With Them For Them
Why use theater and drama in youth ministry?
The most natural tendency, when considering the use of theater (the activity of acting in, producing, directing or writing plays) and drama (an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events) in youth ministry, is to laughingly envision one or more of the following scenarios:
- a youth pastor donning a Bible costume with his arms in the air in front of a crowd of disinterested adolescents, or
- a group of nervous youth fumbling through partially-memorized lines in front of a wary congregation, or even
- an expensive, disassociated performing troupe entertaining congregants as youth serve plates of spaghetti to raise money for a trip.
I know this, because I’ve seen this: as a youth, as an invested layperson, and admittedly as a theater director. Those methods serve a purpose. I know why these decisions are made. But, I am increasingly convinced that these semi-practical approaches are not the most spiritually effective way to use theater and drama in your church, and to most church workers who are invested in teaching the youth about their Savior, Jesus Christ, this is not even remotely Scripturally appealing. In fact, the very suggestion of utilizing theater and drama in ministry can be downright stressful because of all of these tested (and sometimes failed) practices. Trust me when I say that it doesn’t have to be this way.Theater in #YouthMinistry allows you to approach the development of Biblical knowledge differently. Click To Tweet
First, using theater and drama in youth ministry allows you to approach the development of Biblical knowledge differently. Youth of all ages love stories. Yet, these boys and girls are being bombarded every day with hundreds of opposing messages that attempt to belittle and invalidate the Law and Gospel. These children need something different to crowd out antagonistic voices, to distract from the mayhem of multimedia, to steer vulnerable and curious eyes, ears, and hearts towards something far more lasting. But, how do we do this using theater and drama?
By following Jesus’ example. Jesus recognized a very specific, human desire in His followers: a desire to see. He patiently and willingly provided His followers’ minds with pictures by telling stories with eternal value. Jesus told parables that made connections, drew descriptive illustrations, described inner and outer struggles, and pointed to the Kingdom of God. This was done so that His listeners would know who He was, and so that we all, in turn, would hear and believe the Gospel.
Therefore, be discerning. Avoid defaulting to choosing random skits or Christian “look-alike” material on the internet to fill this important role. Wisely assess the materials you find, seek close and trusted resources with or in fellowship with your church body, and critically examine what you already have with colleagues whenever possible. Keep in mind that shallow, poorly-written skits, full-length plays, and read-alouds with weak theology ultimately end up serving one purpose: to be entertaining and visually appealing to those using it and viewing it. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment in general. In fact, those spaghetti fundraising dinners are some of the best ways to spend an evening of fellowship in support of the youth. Laughing, too, serves a purpose. Laughing is cathartic, and comedy points out flaws in ourselves, which makes it a little easier for us to be gracious with our own idiosyncrasies and those of others. But, when the theology of the cross becomes convoluted, when it leaves the young person (or any audience member) questioning grace, the validity of Jesus’ message, and the eternal life He offers through His death and resurrection, we have failed to do what we set out to do: to teach young people about Jesus and about the salvation that is theirs through Christ alone. Don’t sacrifice quality for hype. Teach first. Always teach.
Second, using theater and drama in youth ministry allows you the opportunity to include youth in the learning process. This might be your goal, or it might be an absolutely daunting suggestion, considering the youth you serve. But, remember: if we make the goal of theater and drama in youth ministry to be about the development of their Biblical knowledge, then our goal is already taking an educational approach. It is my belief that you simply can not take an educational approach without including the student. In all of my sixteen years of directing, it has been my greatest joy to watch the youth of our theater and drama program grow and learn, and they often learn at a much greater depth when they physically involve themselves in the learning. How do we use theater and drama to do this? Cast the youth themselves, and even the adults, in the plays and skits, and in as many roles as possible: big roles, small roles, speaking roles, non-speaking roles, anything. Placing them in a position of perspective, giving them an opportunity to see life from somebody else’s viewpoint, will teach them greater empathy for others, and will also teach them about themselves. For those who refuse to give acting a try, give them behind-the-scenes tasks. Assign them professional titles like stage manager, lighting technician or assistant director. Small skits, large productions, it doesn’t matter. Giving a young person, or anyone, a very specific duty gives them an incredible amount of self-respect, and most will rise up to meet professional expectations if given a chance to do so. Not always automatically. Not always in the way that you want or expect them to, but they do, and they will learn a great deal about themselves and about how uniquely God has made them to be.
Here’s an example: I had a student, we’ll call her Jennifer, who was very shy. She had a very small voice and yet an enormous personality. She also had very low self-esteem. She had a huge desire to be cast in a large role, but she did not have the physical strength to project her voice on stage. This becomes a very real problem when the message about Jesus Christ and His redeeming love is so very important. So, I worked with Jennifer in order to give her the opportunity to practice and develop the projection she needed to translate the story on stage at an audible level. It frustrated her. It even angered her parents when I refused to give her larger roles. I reassured them that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, or that I wouldn’t. I knew she would eventually learn how to project the way she needed to. Instead, I had a very different concern.
Jennifer’s obsession with gaining a lead role became highly emotional for her. Her great, unrelenting desire to be cast in a larger role was an indication of a far deeper problem: she wasn’t content. She wanted to be somebody else, anybody else, to make a statement. She wanted to be someone other than the person God created her to be. It fact, it wasn’t even about sharing the message for her anymore. It was about herself, and she feared being cast off. It was a sad and disappointing situation. I wanted to teach Jennifer that a desire to simply “be more important” than someone else wasn’t a healthy mindset to have when serving with and in the Church. So, I encouraged her, directed her, and prayed that she would see her value first in Jesus’ eyes instead of in everybody else’s.
One very special Christmas season, things began to change for this young lady. We were in the middle of producing a full-length stage play that made use of what we “church theater people” call human videos. If you’ve ever directed one, been in one, seen one, then you know what I’m talking about. Simply put, human videos are a live-action, non-speaking choreographed interpretation of a pre-recorded song. Whether it be a hymn, a song recorded by a current artist, or an original piece performed live, a “human video” is just another way of using theater and drama in ministry to interpret the message of the Gospel.
In this Christmas production, I cast a number of our girls, including Jennifer, as dancers in our human video interpretation of Michael W. Smith’s “Hope of Israel” (Christmastime, 1998). The girl was stunning. We didn’t know how much of a “ballerina” she really was until that moment. She didn’t use her voice at all. The performance was a beautiful picture of the Gospel message told in the recording of the song and emphasized by the girls’ choreography. After the performance Jennifer’s mother and father approached me with tears in their eyes. They said, “Jennifer has never looked more confident. Thank you for giving her a purpose on stage and a very specific role in the telling of the Christmas story.”
From that point on, Jennifer’s confidence blossomed. She slowly gained a better understanding of the fact that the God-given talents and gifts she already had could be used to tell His story! She learned that sharing the Gospel is more important than how she did it in comparison to anybody else. In fact, it wasn’t even about anybody else or even herself. It was about Him and what He’d done for her. This was the most important lesson of all! Eventually, she truly started to see that her own gifts and talents made her a very special and important part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). What an incredible lesson for an adolescent to learn at such an impressionable age: at an age when the world is telling her that she isn’t and never will be anything of substance.
How do we further understand the importance of getting young people involved in theater and drama ministry? By remembering this simple truth: being a part of the “bigger picture” is extremely important to a young person. If they do not feel involved or included in something bigger than themselves, it is very difficult for them to see themselves as an important part of anything, much less the Church. I don’t mean to say that we should cater to everybody’s ego. I did not want to give Jennifer a larger role just to make her feel good about herself. No, I’m talking about reminding young people of their unique significance to a great and almighty God. This very significance, illustrated in what Jesus has done for them on the cross and through the empty tomb, is important when raising and teaching future leaders in our Church. I strongly believe that one of the greatest things you can do as a youth pastor or a church worker, when using theater and drama in ministry, is to say to one of these precious children, “I have a very specific role for you. No one else can fill it. We want you.” Even the least-willing youth group attendee will hear significance and love in this, whether they respond to the call or not.
Third and last, using theater and drama in youth ministry gives you the opportunity to remind youth that what they did in your church’s production does not end with the curtain call. Having directed numerous theater productions, I am always struck with how attached the participants get to the production itself and to each other. Even a brief skit can have the same effect. The emotion that is attached to telling stories is incredible. The bonds that form are strong. The common thread that unifies the participants to achieve the one goal is why clubs and sports teams work so well in those formative junior high and high school years. When a season is over, when the school year comes to an end, when graduation happens, when the cast and crew say their final good-byes to the story they’ve been telling for a while, they go through a predictable grieving process. They question, “What’s to come? Is this the end?” It can get highly emotional for everybody.
Emotions aside, however, it’s important to tell your youth that no, this is not the end of telling and sharing the message of Jesus Christ at all! In fact, church ministry and education only ends with the inevitable return of Jesus Christ. Right now the Holy Spirit is doing the work, and this is why working together is so unifying. He’s bringing together the hearts that are His, hearts that serve and worship Him through the arts, hearts that seek Him, hearts that are actively communicating love to those around them through the plays they perform or the stories they tell, hearts that belong to the bigger picture, the Universal Church. This does not end with a curtain call! It goes on and on and on in the lives of Christians every day.
It is also important to remind youth that there is one very important thing that also unifies us (and condemns us at the same time): it is the reality that we are all sinners and in need of a redemptive Savior. Remind your youth, from the pre-production stage to the post-production stage, that this is true. If you do this, you will be building your “theater house” on the Rock. Remind them, too, that we do have a Savior, and that our task is only complete when Jesus Christ returns. Regardless of how many plays they produce, or skits they write, every day in every area of their lives they have an opportunity not to pretend to be a follower, but to be a follower. Hallelujah!
Keep in mind that putting on a theater and drama production is not easy. It is not void of problems or arguments or mismanagement. Drama is dramatic, and you will find yourself with a mess of this stuff at some point: with the youth, with their parents, maybe even with the lay people who come to see the production. This is not always the case, but it is more than likely in most places at some point to varying degrees. Be encouraged. Your position does not define who you are, nor does your attempt to put on a successful theater production. Jesus Christ defines you, and you are redeemed. Jesus Christ has won the victory for you, and He has commanded you to share the Good News with others.
So, go. Teach youth about Jesus, and even use theater and drama if it seems appropriate in your educational and church setting. Ask for help. Pray for wisdom as you provide these children with greater Biblical knowledge. Allow them to participate in the re-telling and the re-telling and the re-telling of the glorious Gospel. Remind them that they are called to do this continuously, by the grace of God, in whatever they do and wherever they go for the rest of their lives. And, at the end of every production, lead your cast and crew in praying and proclaiming a glorious truth: to God be the glory! Amen!
Photo by andrebog at Morguefile.com