n Good Friday last year, I went to see a nearby church’s passion play. As soon as I walked in, I was impressed! Their set took over the whole sanctuary; the music was well chosen and the costumes authentic. Spectacular pyrotechnics highlighted the resurrection. (Okay-confession time-I even sinned by envying their robotic lights.) In short, the production seemed to have everything going for it!
But long before the last scene, I found myself hoping it would end soon. I even prayed that the couple sitting next to me were already Christians, and not encountering Jesus for the first time. The show had become downright painful.
Now, this congregation obviously had a passion for evangelism, and a desire to do excellent work! Hundreds of volunteers gave huge amounts of time and energy to make it all happen. So what went wrong?
Somewhere along the way, they forgot the fundamental principle of theatre: Their play wasn’t telling the truth.
Telling the Truth
“Whoa, back the truck up!” you say. “This was a Passion Play, right? You know, the kind about Jesus dying and rising again? That’s Truth with a capital T!”
I couldn’t agree with you more. So let me be clear: In one sense, the play was telling the Truth! It contained lots of Scripture about Christ; a veritable sermon on the way of Salvation. But that’s the problem: It was a sermon, not a drama.
When you watch your favorite movie for the 25th time, the fun isn’t in seeing how it will end. The fun is in the conflict-watching characters choose, mirroring the human experience as they make up their minds. You want to see them acting kind of like you, so you can walk around in their shoes. Once the conflict’s over, you sigh happily and press “stop” on the remote.
But when characters in a Passion Play get saved in 90 seconds flat, there’s no conflict. When Jesus has no struggles and seems so divine that He’s no longer human, I can’t relate. When the characters seem to know the ending before they get there, it’s hard to care about the story.
Jesus saved prostitutes, first-century IRS agents, and even the scum who hung on the cross next to Him. But when we’re not honest about human experience (even the ugly parts), the great sinners in our audience won’t be able to encounter a Great Savior.
If you’ve been hanging around the Kingdom very long, you’ve probably begun to hear about the “Emergent Church”-that is, congregations specifically trying to reach Gen. Xers and Millennials. Loosely speaking, that means anyone currently between 18-35 . . . and by many accounts, they’re the least-churched generation in American history.
When you present a play, it’s no longer sufficient to mount a spectacle with high production values. The next generation isn’t coming to church to be amused, but to encounter God in a tangible way. They want to experience all that it means to be human; understand new things about relating to God and others. So if your play is just “family-friendly entertainment,” you may want to look at other scripts. If there are 90-second conversions and preachy scenes and all the problems are neatly tied up with a bow, don’t bother mounting the show. They won’t come.
Consider two Broadway hits from the past decade. Rent inspired an obsession in the younger generation-my own sister listened to the soundtrack nonstop for months. The story concerns a group of Bohemian artists coming of age in New York City, and all of their real-life struggles-from paying the rent to coping with the AIDS epidemic. The gritty reality of the play, from its grunge-inspired ad campaign to the hard-rock score to the taboo social issues in the story, made Rent’s score one of the anthems of a generation.
More recently, Wicked has taken the country by storm. It may be a “conventional” book musical, but its style and plot have very little in common with Rodgers and Hammerstein! It re-imagines the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, as a sympathetic character. She grows up; falls in love; makes friends-and faces rejection more because of her green skin than her “evilness.” It ends by asking questions that Christians should consider about sin-plus faith and redemption. Along the way, it tells a universal narrative of love and friendship, stripping off the sugar coating to transform a kids’ fairy tale into a play for grownups.
These musicals teach us that to engage our culture, plays must be willing to confront difficult topics; topics the church has often avoided: doubt. Family conflicts. Pornography. We need to show life in all its complexity and difficulty, without neglecting to bring our Savior to bear on everything. In this generation, hypocrisy-whether onstage or in life-is a bigger hurdle to the Gospel than ever. So our characters need to act like real people, not sitcom characters.
Rent and Wicked also teach us to consider the style of our productions. That doesn’t mean we should imitate secular entertainment-but we do need to learn what sort of storytelling is relevant to our audience. As media critic Marshall McLuhan famously pointed out, “The medium is the message.” Our stories are shaped by the way we choose to tell them. So for a generation drowning in electronic noise, we must strive to communicate our narratives in the most compelling ways possible.
Church drama has to become less about life as we wish it could be in the Christian subculture, and more about bringing God to the places where people live. You know-the way Jesus taught.
How Should We Then Direct?
Some churches have seen the problems of their past productions. They’ve noticed that huge Passion Plays and five-minute silly sketches aren’t connecting with the next generation. They’ve gotten embarrassed by the bad rep that church drama has in some people’s minds. So they’ve given up on theatre, either reverting to prepackaged videos-or nothing dramatic at all.
But God’s people could hardly make a bigger mistake! Instead of adapting the form and content of drama, we’ve simply thrown out one of the most potent ways we can connect with the next generation. By some estimates, the Bible is more than one-half stories. In a story-obsessed culture, what more powerful way can we communicate than with drama?
We need to adapt our form to not always resolving things neatly at the end. Sometimes, it’s more compelling when characters we care about don’t get saved-because then we, the audience, don’t want to make the same mistake! (Besides, isn’t that how it works in real life sometimes?)
There’s no patience in the current generation for “preachyness”-for better or worse, there’s a suspicion of anyone with an agenda. So our plays must become less about telling and more about showing; less about overt proclamation and more about characters who live by example.
We should be willing to experiment with other aspects of form, too-for example, performing a one-act Christmas play with worship music “bookending” it, instead of an outright musical. Or maybe we could produce interactive theatre instead of the kind where audiences sit passively and watch.
Perhaps we’ll leave the church walls and present a good “secular” play in another venue, or open our casting to people who don’t know Jesus yet. (As an actor friend of mine says, the biggest impact we make with our plays is usually on the cast, not the audience.)
If you do sketch drama, the cutesy humor and preachy endings that mark some scripts aren’t engaging people anymore-if they ever did. Topical, even satirical, humor-and endings that sometimes remain unresolved-will make people think.
But we don’t just need new forms for our work, we also need new content. Are we willing to tell stories that place Biblical events in a contemporary context? (Not in a humorous vein to make people laugh-but in a serious vein to help folks contemplate the underlying themes?)
How about narratives that confront “taboos” in the church, like racism or depression? Will we direct plays that challenge our audience to pursue social justice (e.g., working at a homeless shelter or supporting AIDS orphans in Africa)? Will we dare to choose a Christmas script that features a single-parent home, instead of the perfect middle-class family around the tree?
We need more compelling stories in the church; stories that show by example that Jesus loves the whole world. Even the big-time sinners.
George Halitzka is a writer and drama director with a passion for engaging people with the story of Jesus. He offers scripts, educational workshops, and consulting services for drama ministries nationwide. Visit him online atdramabygeorge.com.