How Will They Hear the Gospel's Stories?
by Wanda Vassallo (January / February 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 1)
The use of drama in telling the stories of Scripture is one way of communicating the church's unchanging message in a changing culture. And, according to this author's thesis study, parishioners are remembering what they see and hear.
Just days before I was to receive my doctorate, I got an urgent, puzzling message. The school needed the "original" of my thesis. I had already sent the required four copies, which looked a lot better than the original. Finally, it dawned on me. Evidently, a rule book written long before the advent of the computer (when a thesis had to be typed and carbon copies made) required the student to give the original to the school.
That experience reminded me of the way the church too often clings to past practices instead of considering communication approaches that might be more effective in a culture constantly immersed in visual images. The impact of television and other media is something the church can no longer afford to ignore. Without compromising its message, it can capitalize on the heightened influence of and familiarity with multimedia approaches so prevalent today.
Studies conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center show just how media-saturated we are. For families with children 2-17 years old, 97 percent have a VCR; 70 percent have a computer; 68 percent have video game equipment; and 52 percent have online access.1 Children may have watched up to 22,000 hours of television by the time they graduate from high school, and half of us regularly watch TV while eating dinner.2
Long before television, Jesus used interactive, visual approaches to make his point. He fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. He commanded, and a fig tree withered. He set a child in the disciples' midst to teach them humility. He used bread and wine at the
Through years of using drama in the church, I've seen congregations grow more interested and involved whenever we've done a play. The results of my thesis study confirm that drama can add excitement and help people understand biblical messages.
|The study showed a statistically significant effect for drama in the church setting. Those receiving the dramatized version scored significantly higher on measures of recall, understanding, and ability to relate the Scripture to their lives.|
The study compared the effect on congregants of two methods of presenting Scripture in a liturgical church service: (a) read as it traditionally is and (b) acted out. Two of Jesus' parables, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Friend at Midnight, were used at two churches, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Mesquite, Texas, and The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Dallas.
The study showed a statistically significant effect for drama in the church setting. Those receiving the dramatized version scored significantly higher on measures of recall, understanding, and ability to relate the Scripture to their lives.
Results were even more dramatic for the nine questions related to things they witnessed the actors doing. Study participants who saw the play answered every question correctly except for one person, who missed one question. Of those who heard the reading, not one scored 100 percent. These results are in keeping with numerous studies that have demonstrated the positive impact of showing and telling on learning.
Also, an average of 79 percent of the participants in my study preferred seeing the story acted out because they:
- found it more interesting.
- remembered the details of the story to a greater degree.
- understood the message better.
- saw more relevancy of the Scripture to their lives.
These were not elaborate Broadway productions. The scripts were taken directly from the Bible. The actors were church members, some new to acting. The rewards were well worth their effort, and the actors were delighted to have a part in telling one of Jesus' stories.
Most major denominations are shrinking. Many churches have closed their doors, and others are failing to attract younger members. A wake-up call is needed. Certainly, the biblical message is as pertinent today as it was hundreds of years ago. It should not be compromised or watered down to make it more popular. The challenge is to make it as exciting and as vital as it actually is to those used to sitting with remote control in hand ready to switch channels at the first hint of boredom.
We must change in faithful ways to meet the challenge. And we can find timely ways to communicate the timeless truth of Scripture.
After all, Jesus was creative in his approach in getting across his message. By using drama and other multi-sensory methods, we can be too.
Wanda Vassallo is the author of several books and numerous plays and articles. She is the director of The King's Company Drama Ministry at The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Dallas, Texas, and the former director of communications for the Dallas school system. For more information on her study, send e-mail to: email@example.com.
1. Annenberg Public Policy Center, "Is the Three-Hour Rule Living Up to Its Potential?" study (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, June 26, 2000, news release, Internet).
2. "Digital-Age Data," TV Guide, 26 Oct.-
1 Nov. 1996, 68.