I studied theatre in college, planning for acting to be my career. After almost two decades, God moved me out of theatre as a career. My church is now my current employer (along with PJ Media, of course). For the record, I still love theatre; I still love reading plays and theatre theory books and reminiscing about the almost eighty theatre productions that I was privileged to be involved in, either as an actor or director. I even enjoy attending theatre productions.
But I dread the inevitable question from family and new friends, “Do you run the drama programs at your church?”
I dread it because my answer is a resounding, “No!” And my “no” is resounding because I don’t think drama programs belong in the church.
I believe that for two main reasons:
- Plays and/or skits have no place in the worship of our Creator God on the Lord’s Day, and
- I love theatre
I subscribe to what’s called the Regulative Principle of Worship. Quoting Derek Thomas of Ligonier Ministries, “the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.”
In a nutshell, and borrowing from countless preachers, the Bible commands that on the Lord’s Day we pray the Word (the Bible), sing the Word, read the Word, preach the Word, give to the ministry of the Word, and reenact the Word in the two ordinances (sacraments), baptism and communion. Other elements in the worship service are included based on whether or not they aid the required aspects of worship. For example, while churches are not required by the Bible to have air conditioning, it’s hard to argue against the fact that A/C aids in worship, especially during the hot summer months. Drama programs do not fit under the Bible’s rubric for required elements of worship, and they do not aid people as they seek to worship and praise God through the required elements. In fact, drama programs steal attention that should be focused solely on God.
Setting aside the fact that theatre is a performance art and begs for attention to be placed on the performers, theatre focuses attention on conflict. Without conflict, there is no theatre — at least, no theatre worth watching. In and of itself, that would be fine for church. There is conflict in the gospel of Jesus Christ — humans are born as sinners and are estranged from their Creator God. The gospel recognizes a problem (conflict) that needs to be solved. However, the format of theater is not well-suited to presenting propositional solutions. Theatre that provides hard and fast answers is called agit-prop (propaganda) theatre, and that type of theatre is manipulative and usually poorly done.
In contrast, while a story, the Bible’s message is dependent on propositional statements — truth statements. The story of Redemption calls the listener to respond to propositional content. Here are some propositional statements that are at the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ:
- God made all things
- Humans are sinners
- The wages of sin is death
- Faith in Jesus is the only way to restore humans back to God
- Sinners who refuse to place their faith in Jesus will suffer for all eternity in hell
Those four statements are the bare bones of the gospel message and are essential. But theatre is not a good vehicle for presenting those kinds of black and white truth statements. Think about the best plays in theatre history: Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc. They all present the human condition as ultimately unable to overcome the conflict. Even good comedies are dependent on unresolved conflict at the human level — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example. Theatre goers are meant to leave puzzling over the conflict and searching internally (or even externally) for answers. The gospel message is the ultimate open and shut answer. Nothing is as starkly black and white as is the story of redemption. Theatre is not a medium suited to preaching Christ crucified.
The second reason why I’m opposed to church drama programs is that I love theatre.
Theatre is a beautiful medium for storytelling. Actors presenting compelling characters within tense conflict can be a thrilling event when done correctly. And the key is “done correctly.” Sadly, most of what passes for drama at churches falls far short of “done correctly, ” and definitely falls short of our admonishment from God to do “all things decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Theatre has objective standards, and most church dramatic productions are not willing to take the time necessary to adhere to the medium’s standards (much less take the time to learn what those are). To help with understanding, I’m going to use music as an illustration.
Most people realize that singing on key is a minimum requirement for making music “decently and in order.” But how many people can articulate the objective standards of theatre?
One standard for theatre, or rule, is that everything on stage must be motivated; there is no such thing as nothing on stage. In other words, everything — noise, silence, movement, non-movement – communicates something. The question is, does it help communicate the story or does it get in the way of the story?
If I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would bet a large amount of money that the majority of adults “directing” church plays/skits have almost no clue how to correctly apply that previous paragraph to the stage. Of course, that raises the question about trained theatre professionals who are Christians. Why do I refuse to use the training and skills I have to produce a play/skit for church that is done “decently and in order?”
Well, in a nutshell, although people may think they want me to head up their church drama program, they really don’t.
There is a rule in theatre that says for every minute on stage there should be a minimum of an hour rehearsal time. So, if a play is an hour long, there should be at least sixty hours of rehearsal time. Very few people volunteering to be in the Christmas pageant at their church are willing to devote that much time. The things I know to do that will help ensure that the cast will do the very best of their ability are not things that most people are going to be willing to do.
Even if they were willing to put in the necessary time and energy, and going back to my first reason, theatre done well is not a good vehicle for presenting the truths of the Bible. Plays and skits do not belong in the worship service on the Lord’s Day.