Acting out in church


By John Trump

From my earliest days in the church as a pastor's kid, I have had an interest in theater and specifically the use of drama in our ministry. Since then, I have sought ways to use drama as an effective ministry tool.

We have had drama camps for at-risk youth; a monthly ministry called Bible Playday, where the children of the church work on a short skit to be presented during the children's sermon; Christmas pageants; and an ongoing Lenten drama program.

Drama and daily life

What difference does the message make in the daily lives of all who experience the drama? There is a strong history of religious dramas seeking to do just this.

In medieval times, mystery plays were performed by professionals and amateurs alike.

Gradually, guilds took over, with each one taking responsibility for a particular piece of scriptural history. The term "mystery play" or "mysteries" comes from the Latin mysterium, meaning "occupation."

As Nelvin Vos indicates in his book, “Interactions: Relationships of Religion and Drama”:

"In a major town such as York (England), each guild presented a particular segment of the biblical drama. Frequently, the particular guild would be responsible for an appropriate scene, for example, the Shipwrights for the Building of the Ark, the Goldsmiths for the Coming of the Magi, the Bakers for the Last Supper, and the Butchers for the Mortification of Christ.”

Simple but complete

At no time do these plays seek simply to entertain or build up the institutional church. In fact, they often poke a little fun at the church's preoccupation with itself and call the church to greater recognition of the ministries done in God's name outside its walls.

Each month our young children stay after church to eat, practice their acting exercises, and then rehearse a "play" based upon the next Sunday's Scriptures.

That Sunday they present this drama as the children's sermon. Those children not in the play sit on the floor to watch, and when it is over, all the children gather as I discuss with them what they saw.

This is a wonderful, simple way to use the children in a meaningful capacity in worship. They lead as they act. The drama takes place before the reading of the lessons and often introduces the theme of the day.

Of course another element is the laity's leadership in performing in chancel dramas. As indicated earlier, in medieval times the plays were done by a variety of professionals and amateurs. In our drama ministry, we have found this model useful in encouraging the gifts of members.

We make a point of not overdoing any of the sets or using any special lighting. The productions are intentionally simple. It is not about the production but rather about the worship.

Liturgical drama is not only a marvelous tool to encourage the gifts of members and incorporate the people as preachers in worship, but also and, most important, it is a way of exploring and lifting up ministry in daily life.

Instead of only setting plays in religious settings with biblical or religious characters, let the congregation focus on stories that are part of their daily lives yet also are integrated with God's drama in Jesus Christ.

John Trump is pastor of St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C., a published playwright and founder of Faith Drama.

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