Wrestling With Truth (part IV)

I have just returned from Spring Harvest, Skegness. There were a lot of personal things to mull over and great teaching and praying. There are two things, however, which relate to theatre and ministry which I want to share.

Firstly, during the main events each day, Saltmine Theatre Company ‘did drama’. I have never watched a Slatmine Theatre show and so all my opinions are based on what they did this week. I want to emphasise my admiration and Christian love for this company and their work. They are travelling the country and abroad with stories that genuinely change lives. With that being said…

The company were supposed to tell the story of Esther for the evening services in order to lay some foundation of understanding so the preachers could do their job. I was disappointed again and again when the story of Esther was transformed into a pantomime. This translation is not necessarily a bad thing. One preacher suggested that the story is a comedy and a pantomime and if this was pushed by all the preachers, or even the majority, I would have no problem. The preachers, however, were drawing serious and challenging interpretations from the text and this just emphasised the comic, flippant and over the top performances that supported the work of the preachers.

I witnessed again, a lack of appropriate use of theatre. The drama was inserted into a service that didn’t compliment it. The drama was like an after-thought. The preachers didn’t seem to appreciate the drama and so we, as a congregation, didn’t either.

The company also struggled to make poignant and challenging moments in the text be what they were. They inserted jokes, inappropriately and belittled the power of the story. The scrounging for jokes is just systemic of the Christian drama being performed in churches up and down the country. Where does this emphasis on jokes in drama come from? I believe it all stems from the pantomime genre in theatre.

Pantomime is a popular genre of theatre aimed at the mass market and used for entertainment. The engagement with the audience is obvious and fun. The actors get a cheap and immediate response from their audience, thus marking success. We all, actors especially, love success. If we can mark it we feel good about ourselves. This style of theatre allows this to happen. It also, however, limits the sacrifice needed for the actor. If the script is funny and the person has the skill and talent they will get a laugh. Comedy becomes structured. I’m not denying the need for a funny script but the commitment and investment from a company is limited.

Paul Merton admitted on Radio 2 last week that comedy is easy if you have the skill and you know if you’ve done a good job quickly. Drama demands investment, self sacrifice. You give with no response. You make a sacrifice, a self offering. There’s no mark of whether it’s had any impact in the immediate. You put yourself in a place and offer all you have with no expectation for a response.

Worship is about this. If drama is to be worship not just entertainment, there needs to be an element of sacrifice, commitment, giving of yourself not just your skill. The actors need to connect on a deep, individual way. The act of worship is for the actor as much as those who are watching. A worship leader must commit to worship and lead others in it. A musician can’t just use their skill and talent and use that to walk into the presence of God. They must pray and offer themselves, all of themselves and connect with God through His Spirit.

The other issue I had was the simple act of telling a story. In the attempts of achieving laughs they missed important plot details picked up on in the sermon. They took artistic licence on Scripture and, if I did not know the story would have a very skewed idea of this biblical narrative. Some nights, luckily, they read from the Bible as well and this helped in aiding the learning of the story. If, however, the drama needed a Bible reading to tell the story, what was its purpose? If it wasn’t to tell the story of Esther and it didn’t add some character interpretation that was to be explored, what was the need for it? Why do it?

The church needs desperately to have appropriate use of drama modelled. Drama is not just entertainment but is a way in which some can worship and others receive revelation from God. Comedy can be helpful but it needs to be balanced and appropriate. If, as a leader, one doesn’t pay attention to these dangers then Christian drama becomes pantomime and entertainment alone and, in an act of worship, belittles the presence of God.

The second thing that I want to share is a question that was raised during a seminar with Graham Cray. Graham Cray is involved in the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England and was influential in the ‘Mission Shaped Church’ report. He was doing two seminars on Fresh Expressions and I went to one focussing on the long term discipleship of those who had no church background. He was discussing the need for the second generation leaders in Fresh Expressions of church. He talked about maturing disciples into leadership roles and the long term commitment needed for this. He talked about statistics that showed Fresh Expressions losing their ‘DNA’ when the pioneer leaves the context.

This got me to thinking about my placement next year. I can only be present for two years. The members who may gather into a community will only be in Durham for a maximum of three years. What is the self life for this ministry? Its odd thinking about preparing to leave something before it’s even begun and may seem to be jumping the gun but the truth is I need to be prepared to begin the growth of new leaders and model leadership training to them so they can train the third generation and them the fourth and fifth, etc. If I fail to model good leadership training I could be leading the community that gather into emotionally damaging situation.

Graham Cray highlighted the need to be self sacrificial in our ministry. I need to be showing all those who potentially will join a community that discipleship is about ‘dying to live’. I need to model good discipleship and put it as one of the key aspects of the ‘DNA’. I need to commit to the relationships and as I meet and discuss things I also need to be aware of any potential leaders who are emerging and support them in their growth.


  1. Ned,Regarding your Cray comments, as with any leadership role that will be passed on transition is difficult. You make some really important points about the nature of leadership; that in the Church we have generally been able to put aside due to a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to much ministry, ordained and lay, in the past. However, with Fresh Expressions, the issue is, as we chatted about a few nights ago, how to make sure that the new incumbent of a fresh expression understands what 'theatre church' or 'punk church' means to those who gather in that particular fresh expression. Any slight variations in what 'theatre church' or 'punk church' is and might look like might easily tear at the roots of the established community.For me, when considering the transition of leadership, the core value to embody has always been, 'buddying'. In essence; drawing alongside people, sharing their load as they grow, carrying extra weight of reponsibility as and when needed, being pastorally sensitive to potential new leaders aspirations and realities.I suppose the other thing to consider regarding your placement, is the form which your placement will take.I was once asked to develop a ministry when I was in a particular situation for a short time. The expectation was that the project would continue after I left. After reflection and prayer it became clear that whilst the group I was with wanted a new project, the timeframe I had was too short and it led me to decide to draw alongside an existing project rather than establish a new one.I'm not sure if that last point is relevant in your situation, but as you'll remember, when we chatted I mentioned the emotional damage that can be done with a poor handover of leadership. What this means for you in your context, is as you quite rightly point out; the need to be identifying and mentoring potential leaders from very early into the work you will be doing.

  2. Thanks for your comment.Jesus models an early mentoring of disciples into leadership roles. He models the handing over of ministry early on. It's a sacrificial way of ministry. He didn't hold onto the power or the direction of the ministry but, as you said, 'buddied' the disciples and allowed them to grow into the leaders.

  3. Edward,I wanted to reflect on your words regarding Saltmine’s production. In the position you are in it is a risky task to outwardly criticise the production stile of a christen theatre company but I think you are total right to do so and I commend you for stating you opinion.We all know there are two ways of looking at theatre, drama and performance. You can ever entertain an audience by providing what they expect or you can challenge an audience and hope they take something from your performance that creates refection and discussion. Entertainment v. Education.Truly good shows will do both these things and really all theatre practitioners should aim to try to entertain and educate.On the wall of John Peel’s studio were the work “Don’t give them what they want. Give what they don’t know they want.”It seems to me it’s about your audience. I’ve seen the average spring harvest audience and I have to say they don’t seem like mature, avid theatre goers. All though they might be able to handle a massive sermon it takes experience to handle challenging theatre. I can total understand why Saltmines took a simplistic approach to this performance. Saying that, it isn’t really an excuse for not getting there point across. Whatever there motivations, any actor that want to be respected needs to be 100% committed to there craft.Thank you for your truth and honesty. Keep it up!

  4. All theatre should entertain and educate, I agree. The John Peel quote, however, undermines the fact that because Spring Harvest, in their present 'state', are not avid theatre goers does not mean we should not give them what they 'don't know what they want'. If Spring Harvest audience is not avid theatre goers then how do we know they wouldn't 'handle' challenging theatre? They have not had an opportunity. I can see why Saltmine may have taken the simplistic approach but the question I'm asking is where was the education? Do we have to simplify the theatre because the audience hasn't previously been challenged? Peter Brook (I'm an avid fan of his!) describes this as deadly theatre. A theatre that panders to the whims of an audience that may need stretching. To take St Paul's idea of weening a Christian mind on things of substance; I'd like to have seen some weening going on with the audience at Spring Harvest, to challenge them into seeing the power of theatre and maybe grow in their appreciation of the art form. I am not, and this needs to be emphasised, suggesting that Saltmine are incapable of creating challenging theatre, what I am commenting on is the choice of style they chose at Spring Harvest or the absense of challenge at the festival. Your comments are useful and to highlight the need for both entertainment and education is important and I'd suggest that Saltmine failed to educate and went for entertainment. I question this.

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