Berean cogitations

Monday, October 08, 2007

On the judicious use of drama in church

One of the more contentious issues in Christendom today pertains to the use of drama in the church. Many people applaud it, whereas some consider it to be inappropriate for a church service. Needless to say, this topic often leads to angry discussions and bitter contentions.

Personally, I have grave reservations on the use of drama within church. Please don't get me wrong; I don't object to it per se. I do think that there are times when drama can be useful. Specifically,

  • It's useful as a memory aid. People are more likely to remember the story of Esther, for example, if they see it acted out rather than merely written.
  • It's helpful for making emotional appeals. I know of one church, for example, that had somebody act out a day in the life of a single mother, with all the travails that she endured. That's surely useful as well.
  • A little bit of drama can also be used to illustrate a point. Christmas plays, for example, often illustrate the momentousness of Christ's coming. Easter passion plays tend to remind people of the tremendous suffering that Jesus endured during his last days on Earth. A little bit of tasteful theatrics can help drive a point home.
Having said that, I do think that drama should be used sparingly and cautiously. I think that many churches go overboard in their use of drama. They say that it is used for teaching purposes, but frankly, I suspect that it is actually used as a means of entertainment and filling up the pews.

Somebody once told me about a skit that he saw during a church service. This skit featured a handyman fumbling around, trying to get his power tools to work, all with comedic effect. He had the audience practically rolling in the aisles. Eventually, he realized that he had forgotten to plug his tools in. At that point, he turns to the audience and says "That's how it is with the Holy Spirit, folks! Unless you're plugged into it, you can't tap its power!"

Some would defend this on the grounds that it's meant to illustrate a point, but I think that's a stretch. Such an elementary principle ("You need to get plugged into the Spirit") surely doesn't merit any elaborate, comedic routine in order to be grasped. This skit took an awfully circuitous route in order to illustrate a trivally simple, one-sentence point. At the risk of being judgmental, it strikes me as entertainment rather than real teaching.

Which leads to my second concern. As I mentioned earlier, I think that drama has its place, but that it should be used sparingly. When churches use drama too frequently, people come to think of it as an integral part of worship. Many churches even have dramatic skits at every service, and I think that's a subtle snare. It's like having dessert at every meal; once you take it away, people tend to think that something is lacking -- that they're no longer having a proper meal. This is especially true of church skits that are overly comedic or otherwise overtly entertaining.

Finally, I think that when churches have drama at every single service (or nearly every service), then it's probably not teaching much that's substantial. Drama can be used to teach fairly elementary points, such as the need to love one's neighbor. In contrast, I don't think it's particularly useful for teaching deeper matters of the Word -- how to interpret the Word accurately, for example, or how to defend the divinity of Christ. Oh, I suppose that you could have two actors engaged in a mock debate on stage, but in such situations, the "drama" amouns to nothing more than talking heads -- a sermon that's delivered on stage. The dramatic content ultimately contributes little to the message.

I know that some people absolutely love the use of drama in the church. I also know that it's an effective way to fill up the pews. I'm very cautious about its effects though, and I think that its usefulness is often exaggerated. Most importantly, I'm concerned that its frequent use can lead to a severe dumbing down of the message, such that milk is preached with very little meat. I think that many churches have already gone too far down that path, and that more will follow.