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The Power of Drama
Drama in the church is not a new phenomenon. As early as the tenth century, short dramatic scenes were incorporated into the mass of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the first recorded playlets, the Quem Quaeritis, depicted the three Marys visiting Christ's tomb after His resurrection. The appeal of drama, as strong in the Middle Ages as it is today, gradually led to more and more of the mass being dramatized. In the fourteenth century, drama production within the church had grown in scope and, for the most part, was moved outside the church walls. However, realizing drama was a means to teach the biblical record to a non-literate laity, the church maintained control over much of play production into the sixteenth century.
The church's view of theatre was not always so positive. Centuries earlier (a.d. 533), it was the church's attack on the morally corrupt Roman theatre that eventually succeeded in stopping formal theatre activity. How ironic that this same church, some four hundred years later, resurrected drama to serve its own ends! But as drama grew increasingly secular, the church began again, as it had in the past, to struggle with it. The early Puritans, especially suspicious of theatre, wielded enough influence in the seventeenth century to once again quell theatre activity.
Since that time, the relationship between church and theatre has often been a rocky one. Any Christian involved in drama has experienced some of the struggle. Back in the 1970s I was teaching at a small Christian college in Iowa and leading a drama performance group that traveled to different churches. The actors and I were often relegated to the church basement (drama couldn't be done in the sanctuary!) and would frequently be required to perform after church (a drama presentation couldn't be incorporated into a worship service!). I recall frequently being weary of the battle. I felt I had to fight so hard for the right to do what I believed God had called me to do that by the time I got "permission" to do it, I had little energy left for the task.
Thankfully, for the most part, things have changed. Today, as we approach the twenty-first century, much of the church is once again embracing the value of drama. In fact, one can argue that we are experiencing a true renaissance of this art form in the church. However, though drama is being accepted, most churches lack the initiative to launch, in a serious way, a drama ministry. Oftentimes drama is merely regarded as something the "young people" do. While most church leaders could not conceive of the notion of no music in the church, they think of drama as merely a nice add-on.
In a little book called Christianity and Theatre, Murray Watts writes, "Drama . . . has become the dominant form of artistic communication in the western world." One might argue, "Watts is a theatre person, so of course he would believe this." But even if we grant Watts a bit of prejudice in calling drama the dominant form, no one would argue the fact that drama is a dominant form of communication. To see the extent to which drama arrests the imagination of people worldwide, just look at the multi-billion-dollar movie and television industries. Drama is a major form of communication that people like and respond to, and it's misdirected for the church not to take it seriously. The bride of Christ is called to communicate His truth to a desperately needy world, yet too often we leave out of our arsenal one of the most significant and effective forms of communication known.
The "E" Word
The problem for some who oppose the use of drama in the church is the idea that drama is merely "entertainment." These people assert that "the church should be about the task of saving souls, not about entertainment."
Yes, drama is entertainment, but this fact does not need to be a negative -- even in church. Those who object to "entertainment" in the church usually have a limited definition of it. To them it connotes that which is cheap, glitzy, and worldly -- the worst of Las Vegas.
But entertainment can also be truthful and enlightening. Good drama can bring out wholesome laughter or move us deeply. Entertainment for entertainment's sake has no place in church, but entertainment that touches someone's heart and makes that person more open is not only valid, it is desirable.
Another group, while not opposed to drama in the church, views it as appropriate only for those churches that have a more contemporary edge, those that are "seeker focused." Drama, they argue, shouldn't be part of a traditional worship experience because at the core, worship and entertainment are antithetical. Any element that hints of "entertainment" is labeled inappropriate. But isn't a Bach organ piece or a Handel choral work in a more traditional service entertainment? It's time that we set aside the entertainment issue and get on with the task to which we are called -- to present the Good News with as much energy and creativity as possible!
Posted April 30, 2006