In an age of sound bytes, DVDs and laser shows, churches are rediscovering the ancient art of drama as a new, exciting element of worship.
“There is a strong movement towards drama among evangelical and Black churches. The use of Christian drama in churches is escalating unbelievably,” John Alexander, founder of DramaShare, the world’s largest provider of theatrical resources to churches, told EthicsDaily.com.
Alexander started DramaShare in Western Canada 15 years ago, but he never envisioned working with more than 4,000 churches in over 49 countries.
Not since the second century has drama been a regular part of worship. Alexander said Jesus used drama when he told parables, and that for the next 100 years the church used dramatic narratives to share the gospel.
But early Christians began distancing themselves from drama because of the strong influence of pagan Roman theater. Now, churches are rediscovering the narrative traditions of Jesus.
Sixty-two percent of churches surveyed for the National Congregations Study in 1998 reported using drama during the past year. Alexander said that while the use of drama is growing, his studies indicated that 20 percent of churches actually use “Christian” drama in worship.
“When I say drama, I mean Christian drama,” Alexander said. “Christian drama is nothing better or worse than preaching or Sunday school. Just like the sermon, a performance must always communicate the Christian message.”
David Wright, who leads contemporary worship services at South Main Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, said, “Our intent is for each service to flow and try to communicate a single message from the Gospel. We begin with the biblical text and build around that.”
Wright told EthicsDaily.com that South Main began using drama less than two years ago and finds it very effective.
“We might use a drama sketch one week, then a narrative reading another week,” he said. “Worship is a mosaic of activities that we offer to God in hopes that we have honored and praised him. To me all the elements are fine pieces of glass that make a fine picture, pleasing to God. Drama is one of those fine pieces of glass.”
Alexander has a similar view.
“Drama is another form of preaching,” he said. “Drama should not be meant to showcase talents. It is meant to steer us to focus on the Lord.”
“Everything that is part of the worship service should be done with the intent of excellence. If we are going to do drama, it must be excellent, just like the music, the scripture reading and all the rest,” said Wright.
“Start with high quality and low quantity,” said Alexander. “Do not conquer the world in one Sunday! You want to ‘wow’ your audience and leave them wanting more. Build on a foundation of excellence and use as many people from the church as possible.”
While some churches may go for razzle-dazzle, Wright said his church does not attempt special effects or gimmickry.
“The drama can be entertaining, but it should evoke a response,” he said. “Special effects are not necessary for worship. They are often more unsettling than they are effective. I recommend minimal special effects. Less is best.”
Alexander said special effects ruin good drama.
He recalled an Easter Sunday presentation in which Christ was hoisted up through the ceiling by a cable as if he were ascending through the clouds. “He was twisting around and around all the way through the top of the ceiling like a corkscrew,” he said.
While large churches may have more resources, both Alexander and Wright say that any size of church can perform excellent drama.
“The average church we work with is less than 100,” Alexander said. “You do not need a ton of money sunk into music, costumes or sound systems. Drama speaks to all of us because it draws us in by narrative. We all enjoy a good story, and the beauty of drama is that it cuts across cultural barriers.”
Wright said one of the biggest challenges is finding good scripts.
At DramaShare.org, Alexander develops training materials, scripts and other resources that can be downloaded for a modest membership fee. He spends most of his time conducting weekend workshops in churches worldwide.
For the church just starting out, Alexander recommends planning the first performance one year from the drama ministry’s inception. He noted that drama teams often try to do too much too fast, and the performance is poor.
“Pastors and congregations don’t see drama as effective because we haven’t earned their respect,” said Alexander.
Ray Furr is a freelance writer and operates his own communications / marketing business in Poquoson, Va.