A Dramatic Addition to Worship

A Dramatic Addition to Worship
Steve Pederson

Drama helps satisfy the desire within all of us to be understood, even in our secret parts. The use of drama in worship services used to be relatively rare. When it was used, drama was usually limited to a children’s Christmas pageant or disciples in bathrobes and sandals appearing at the Easter sunrise service. That was then. This is now.

Today, dramatic presentations in Sunday morning worship services are becoming as common as praise choruses or keyboards. Crossing geographical and doctrinal boundaries, the use of drama has mushroomed in recent years. There’s no question that the media have helped create a taste for drama. People today are so bombarded with images and fast-paced appeal that we have to speak that language to be fully understood.

Drama is one of those “cultural cues” the church needs to read and take advantage of in reaching people. It has become an attractive option to those asking, “How can we do a better job in reaching people, both the churched and the unchurched, in a creative fashion, without compromising the gospel?” For too long the church has relied on talking heads and robed choirs to reach people. Given the changes that have taken place in our culture, those two strategies won’t work as well as they did in previous generations.

Worldly Entertainment?

Drama in church is not without its critics. Some say it’s “too worldly” to use in worship. But that criticism stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of drama itself. Art, at its core, is make-believe, though our job in drama is to make it seem as true to life as possible. We use the techniques of drama movement, positioning, and scripting to give it an air of reality.

People often ask how someone can take on the character of an unsavory individual without becoming like the person he or she is playing. They fear, for example, that if a woman plays the part of a prostitute, her own morals will become corrupted. They see it as tampering with sin and becoming “of the world.”

The performers, though, don’t actually believe they are the person they’re playing; they’re disconnected from their character. More often than not, they are just trying to remember their next line or whether they’re at the right spot on the stage to maximize lighting. So there is little danger of their assuming the character and personality of the person they are depicting.

Those watching the drama also understand what’s happening. They agree to engage in what art critics refer to as a “willing suspension of disbelief.” They consciously pretend it’s real.

Another concern is that by having a man and a woman play the role of husband and wife, we’re playing with fire. Perhaps there is a danger, but I’m careful about the people I choose to act opposite each other. I know their spouses, I know the strength of their marriages, and I try to be sensitive to the situations I place them in.

Yet another concern is that drama is more entertainment than worship, and entertainment is a bad word in many churches today. It has suffered from guilt by association: we tend to think of it as tawdry, cheap, or titillating. When drama becomes showy, calling attention only to itself, it is wrong.

But entertainment itself is not evil. Entertainment can move us powerfully and touch us deeply with truth. When it paves the way for the pastor to deal with a significant, deeply felt issue, entertainment can be a positive addition to the service. It can be used to create a response of adoration or thanksgiving or confession, as a hymn or song might do.

Satisfying Secret Desires

I was a professor at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, when Willow Creek contacted me to direct their drama ministry. Frankly, I was not all that excited. My initial reaction was, “No, I don’t think so.” The little drama I had observed in church settings I didn’t like.

Most churches tended to define drama too narrowly. Either they would limit it to retelling biblical stories and dressing all the characters in bathrobes, or worse yet, they would attempt to preach a sermon through it, wrapping up everything with tidy answers in an eight-minute sketch. The drama didn’t reflect reality as most people experienced it.

But after a closer look, I found the type of drama Willow Creek used to be appealing. Rather than trying to raise and answer all the questions through the sketch, they were content to raise the relevant issues, to show the tensions. Then the pastor addressed the issues in the sermon. So rather than using drama to solve the problem, Willow Creek wanted to expose the pain and get the audience to identify with the characters.

Drama creates identification by helping the audience see themselves in the characters. That’s why we use primarily contemporary drama based on real-life experiences. The characters talk, act, and look like normal people. The audience members then realize the characters are dealing with the same problems found regularly at home, at work, or in marriage.

In that sense, drama helps satisfy the desire within all of us to be understood, even the secret parts of who we are. Drama is people revealing their hidden parts, enabling us all to understand better the human condition. It creates a beginning place for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives.

Hidden Talent

Drama that works well begins with qualified leadership. At least one person with a working knowledge of the craft must be willing to lead the charge. The person doesn’t need a Ph.D. in theater, but he or she does need to be gifted in the area of drama.

If the person lacks training, the church could invest in sending a promising person to a local college to take courses in directing and acting. I’ve seen too many church productions where some basic elements of good directing were absent. Bad drama is worse than no drama.

You don’t need a large performing company to produce consistently good drama; you need a leader and a few good people. It can, in fact, involve only one or two performers, and one sketch takes only five or six hours of rehearsal. At Willow Creek, we rehearse twice a week, once on Tuesday evening and then on Saturday afternoon.

Many people who visit Willow Creek assume we use professional performers. That’s not the case. Most of our actors have had little or no prior drama experience. One of our best female performers had never acted before. She came to what was her first audition when she dropped off a friend. She happened to be standing in the hallway when someone invited her to try out. She ended up making the drama team while her friend did not. Today she’s not only a terrific actress but also a top-notch writer. You don’t know whom you might have in your church.

What’s Most Universal

Two principles have helped us make drama an effective component of worship. First, each sketch needs to work well with the pastor’s message that follows it. A sketch that raises questions that the sermon doesn’t answer later on creates a problem. A great deal of coordination between what the pastor is planning to say and what we’re preparing to present on stage is necessary for success.

Second, each drama must be personal and address a specific issue. One of our most powerful presentations involved a grown man going back to his boyhood school. There he is confronted by the painful memory of the day he and a few of his friends tied the class sissy to the radiator and then pulled his pants down. When the bell rang and the class entered, the victim was left standing there naked, alone, and humiliated. The memory is particularly painful because the kid who was picked on committed suicide as an adult, and the man recalling the event had for years assumed some responsibility.

When I first read that script, I hesitated. The whole incident seemed too close to the edge to produce in church. But when we performed it, the audience reaction was immediate. They seemed to put themselves into one of three groups: (a) those who had picked on others, (b) those who had been picked on by others, or (c) those who had stood silently by as others were picked on.

Once after we performed the sketch in Europe, a missionary approached me and said, “That sketch was the most powerful dramatic experience I’ve ever had.” “Really?” I asked. “What made it so powerful?” “I grew up in a Christian boarding school,” he replied. “Things happened in that school that I’ve never shared with anyone. When I saw the sketch, I wept as it all came back.”

What’s amazing is that this was only a seven-minute sketch, not a major production. It just goes to show the truth of the statement, “That which is most personal is also most universal,” which I have hanging above my desk. That’s one reason why I urge our writers to write from their own experience.
One of our writers wrote a script that portrayed an angry father, criticizing his daughter for the way she was raising her kids. I read it and thought, Wait a minute. This is too much. This guy seems too vindictive and mean. But I went ahead with it and was literally overwhelmed by the response. Numerous people approached me and said, “That was my dad.”

Checking the Thermometers

Measuring drama’s effectiveness is not easy. I typically watch people’s reactions, and I also place “thermometers” in the congregation who tell me how they think we did. If people didn’t laugh at a line I thought they would, I make adjustments. If something falls flat the first service, I won’t hesitate to change it before the second one.

Audience reaction, though, is an inexact science. When we touch on sensitive topics, such as abortion, we know we may get mail. We make a concerted effort to be realistic, and that offends some people. Others are upset because the sketch itself isn’t more polemic. But again, our main purpose is to raise issues that the pastor will answer.

To avoid offending some people’s sensibilities, each director needs to be attuned to his or her congregation. Respecting your audience, not trying to push them as far as you can, is important. Artists are often unwilling to make concessions to people’s sensibilities.

If I were launching drama in a church, my first sketch would not be on a highly sensitive issue, such as homosexuality. I’d start with a sketch that contains clear gospel content, such as a mime we do entitled “The Lane of Life.” Introduce it on a Sunday evening, or as part of a youth night, or at an alternative service.

In our efforts to be honest, however, we do face hard calls. When I have questions, “Is this word proper?” or “Is this subject matter too volatile?” I run the piece by others. If we still aren’t sure, we’ll take it to a pastor or an elder. The beauty of a team decision is that we all share the responsibility for the calls we make.

Identifying with Pain

Through the years, our drama has evolved. I’d say it has become more sophisticated, less like a skit (we prefer the term sketch) and more substantive. We also use more serious drama than we used to. Today we do sketches we couldn’t have done five years ago. That doesn’t mean today’s dramas contain vulgar language or offensive content far from it. But the audience has grown and matured in its willingness to consider difficult and sensitive topics.

A turning point came with a piece entitled “Great Expectations.” The story focused on an infertile woman who had been waiting to adopt a baby for years. She was just three hours from picking up the child when the birth mother changed her mind. It went on to depict the woman’s anger at God. The sketch raised the question, “Why does God dangle a carrot in front of our nose only to yank it away from us?”

So many people identified with the pain of this couple. We’ve used it numerous times in various settings. We’ve learned that serious drama, when done well, can be even more effective than lighter sketches.

This article A Dramatic Addition to Worship by Steve Pederson was excerpted from: Changing Lives Through Preaching and Worship, June 1995. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.