Why skits, plays, and other theatrical endeavors are not simply worthwhile, but a MUST in today's progressive faith communities and churches.
by Daniel D. Maurer, Arches 'n Bells Founder
When I was an ELCA pastor serving in western North Dakota, I quickly found out the power of a fun church play to put "fun" (translate: engagement and joy) back into faith. One time in particular stands out in my memory...
In 2001, the confirmation class I was teaching was a tough group of kids. What I mean by that is not that the kids came from tough backgrounds or were unruly. No, it was far worse—they really didn't want to be there. I consider myself a fairly hip guy, and I can relay information with the best of any pastor out there, but every. single. kid. had the look of supreme boredom embedded (carved, really) on their faces. Nothing I said or activities I encouraged them to undertake seemed to vanquish the stoicism from their expressions.
It also didn't seem to matter if I presented the material in multimedia—in fact, it seemed to make it worse. No amount of preparation I put into a Power Point slide seemed to capture the kids' attentions. Worse yet, I've since found out that this experience is common! It has to do with how the brain works. And kids' brains especially don't want to retain a fire-hose-gush of information.
But then I wrote a skit—a simple, wacky, fun, and informative skit.
Just to illustrate to you how effective it was, I'll let you know that I still remember the plot line of that church play, and I recall perfectly how both the kids, and also the adults they performed it to, responded to it.
The topic was creation. We had to spell out for the kids the basic tenets of God's continual act of creation. I used the second story of creation in Genesis. (Did you know there is more than one?)
For this skit, I chose to write it in a simple, easy-to-understand format—I just did a paraphrase of the second creation story of Adam and Eve. What I remember is that the fun (and the giggling) gushed out of the kids when the part came that both main characters "...were naked, and felt no shame." I remember the two kids—a boy and a girl—both dancing around in a circle chanting, "We're naked! We're naked! And we feel no shame!" (That part was the kids' own ad lib, by the way.)
Immediately, I saw the value of using dramatic expressions to relay the stories in scripture. The amazing thing about doing this, is that using theater to teach—and it's bullseye-hitting power—has been known for some time!
What should have been painfully obvious to me as a leader in the congregation was that theater not only works for kids and teens, but also for adults. The fact of the matter is that human beings are storied creatures. As it happens, when I speak publicly about addiction, recovery, and the process of transformation, I make this very point: people just respond and learn better when they can act it out.
Below are the THREE BIG POINTS!!! (see the exclamation marks?!) on which to ruminate whilst using dramatic resources. I've compiled these not simply to convince you about doing it (that part should be obvious), but also so that you'll be more effective in the way you present the skits, plays, or display of thespianic-awesomeness in your own context.
1. Keep it Fun!
The big reasons why I began Arches 'n Bells were that many of the resources already existing online for congregations weren't meeting two crucial needs—people want to be entertained (and that's okay!) and people in progressive faith communities want topics that reflect what's happening in real life.
Of course, there are loads of topics in the Bible that simply aren't conducive to silliness or triviality! Well then, go ahead and get serious—but do it well. Engage us. Suck us into the story. Put us at the edges of our seats, for crying out loud! After all, the stories in the Bible already do this—we simply miss the point how dramatic, engaging, intriguing, or humorous they are!
Walt Wangerin, one of our greatest expositors of scriptural stories today, said it best in his work, Paul: A Novel (here are the character Paul's own words): “Go back to the books. They will comfort you and cheer you. If you earnestly work with them, neither sorrow nor anxiety nor distress nor suffering need trouble your mind any more, no, not evermore.”
The stories are what matter. Engage people, and they will listen. More importantly, they will learn.
2. Keep it Contextual!
This should be a proclamation from Capitan Obvious; I mention it because so many leaders forget the context in which they serve.
Remember your people! Know the stories and the history of where you serve. It's difficult to give specific advice to this point, because every context is different. One point that I stress with each of our plays we offer at FunChurchPlays.com is that after you download it, you can do what you want with it. Not every congregation or youth-group will respond to some of the über-snark that some of our playwrights inherently seem to be imbued with. But that's why we offer lots of different options—so you can adapt each play to your own setting.
Another point fitting for the context is gearing each of your presentations in line with the season or time of year you're presenting. Lent is different than Advent or Christmas. And during the summer too—people forget that a play or skit doesn't need to be overly complicated to be effective. Drama, even done with little preparation, is better than standing in a pulpit and giving a sermon. (Nothing against sermons, we need them, of course!)
3. Invite Others to Participate!
In a day and age when people expect professional clergy to be the ones who undertake and direct all-that-is-religious-or-spiritual, it's more important than ever to invite others to participate in acting out a skit or dramatic reading. And they'll like it all the more that you invite them to enjoy themselves doing it! (Theater pieces are called "plays" for a reason.)
Following Jesus is never easy, but always worthwhile. Have you ever asked yourself or others in your congregation why specifically we "do worship" every week? We "do it" because it's practice. It's rehearsing. The liturgy guides us and cements itself into our lives so that—in theory—we live out what God is calling us to be: God's own grace-centered people. Flesh on the bones.
Full disclosure: I'm Lutheran. (I know. It's so embarrassing.) I see the world through the lens of Lutheran theology. But I grew up in the Methodist Church (UMC). (I bet your heart is "strangely warmed" by the thought of this.) One of the points I've found within all grace-centered, progressive mainstream denominations is that all see the radical love of Jesus of Nazareth as something our world is still sorely lacking.
What better way to add to practicing and rehearsing one's faith by using drama?
I found that adding in a dramatic presentation or interpretation of scripture was not only helpful for the congregation, but was a pastoral act in itself—people want to participate. All you have to do is ask, and do it right.
Skits, plays, seasonal productions . . . or whatever you want to call them . . . are not simply tools to tell a story—they are invariably a vital component of telling THE story, the love-hymn of God to God's own beloved.
Use them—you'll be glad you did!
The rest of the STORY will take care of itself.
About Daniel D. Maurer
Daniel D. Maurer is a husband, a father, a writer, an author of two books (one here & the other here), a speaker, an editor, a website designer, and is owned by two cats and one dog. He founded Arches 'n Bells out of deeply seated belief that dramatic resources belong in church to teach and engage. His non-fiction writing brand deals with the power of change and transformation in people's lives, because he's lived through a big change in his own life in embracing long-term recovery. Daniel also curates and edits and does other schtuff for Clergy Stuff, a provider of worship resources for congregations using the Narrative Lectionary.