By Sharon Sherbondy
After its introduction at Willow Creek, and with a three decade run, drama sketches began waning, even at Willow.
Sometime during the spring of 1976 I was told about a new church — Willow Creek Community Church — that had recently started. I was so intrigued by what I heard about the church that I decided to check it out for myself.
Well, I knew from the moment I walked through the door that this was not my father’s church. Besides contemporary music and a young pastor who spoke directly into my heart, there was drama! They had a six-minute hilarious drama reflecting life as I was living it.
What an experience this was. By the time the service was over I was hooked and from that moment on, Willow Creek Community Church became my home church. And drama became my ministry for the next 25 years.
Nancy Beach was the one responsible for bringing this art to Willow Creek. She was a huge fan and proponent of drama, and she understood the impact it had on an audience. Through Nancy’s influence, drama became a weekly staple of the Sunday morning service. She invited Rick Wold to be the drama director. He was a gifted writer and director who had an incredible ability to connect with an audience. So with Nancy’s support, Rick’s giftedness and some talented actors, drama in the church made its mark.
Skeptics on drama
There were, however, skeptics. People accused Willow Creek of being in the entertainment business. It took the doubters a while (and to experience it themselves) to understand that drama was about identifying with people right where they lived, showing them that here is a place that understands what they’re going through; here is God who wants to meet them right where they’re at. Granted, dramas could evoke great laughter or tears, but always its underlying goal was to connect with people’s hearts.
Drama was also strictly used to support the pastor’s message, getting people’s hearts in a place where he could step in and bring the truth of God. Drama never stood on its own, never provided the moral of the story. Its bottom line purpose was to show the conflict, ask the question and then hand the audience over to the pastor.
Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek and also a fan of drama, took actors with him, along with vocalists, wherever he spoke. He was not showing off the church.
On the contrary, Bill knew what drama did. He knew that drama had the potential of opening up the hearts of his audience so he could minister in a deeper way.
Having the privilege of being on many of these trips, I saw again and again people starting the service with their arms crossed but ending up completely open once the drama was done.
Not easy to do
In just a matter of time, people found themselves drawn to this art and began to desperately want to bring this compelling ministry to their church. But this was easier said than done. Colleges and seminaries didn’t prepare students for the role of drama director in the church like they did with music directors, pastors and counselors.
Creating a short script was a unique ability in and of itself. Very few understood how to write a beginning, middle and end, introduce and develop characters and conflict all within five to seven minutes and avoid wrapping up the conflict in a nice, neat bow, providing a happy ending. So Willow Creek incorporated drama workshops at their Arts Conferences to address these very needs.
People packed the room and took copious notes on everything taught by Steve Pederson, the drama director following previous directors, Rick Wold and Judson Poling. Workshops were offered on acting, directing and writing. Willow Creek scripts became available for purchase. People went home from these conferences pumped up and ready to act. It wasn’t long before drama took off, not only around the country, but also around the world.
Willow Creek was invited to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, France and England, to name a few countries. Workshops were held, scripts were being translated and soon dramas were being performed here, too, in their local churches.
Drama in the church became a worldwide phenomenon. Professional and amateur actors suddenly found a place to serve. Pastors following dramas, found their congregations ripe for the Word of God. And church attendees found a place that was willing to be honest about life. It was an amazing thing that lasted for three decades.
Decline in drama
But then things began to change. Drama began to wane.
Doing drama in the church was hard. Volunteer drama directors often felt inadequate. They loved the ministry but had little or no idea on how to execute drama.
They had no training and no time to be trained. They faced teams who lacked commitment, actors who were limited, and leadership or audiences who were resistant. The passion these volunteer directors started out with soon began to weaken until, pretty soon, they couldn’t do it anymore.
Willow Creek, the church that started it all, has removed drama from its church service. The thought is that the culture has changed and drama is no longer relevant. I’m not so sure. I’m not sure that television executives, movie producers and Broadway directors would agree.
In 2 Samuel 12 God sends Nathan to tell David a story — a drama — about a poor farmer, his favorite lamb, and a rich man stealing the lamb for dinner. David clearly identifies with the drama and responds immediately, his heart open wide. It’s then that Nathan steps out of the drama and speaks directly to David, bringing the truth of God directly into his heart. Drama opened up David’s heart and as a result healing began!
Drama was and will always be relevant. It will also be hard. But it is so needed in the church. There is truly nothing that opens peoples’ hearts and allows them to acknowledge truth like drama.
But for now, drama is on hiatus. My prayer, however, is that drama will return one day with renewed vision, commitment and recognition because it is a tool that God has used to reach his people and churches once used to reach their people. It changed lives. So let’s get back to it.
Sharon Sherbondy is director of Launch, kids’ ministry at Heartland Community Church in Rockford, IL. [ www.heartland.cc ] Drama is incorporated at Heartland throughout the curriculum, especially at Christmas and Easter.