What happened to drama in churches?

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.


19 Responses to “What happened to drama in churches?”

  1. I’m a bit late to this one here.

    IMO when Willow Creek started in 1975 it’s primary audience were Baby Boomers and Busters. The emphasis of the service was more on production than participation. Now that we are in the 2020s the emphasis is on reaching younger generations who want more participation than performance.

  2. Still feeling this in 2022. Most of Christendom became obsessed with nothing else other than Worship at some point, as if this was the only legitimate form of expression for a Christian. Even dance is limited to women waving flags, with no other thought given to how one might express the message contained in a given song. Likewise, Slice-Of-Life Drama as pioneered by Willow, has been relegated to people dressed in striped sheets attempting to portray a scene from Zero A.D., in a time and place none of us can relate to or even hope to understand culturally. God is a creative God. Take risks and think outside the box!

  3. I have been performing God’s Megaphone: A visit with CS Lewis, at churches throughout the Texas / Louisiana area for the past several years, and I can assure you that congregants are eagerly awaiting more theatrical presentations in the church, as they have since the first religious theatricals a thousand years ago. The challenge has been, I think, in the amateurish quality of most of these “skits”. What we need are opportunities to train directors and performers so that these performances are of a quality that can truly move audiences and get them to think.

  4. Came across your article while trying to get materials to serve as opening for the capacity building workshop I am planning for our church drama dept, the Heritage of Grace HOG. Your article and some of the responses served to confirm some of the challenges I face as the dept head and opened my eyes to opportunities for us to be better at what we are called to do. One key challenge we have is that of scripts or developing them. I don’t know if we can get some help in this direction. Good to know that the challenges we face ie scripts, enthusiastic but amateur volunteers, demanding commitments out there, church leadership believing drama eats into preaching time. Reading through the responses offered some counselling. Thanks.

  5. I’m quit a bit late to this but some larger churches have implemented “video skits” to their service rather than have a live drama presentation. Here mistakes can be avoided and edits can be made.

  6. In the 1990’s I was involved with drama as a director, actor and as a writer. I wrote about 45 original scripts and edited many Willow Creek drama scripts that we had purchased to fit our particular service. During that time many people confirmed my writing skills and God was using the drama ministry. In saying this I am not patting myself on the back but after realizing God had given me a talent for that, now there is virtually no place to use it. Maybe God gives talents for a season. Just haven’t come to a conclusion of this.

  7. Linda Parenti

    I have been a member of willow for 25 years and was so disappointed when the dramas stopped. It definitely opened my heart and Prepared me for the message. Sometimes this happened in a funny way and sometimes serious. I think we should bring drama back I miss the creativity of the dramas many times they would make me smile and relax me into the sermon so I could absorb more and feel more. I believe it is a package deal and would be so thrilled to see the team back every week. Loved and totally agreed with your very well written article Sharon. God bless

  8. Thank you Sharon! You have such great insight and influenced so many in this field. I so appreciate having a place for artists to shine in the church. We grew our church in a small town from 60 people to over 1,200 today. I think we also had to take a break for a while but I believe it will definitely be restored…..we need voices and hearts such as yours!

  9. Life is dramatic! God is dramatic and creative! That doesn’t mean there has to be a skit at each worship service.

    Our church uses skits, plays, readers theater, musicals, dance, videos, and art as needed. I used to go to the Lillenas Drama Conferences which were excellent, and I would come home feeling relieved that we didn’t have to do a skit a week. >whew< ! People who came from churches that did seemed so stressed.

    I think that the individual churches should seek God for His calling and fulfill it, using all the gifts in each local Body. Drama well done is extremely powerful. Poorly done – extremely annoying. Kudos to Willow Creek for being able to let something go. It could have been a sacred cow.

    Anyone over 20 (me, by a long shot!), has to realize that the upcoming generation are digital natives. There is a lot of story telling being done in new ways. Still needed – excellence in writing and production.

    Enjoyed the discussion!

  10. Deanne

    As the co-author of two splendid church dramas which have both been successfully produced with delighted audiences, it’s been a huge disappointment to me that we can’t seem to get other churches interested in letting us come in and produce them.

  11. Hugh Poland

    On a related note, can anybody tell me what has happened to the Willowcreek Arts Conference? We took teams to it several years in a row, but I haven’t seen ads for it in several years.

  12. Max, as a Christian involved in our drama ministry and a professional dramatist and instructor of British literature, I strongly disagree with you. There has been a resurgence of interest in live theater in the Church and out, more people going to see live theater and more people, especially young people, wanting to participate as actors, directors and writers. And what do you mean by “real” theater? English language drama began in the church (Miracle plays). Do you think drama is not real, not inspired if it’s performed in a church? Members of our drama team study their craft just like any other actor, director or writer–some of our members are professionals. We offer our talent to the Lord like any other lay ministers. When the talent is a loving offering to the Lord, shouldn’t it be accepted and treated with respect? There will always be a place for drama in the church, maybe not every Sunday or any Sunday and maybe not in the same way it’s been done before, but as long as there are Christians who love the theater, their talents should be embraced by the Church. To shut us out is downright cruel.

  13. Max Lavi

    Wow, let’s see if I get moderated.
    Again, this is the problem. Church drama, sorry– I mean, “theme-driven message support sketches” has a predetermined rubric of right, wrong, appropriate, inappropriate Godly, unGodly. It bends the truth from the opening line or image. I think the culture has grown up and is more adult and can get spiritual feeding from many more vibrant, real and less anemic sources.

  14. Max Lavi

    The culture has changed with the advent of new media. A kid with an iPad is able to make better stuff then what was ever staged at Willow Creek. Most “Christian” drama sucked. It was silly, point-driven, completely an artifice to prop up the pastor’s “message.” Theatre needs reality and a sense of its own life. All this stuff about “Godly imagination” and “God-annointed theatre” is a lot of crap. It bends and twists true experience to an external top-down pre-ordained experience. Ugh. Good riddance. Let people watch real theatre and find God in that.

  15. Thankfully, drama is alive and well at my church. It’s not irrelevant at all. In fact, God’s using it to change lives! I’ll be the first to say it’s not easy. As drama director, I have had to deal with the lack of resources, noncommitment, untrained volunteers, and even drama. Yes, “drama” on the drama team. And at times I’ve wanted to quit. But it’s always worth it when I see what God does with our humble offering.

  16. Lin Sexton

    Drama is a language, not a tool. Languages change and evolve but rarely die (unless you want to speak Latin). Tools, however, become extinct when better tools are invented. Because churches used drama as a tool or even a vitamin for church growth, it has come to this. With apologies to Willow Creek, for most churches drama has been a gimmick to get people in the seats, when with more attention and clarity it should and could have been the greatest sermon of all. When it is optional, it is trivial.

  17. What a great article! Drama is so necessary. And yet we as a corporate congregation don’t realize it often. Pastors think it competes with their sermons, singing worship pastors know it means giving up a song, there’s that eternal question “what to do with THESE people?”. I’m 29, and my generation is in grave danger of losing a generation of artists. A generation. Because there’s no place for us in the Church. We’re not welcomed or esteemed. We’re sent away or told to study at a seminary, THEN we’d be useful to the Kingdom of God. Broadway, Hollywood, all major networks know the value of story. They know how it influences far more than words. It’s a calling and declaration of a culture. Without drama in the church, we’re an isolated bunch without a voice to comment not only on our church culture, but our purpose in the world as a whole. Willow Creek did a fantastic, noble thing and I’ve been an actor using their scripts, BUT it’s got to be more than a gimmick to fill seats, which is often the perception of skits or sketches. It’s a celebration of the gifts God has endowed each of us with. that’s why my best friend and I started a drama ministry. To hopefully seek out those artists in the church and out of the church who don’t know the grave and audacious calling on their lives. The calling of an artist. The calling of a teacher and leader. The calling of being the voice of our culture. We need this.

  18. (STANDING OVATION) Sharon, well said. As one who makes his living doing drama as ministry I have to say you nailed it! Excellent article. I have posted about this very thing on my own blog and so appreciate you articulating the story so very well! Let those who have ears to hear, HEAR!

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