Theater ministries offer authentic storytelling to enhance services and inspire congregants.
When it comes to Christian-themed drama, the church has moved a long way from 1970s flannelgraphs and campy skits with cardboard scenery, or have we?
Most church-goers see the dramatic arts in the form of short sketches or videos used to illustrate a sermon point or as a bridge between segments of a worship service. Larger churches have become known for highly-produced pageants at Christmas and Easter. And more churches are using Hollywood film clips to inspire and capture attention.
Live drama, played out by earnest and talented volunteer parishioners has been a growing phenomenon for decades. At the core of this renaissance of dramatic arts are Christian artists who have longed for a place to put their gifts to work and now have an outlet for expression.
The role of drama
Still, it can be argued that the role of drama in most churches of any size is still far too limited. Let’s deconstruct a few myths that might be standing in the way of quality dramatic arts at your church.
Myth #1: People get music, they don’t get drama.
Music seems so much more accessible than drama. Years ago little Sally wasn’t marched down the street for acting lessons, she had piano lessons. Music seems ubiquitous. But are we really so removed from drama?
A quick informal survey of local prime time network television offers viewers 39 hours per week of drama and comedy (plus seven hours a week of daytime drama). People spend about $176 million at the cinema over a typical weekend and last year, an average of 231,000 theater-goers spent $18 million a week on Broadway shows. People love stories and they love to see them enacted, live on stage or in your church.
Myth #2: Drama is too hard to do well.
The choir and worship team gather weekly to work through three or four songs of three to four minutes each. But is there a cast of actors practicing its roles and memorizing lines for nine to 16 minutes of weekly drama?
Of course, musicians also spend time at home in private practice and some continue to take lessons. The same principles work for your pew-sitting theatre artist. There is no mystery to quality presentation of any kind; it takes prayer and practice.
Myth #3: Videos are the most practical way to bring drama into the service.
Video sketches, commercials and on-screen vignettes in the worship service are not the enemy of live drama. Rather, the onscreen presentation is the newer cousin of the stage arts.
The authenticity of live acting
The luxury of the editing station almost ensures that the timing will be crisp, the sound will be perfect and actors won’t make any mistakes. But there’s more to the Sunday morning presentation than polish. The emerging value to today’s churchgoer is authenticity and live acting is authentic.
In 2001, Christianity and Theatre, the scholarly journal of Christians in theater arts, tackled the issue of videos versus live theater. Theater is alive, it creates community and it is incarnation.
Younger generations of believers who live in an image-saturated culture are the first to notice if a church is devoid of a strong artistic presence. “The very parched nature of evangelical visual culture is making people who have grown up in this culture thirsty for beauty,” says Andy Crouch, director of Christianity Today’s Christian Vision Project.
A creative form of Amen
Adding the voices of several actors to your biblical text affirms the story to the congregation through several witnesses, in addition to the preacher in the pulpit. Think of a dramatic presentation within the Sunday service as a creative form of Amen. If the notion of drama on Sunday morning has worked its way onto your radar, here are three specific next steps to bring that notion to reality.
1. Commit to a long-term plan to include more drama in your Sunday presentation and call for actors and writers. It’s likely that they are already in your pews and perhaps a bit frustrated by sitting on their gifts. The news that you are building a drama team and taking your time to do it right will ripple through your community in a positive way.
2. Access workshops, articles and training to develop the talent in your church. Early this summer at a networking conference of Christian dramatic artists in Los Angeles, a three-day track on missions and theater featured leaders who regularly produce theater in their churches and travel cross-culturally with theater as their medium for spreading the Gospel. Another track on theater in worship paired church drama leaders with experienced mentors.
3. Keep a pastoral eye on your congregation’s creative members and help them dream. Also at the recent Los Angeles summit of Christian actors and producers, opera singer Marcia Whitehead and filmmaker Lauralee Farrer retold the story from the documentary “Laundry and Tosca.” How did Whitehead embark upon a professional singing career so late in life, and how was the film made? It was an inspirational journey for both these women. The audience of artists shared in their discovery that the heartfelt pursuit of a dream is as valuable as attaining the dream itself.
As the eternal message of the church confronts the scattered modern mind and wounded heart, church leaders can recapture the imaginations of those with spiritual hunger. The great narratives must be told anew and the teaching pastor on Sunday can, with the help of actors and writers, give congregations a new look at the world and their place in it. And with 4,000 years of stories for a foundation, there’s no shortage of material.
Dale Savidge is executive director of Christians in Theatre Arts (CITA), Greenville, SC. [cita.org]
Some winning combinations
Three success stories of ministries that help churches successfully incorporate dramatic arts into worship services and congregational life:
Friends of the Groom, Cincinnati, OH
Contact: Tom Long, 513-831-2859
Based at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrance Park, OH, Friends of the Groom started in 1982, presenting Christian-themed plays around the Cincinnati area. Today they perform 160-190 times a year, normally reaching 16-18 states and about 10-12 denominations.
From their website: “Our ‘Beyond Bathrobes’ workshops are designed to give people practical tools for using drama and storytelling activities in the church and in Christian education.”
Riley’s Diner — Online church drama, Springfield, IL
Contact: Michael Leathers
Playwright Michael Leathers writes church dramas exclusively through his Web site. After winning one category in CITA’s 2007 writing competition, he followed up to win both “drama” and “comedy” categories in 2008. His dialogue is particularly strong because he avoids the trap of having all the characters sound like him, which results in a “multi-voice sermon.” Actors also appreciate characters with their own individual personalities.
Doma Productions, Pittsburgh, PA
Contact: Harvey Johnson, 724-770-0997
Doma Productions, which takes its name from the Greek word for “gifts” in Ephesians 4:8, seeks to sponsor, support, train, develop and present artistic expression individually or in combination from the four art forms of music, theater, dance and graphics.
Doma Productions also helps pastors identify and mentor undeveloped artists in the congregation. “Just like the music director is an artist appointed to help minister to the people, there are others who are called to theatre arts and graphic arts,” says artistic director Harvey Johnson. “The pastor sets the direction and larger vision. Artists help express that vision in many ways.”