need plays in our contemporary situation. One of the realities of our postmodern age is that we again are encountering a biblically illiterate society. We are also increasingly becoming a visually oriented society whose information must be reduced to stimulating and manageable bytes. Plays can help. Drama has the wonderful ability to communicate the great story of redemption in ways that preaching and music cannot duplicate.

One of the most compelling reasons for including drama in worship is the presence of young people. Although we who theorize about worship blanch at the idea, it goes without saying that there is an "entertainment" dimension to worship. Whether it be, "Pastor, I enjoyed that," or "My, the choir was in fine voice this morning," there is an element of show business in what we do on Sunday mornings. That element is especially effective in serving gospel proclamation to young people.

When our church does a youth service, one of the mandatory elements is a drama. And for good reason. Drama is an area that young people delight in because, with remarkable ease, drama can make abstract concepts important to them. We are always surprised when cosmic universals suddenly arrive in the room in recognizable clothes. Preachers would do well to note the ability drama has to work an incarnation.

What Drama Does Best

In our church we use dramas in a variety of ways. Our worship planning committee will frequently look at a Scripture reading with an eye on possible ways it might be enhanced by different voices. Many times a passage of Scripture that includes more than one speaker or more than one point of view can be scripted into a dialogue. The variety of voices can really help the listener understand.

Variety of place can aid too. Church buildings—old ones especially—provide a wonderful variety of platforms, steps, and entrances. Voices from high up or down low or off to the side carry a certain kind of impact all their own. If you have the luxury of wireless microphones, the possibilities can really multiply.

At our church, we use drama most often for sermon illustration. This is a genre that Willow Creek Community Church of Barrington, Illinois, has made popular. A little play or skit performed as a sermon set-up serves the preaching and hearing of God's Word. It can present a real-life human dilemma in an immediate way that a preacher in the course of a typical sermon cannot.

One of the reasons that drama has often gotten in trouble with the church is that drama does a much better job of asking questions than answering them. Churches have often wanted to use drama to proclaim the gospel and provide the answers to life's questions. But that is something drama is ill-equipped to do.

Dramatists say that drama is a "negative teacher," which means that what it does best is present how not to be or do or act. Drama makes a very poor preacher. Rarely is it successful when it tries to present model citizens going about their task of being righteous. It is much better suited to probing our needs and airing out our hurts. Thus it is well suited to introducing situations to which the gospel can then be applied.

Ask Hard Questions

Yes, the church and its dramatists can combine efforts if the dramatists don't mind being used.

But the church needs to learn from history. In our zeal to be more effective in reaching people for Christ, we ought to avoid rushing mindlessly in and later regretting the whole affair. Here are some questions worship leaders, planners, and dramatists would do well to ask themselves before including specific pieces of dramatic art in church worship:

  • What contribution will this piece make to furthering the kingdom of God? That is, "How will this serve!" The answer needs to be more than simply, "Our people will like it."
  • (If an enactment of a biblical story or a dramatic reading of the Bible is considered): Will this presentation enhance the Scripture or will it draw attention to the presentation of the Scripture? "It's the Gospel, Stupid."
  • Is the presentation "fitting" in the context of historic Christian worship? There are certain prescribed and important givens about our worship times and places. Call them traditions if you want. Our plays should fit within the realm of what our community of faith deems appropriate to worship. Yanking people out of their comfort zones is better left to preaching. Cream pies in the face work better in the Vacation Bible School tent.
  • Do you find yourself asking, "How much can we get away with?" That question, frequently asked, is a sure sign that you have forgotten why drama is included in our worship.

Drama is a great tool that can mightily profit the church if used wisely. Perhaps we can say to drama as Mordecai said to Esther, "Who knows but that you have come into the kingdom for such a time as this?"

 

Excerpt

Worship is different for older people than for young people. Young people are looking for smiles on their faces, but the older people are looking for security. We have different worship mindsets or something.
—Michael Den Haan (Guelph, ON)