I’ve just returned from the Riding Lights Summer Theatre School which I go to each year. This week is very special for me as it is where I began my relationship with Jesus, where I met my wife, where I proposed to her, where I found a lot of my closest and dearest friends and where I feel most at home with the worship and approach to ministry. I want to talk a bit about the community of this summer school and how it might be developed into a year long life enhancer.
There are countless testimonies, like mine, where people have arrived at summer school from a local church where they don’t feel they belong for one reason or another and feel a strong sense of ‘homecoming’. It’s difficult to put a finger on what causes this feeling to happen with so many people. Is it the shared passion for theatre? Is it the intensity at which relationships are formed? Is it the deep challenges of the week that ask each member to search the depths of their souls for truth to communicate on stage? It’s all these things and many more.
The summer school models an approach to Christian discipleship that is attempted week in week out across the country in small groups, cell groups, house groups, etc. Riding Lights Summer School, however, is unashamed to ask deep and important questions of the participants; why? There is an inherent pressure to produce a performance at the end of a week and so time passes quickly and every moment in rehearsal counts. Therefore, participants, if they are to fully engage with a performance must offer their whole selves in order to communicate truths on stage.
I had an interesting conversation with designer Sean Cavanagh, who has worked with Riding Lights for many years. He suggested that our culture is so interested in making everyone feel like they need to express themselves that people don’t give much thought to what they are expressing or even to who they are that they are expressing. Those involved in encouraging self expression may believe that everyone knows themselves but actually self knowledge should not be assumed. What this problem leads to is people believing they are expressing themselves when in fact they are merely copying someone else in the hope that they will become what they express.
Walking around the Summer School and watching people interacting with each other I saw a lot of people desperate to express themselves but unsure as to who they actually are. Summer School encourages these people to discover who they really are because the company and those working on the courses are not interested in superficiality, they actively seek truth and real people. Your story will not be shared unless it’s truthful and honest.
In the middle of the week, the young people hold a service for the wider community. There is always a slot for testimonies and this year there were three. Two of them were honest and real and powerful and one was not and you could tell which ones meant something by the impact they had on the congregation. I felt a real sense of the possibility for churches to be this honest and frank with each other; the need for unashamedly seeking truthful engagement rather than allowing people to wear the masks for long periods of time. Church should be a place where people are almost forced to take off their masks and superficialities and be released to be ‘themselves’. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it’s risky but while churches allow people the time and space to feel accepted with the masks on the more painful it will be to persuade them to take them off.
All the testimonies of people feeling they belong with Riding Lights Summer School continue on to tell of the difficulty of going back to the community where they came from having experienced the naked, raw honesty of Riding Lights Summer School. They return and soon forget the freedom and liberation felt and return to the masks that they put down. the summer school becomes a yearly chance to allow the air to get to the wounds only to return to covering it up until the next year. How could Riding Lights continue this ministry into the other 51 weeks of the year?
I’m beginning to feel that Riding Lights is an important tool for modelling church (see Riding Lights Theatre Church post). The network that they have across the country and beyond is a community of people who are passionate about telling truthful, risky and powerful stories; they are a group of people who are not satisfied with expected and safe. I know that Riding Lights Theatre Company feel they must appease the members but I think they can be honest and bold at saying “We do not compromise the truth.”
There are people out there who are not members of Riding Lights but who have this same passion. It would be great to show them the power of honest and raw storytelling and invite them to participate in the work. The summer school is a place where Riding Lights concentrates on what it does best, drawing out truthful stories from all people and shows them their true reflection. This work is important for everyone.
The company is asking “How do we involve the members more?” I say “Do what you do best… invite them to tell stories, honest and real, to share themselves with others, unmasked and painfully raw.”, “How do we do this?”, “To ask, unashamedly direct, for people to do it. To say to each member “We want your story? Who are you? How does your story fit with ours and God’s?””
My placement this year will help me to see the power of discovering where our personal stories fit into something bigger releases and liberates people and that they are encouraged to step into reality and ask big questions of themselves. This, I hope, will feed into the powerful ministry of Riding Lights.
Their work is essential for the Kingdom of God and to consider this wealth of experience and gifting and passion to fade away is unthinkable. If the company stops I will only reinvent the wheel in the future!