Questions about the status of church drama ministries are not new—at least not to those in my artistic circles. As churches have battled tough economic challenges, money problems have trickled down into arts at the local ministry level. Lack of funding is just the latest hit to church drama ministry teams and theatre professionals who make their living from churches and parachurch organizations.
When churches turned to installing screens for projection of hymn and chorus lyrics, it wasn’t long before film clips became popular as illustrations for the sermon on any given Sunday. Media suppliers such as sermonspice.com quickly became go-to clearinghouses for the video of the week. Slick, well-produced, graphic treatments of Scripture with a music track, or short films with seasoned actors, came to replace the need or even the “want” of having a drama team perform a live skit.
And why not? How many of us haven’t seen a shoddy church performance from a lackluster group of inexperienced actors; all trying to make the best of a poorly written script? But why does this matter? After all, trends come and go. What is a popular medium to use today in church may be gone tomorrow. Should we care that much about the dramatic (and other) artists in our pews? Recently, I spent some time talking to four friends, literally from across the nation, to determine the state of drama ministry from their various vantage points.
My friend Jeff Smith’s company, Salt and Light Ministries, is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. Jeff works not only locally, but also nationally and globally as a writer, actor, teacher, and producer. When I called Jeff , he was just arriving at a popular national pastry and bread chain—the same restaurant where we had once worked on scripts together, me as editor/word surgeon, he as writer/defender of his lines and character development.
With over 20 years in ministry, Jeff admits that while he still loves what he is doing, the travel, logistics, and time away from home are draining. In addition to performing and teaching, Jeff also has an extensive line of products for churches. He is probably best known for his Movement for Non-movers; the series features Bible stories and principles told with dowel rods, fabric, tableau, and more. As we talk about drama in churches today, Jeff refers to what he calls “The Willow Creek Effect.” We had a renaissance in this art form, in part because of Willow Creek and their seeker services. Their model helped the rest of
us, who loved drama and wanted to use it in worship. But then came the backlash about the seeker service. And with that, I have seen the rise and fall, over 20-plus years, of drama’s popularity in the church. That’s across publishing, churches, and conferences,” Jeff observes.
He continues, “Starting a ministry isn’t hard, sustaining a ministry is, and what’s important is the relationships that are built in the ministry. That is what the church needs to be committed to. There are people like me who have 15-, 20-, and 25-year ministries, because they are committed to people—not the product. As an advocate, live theatre is important because it builds community.”
On the other side of the country in Salem, Oregon, Chuck Neighbors is another theatre artist whose life and ministry have been affected by the recent shift in churches. Chuck has spent 30-plus years as an actor, writer, and storyteller, and for that entire time, drama ministry has paid the bills. Chuck spent 10 years working with Covenant Players before starting his own company, Master’s Image Productions. Despite his long-term success, he is still aware of the changing tide and has made several key decisions to keep things afloat.
As Chuck observes, “The church is pulling away from the arts as I know them. Churches appreciate art, but they don’t use it in the same way. And really, churches should be the breeding ground for art.”
Drama and theatre seem to have always had an in-oneday- out-the-next relationship with the church. But other fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, also once enjoyed regular and lucrative commissions from the church.
‘What will artists do with their talents if they don’t have a chance to use them in service and ministry?’
“Fewer artists are being encouraged at church,” Chuck says. “We don’t need to necessarily turn the clock back, but we do need to see that artists have an itch to use their craft in the church and ask, ‘What will artists do with their talents if they don’t have a chance to use them in service and ministry?’”
Unlike other dramatic artists who seem to fi ght the film phenomenon, Chuck embraces it. Masters Image has a line of videos that features Chuck and the other actors in his company. He sells the videos on his website and sermonspice.com; his “There Goes Bob” series has been the most popular to date.
Chuck sees this as another revenue stream that still allows him to continue the craft he loves. Many times the churches that book him for a Sunday morning will use the videos to promote his upcoming appearance, giving the congregation a familiarity with and anticipation of the live performance. For Masters Image, this use of film is a win-win situation, no matter how you slice it.
My dear fellow writer and friend, Dave Tippett, lives in Toledo, Ohio, and attends Hope Community Church of the Nazarene. His scripts have been published with both Eldridge and Lillenas, but unlike Jeff and Chuck, Dave is a volunteer writer and actor at his church.
At Hope Community, they still off er the occasional Sunday morningsketch, staging six to seven short pieces a year. Dave admits this number is not limited by the pastoral leadership but rather by his limited time to develop and stage his original scripts. The pastor wants to use more drama, but with a full-time job and other personal responsibilities, Dave does what he can for now.
Dave’s church also regularly uses video, and from his perspective he offers, “I think drama groups benefit from doing video. I don’t want to give up on live performances— there’s a lot of power there—but you can’t ignore the quality of material, and the possibility of making excellent video even in the local church.”
We talk about the content of scripts and how the church seems to crave more authenticity, perhaps fostered by the many reality television shows that bombard us. Last year, Dave wrote a series of scripts for the youth at Hope Community in response to national news about a teen who killed himself after being bullied on Facebook. “I wish dramatists would be more edgy and write more about what Christ calls us to, to really challenge us to do more. I strive to write conversations that involve 100% candor and 100% respect,” Dave says.
Dave’s desire to stay current and authentic in his writing isn’t just reserved for scripts with a serious tone. This past Christmas, he wrote a spoof of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that spoke to the state of the nation’s economy. In his short sketch, downsizing has caused just one ghost to do the job of all three.
First Church of the Nazarene in Nampa, Idaho, is another church where drama ministry continues under the leadership of Bette Dale Moore. As we talk, her youthfulness belies the truth that she has been in ministry for more than 40 years. And yet, I get an education listening to Bette’s long history with church drama. In the 1970s, she traveled and directed groups that the General Church sponsored, such as Discovery Players and Nazarene Youth Praise and Drama—otherwise known as NYPD.
I spoke with Bette during a typical week that required her to don several hats: music and drama public school teacher; writer, director, and actor in Treasure Cove, a long-running adventure series for kids of her church; and director of First Church’s 27th annual Easter pageant: No Greater Love: The Story of Amazing Grace. She also wrote and directed a highly successful show in public schools known as R.A.D. (Race Against Drugs) that is in its 20th year of production.
In her spare time, she performs in community theatres in the area and goes on long motorcycle rides with her husband, Bruce. If anyone knows how to weather the changing tides as an artist in church, it’s Bette. As she puts it, “I look at the different directions I have gone. It keeps shifting, because the church isn’t static. Sometimes personnel at a church don’t believe in what you do, but you say to God, ‘I still have the same skills. Where do you want me to go?’ and a door opens.”
While we talk, Bette mentions that she loves Chuck Neighbors’ new video line, and yet almost in the same breath, she echoes Jeff Smith, as she tells me story after story of how the community of theatre has impacted so many lives around her. “Long-term ministry is what is so cool,” she says. “I taught drama to Marcus LeBaron when he was a teen; now he’s our children’s pastor and a performer in Treasure Cove. Much of what I do is planting seeds, and there is so much fruit, where I see people and their families come back.”
As Bette was beginning her work on the annual Easter pageant, she reflected on what it’s like to work on a large-scale production with so many people: “I look at all the people I work with in a production and say how incredibly blessed I am to be with this great big group of people to share the gospel. It’s almost overwhelming,” she says. “Drama was created to be used in so many ways—it’s story telling—and that’s what Jesus used. God used these methods, and so should we.”
If we are interested in God’s story and reaching people with the Good News, then we should be interested in engaging the artists in our churches to help us do that. Drama ministry is just one way we can use art in church, and we need to be mindful of the people in our churches who are gifted to be artists versus pastors or administrators or accountants. These artists need to be affirmed and allowed to serve from the place that God, the ultimate Creator, has called them to serve from. Otherwise, driven by the God-given desire to create, our artists will simply take their art elsewhere.
I quickly add to this admonishment that artists must serve God first, which means getting “the heart of the artist” and embracing the right perspective. It means being flexible and creative when it comes to how to serve the church through art. And perhaps we all need to recognize that performance is only the end goal, but the process, the community, and the seeds that are planted by providing a place for artists to gather, work, and worship are godly fruit as well.
Pastor, be a friend to and foster the artists in your congregation. And artists, look for open doors and be confident that God has the perfect place for you to serve.
KIMBERLY MESSER is a freelance writer, script doctor, and creative consultant living near Nashville, Tennessee
Drama resources for the local church:
BETTE DALE MOORE Years in ministry: 44 Website: www.bettedalemoore.com Recommended Resource: Treasure Cove
CHUCK NEIGHBORS Years in ministry: 36 (26 Master’s Image, 10 years Covenant Players; also a World Vision Artist) Website: www.mastersimage.com Recommended Resource: There Goes Bob Video Series
JEFF SMITH Years in ministry: 23 Company: Salt and Light Ministries Website: www.saltandlightministries.org Recommended Resource: VII Series Tableau DVD
DAVE TIPPETT Years in ministry: 25 Where his scripts can be found: www.lillenasdrama.com Recommended Resource: “Breathe” from Real Time: Scripts Inspired by True-life Stories