The Unfolding Drama: Our Worship Has Always Included Dramatic Elements

Picture the following scenario, a drama most of us have witnessed many times:

The elders move to the front in smooth, orderly motion while worshipful music plays quietly in the background.

The pastor climbs down from the podium, signaling a change in scene and mood. He moves behind a table, ceremoniously covered with crafted utensils filled with bread and wine.

The pastor opens the Bible—a strong symbolic action. He reads to the congregation.

Together the congregation prays.

Elders take their places before the beautiful table with its symbolic props.

The pastor takes a loaf of bread from the table. He holds it up, breaks it, prays, and hands the broken bread to the elders to pass among the people.

Next the pastor picks up a pitcher of wine or juice, pours some of the rich, red fluid into a cup, lifts the cup high above his head, and speaks. He explains that our imminent act of drinking is a nonverbal profession that we are participants in Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. He leads the congregation in prayer— solemn dialogue with God—and then he hands trays of tiny, tinkling glasses to the elders, who distribute them to the people.

Finally, after all the participants are served, the members, as one body, place the bread in their mouths and eat it, bring the wine to their lips and drink it, and then stand to sing—praising God for nourishing their bodies and souls.

Dramatic? Certainly. The visual action of the Lord's Supper is like a breathtaking ballet, carefully choreographed and methodically rehearsed during performance after performance throughout the history of the Christian church. The fact that the symbolic action is choreographed and is performed regularly does not diminish its value as worship; rather, the planned orderliness of action and the regularity of performance enhance the catholicity of this worshipful activity.

Those who question whether drama is appropriate in worship have apparently never taken a careful look at the way we celebrate the Lord's Supper and at the many other vocal and physical ways in which drama is part of our worship. Whether we should use drama in worship is not an issue. The question is how we should use it. And the answer lies in the vocal and physical actions of both minister and congregation.

Vocal Drama

We all have been moved, at one time or another, by the dramatic voice of a speaker—by the way he or she articulates sounds, uses pauses, inflections, and rhythms. A well-told story can sway an audience from sorrow to joy, from fear to faith. A well-read passage from Scripture can breathe new life into the Scripture for those who listen (See pp. 11-13).

Can you imagine a pastor opening a service with a monotone, expressionless invocation? By doing so the pastor might well close off the dialogue between God and his people before it has begun. The way in which the pastor uses vocal drama helps draw the congregation into worship.

The pastor begins the dialogue of worship by speaking for the people in a statement that confesses their need:

Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

Usually an accomplished speaker, the pastor uses vocal action (pause, inflection, rhythm, etc.) to color and shape these words of confession. The pastor may want to accent the words "our" and "Lord" to help the congregation recognize that they need help, and that help can only be found in the name of the Lord. Also, by using a slight rise in inflection on the words "help" and "Lord" the pastor accents these two key words, focuses the congregation's attention on them, and thereby helps the people to confess their need and to profess that their only source of help is the Lord.

The reading of Scripture is another part of the worship dialogue in which vocal action may enhance the communication between God and his people. The reading of Scripture represents the voice of God. The people hear his voice and his will in poetry, narration, history, and letters. And they respond appropriately.

For example, the opening sentence of Psalm 23 reads, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." To communicate the meaning of this passage the pastor might emphasize the words "Lord," "my," and "I." This vocal action suggests that David commends God for his shepherding care and willingly submits to that care. It also suggests that David chooses the shepherd metaphor because he knows that God loves him, understands him, and is committed to care for him.

Physical Drama

Vocal action is even more effective when combined with physical action.

For example, the pastor uses more than voice inflection to deliver the benediction. The raised hands with palms facing down toward the people say, "God loves you and cares for you, and God's Spirit will be with you throughout this week and the weeks to come."

Physical action (or sometimes physical presence) is also used along with vocal action to define other symbols in our worship. For example, the large pulpit Bible in the center of the podium makes a powerful statement to anyone sitting in the pews; the size and placement of the volume say very clearly that God's Word should be the center of our attention.

To use Calvin's metaphor, the Scriptures are the "spectacles" we need in order to see who we are, who God is, and how we must live before him. When a worship leader approaches the pulpit Bible, reaches out to turn the pages, and begins to read the text, that person's physical actions take on tremendous symbolic meaning, telling the people: "Sit up and listen—the Lord is speaking."

Even stronger than such physical actions as opening the pulpit Bible or extending hands during the benediction is the dynamic, carefully choreographed action of the sacraments. We looked at the Lord's Supper in detail earlier, but baptism is also filled with symbolic action. The sacrament of infant baptism begins with the parent or parents being ushered to the front of the sanctuary, carrying a tiny child. Later the parents stand, carry their baby to the baptismal font, listen, reply, hold up the child to receive the water, hear the congregation pledge to help nurture the child… Each bit of action is bursting with meaning.

A Script for Worship

Vocal and physical actions, then, add drama to our worship. Such actions have always been a part of Protestant worship—a part of the dramatic script we follow in order to involve all worshipers in a dialogue with their God.

That's right. In some ways our worship services flow much like a play does. Like the exposition in the beginning of a conventional play script, the opening of the service distinguishes the participants (God and his people), introduces the conflict (the people have sinned), and suggests a course for resolving that conflict (the people must repent, must be forgiven, and must reaffirm their desire to live in obedience before their Creator).

The parts of the liturgy, by their very order, function like parts of a dramatic script. One element naturally leads to the next. As soon as the people come into God's presence they offer praise and confession; God responds with assurance of pardon; and so the dialogue continues throughout the service.

Through worship drama, both of hand and voice, we get a clearer sense of God's presence and of who we are as the children of his family.

Verne Meyer teaches speech and drama at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.