For What It's Worth: Theatre and Church


Theatre at its best communicates with an audience, challenges the views people hold and in the process creates a sense of community. It should also, in the widest sense, entertain. Theatre which only does one part of the job (for example, by communicating a message that merely confirms people's existing opinions) will not be achieving all that is there to be gained.

The basic premise of this work is that if we discuss the problems, features, opportunities and possible futures for the theatre, much of what we say can also be applied to church and worship also. A simple exercise will illustrate this assertion: reread the above paragraph substituting "worship" for "theatre": it still makes perfect sense. Why is this? What can the church learn from the theatre? What dramatic techniques can be brought into the worship and outreach of the church? This theological reflection seeks to address these questions.

This essay is written from a Christian perspective, but it should be acknowledged that much of the material presented could be applicable to other faiths. In common with much of the flavour of the wisdom and psalms literature found in the Old Testament, God's wisdom is displayed in all the earth. Taking the earthiness and practicality of this aspect of the Old Testament, this reflection does not go deep into the intricacies of the theology behind drama and theatre, instead it adopts a pragmatic street-corner approach: "Here is theatre - here is church, learn what you can!"

Barriers to Reflection

However, to begin, what are the barriers to church learning from theatre and vice versa? From the theatre side, there is sometimes the impression that churchgoers are narrow-minded and lacking in imagination. This is by no means a fair view. It can be argued that people of recognized faiths spend much more time thinking about the meaning of life, how things really are, what underlying values they hold, than the average person. It should be admitted that they do so from a specific standpoint, however this is the case for any individual.

Insensitive evangelization, or an individual artist's point on their journey of faith, may have much to do with this antagonism. An additional important factor will be the hostility that comes from many within the Christian church. Why is there this antagonism? For some, particularly those in the conservative evangelical wing of the church, there is a distrust of anything that detracts from the direct proclamation of the Bible. "If people are given space to think," goes the parody, "They might think the wrong thing." Books such as Edwards (1984) look at the lack of Biblical precedent for drama combined with the historic antipathy to drama and dance in the church and concludes that what the church needs in this day and age is better preaching. One gets the feeling reading this sort of analysis that if sermons aren't working (in terms of bringing people into church and through to faith) the answer is to make them longer! There would also appear to be some distrust of the idea that God's wisdom can be known by any other method than direct revelation. This reluctance would appear to go against the thrust of much of the Wisdom Literature, namely that we should seek God's wisdom in every nook and cranny of life.

Edwards gives a definition of "drama" that seems to me to be fair: "A play in verse, prose or mime of a story which develops a theme. It is performed by actors who represent other people, real or imagined." So, if we turn to the Bible to find "drama" within we will largely fail. There are certainly "dramatic" (in terms of being striking) incidents, but not what we would recognize as theatre. A look through "The Hodder Dictionary of Bible Themes" confirms this assertion. There is not space to fully address the issues raised here, but one answer is to regard the low profile of "drama" as solely a cultural issue. In a similar way to how we use microphones or OHPs in worship, with no explicit Biblical license, we should be happy to use and learn from drama. Perhaps a more timeless expression of people's need to tell, create and share in the way commonly seen in drama can be found in the concept of creativity. God is creative (Job 38:1-41, Ecc 3:11) and he is the source of human creativity (Ex 35:30-35), which can be used in the service of God (Ex 36:8), the worship of God (Ps 92:1-3, 98:5, 144:9, 149:1-3) but which can also be abused by sinful human beings and used to dishonor him rather than serve him (Hab 2:18). So drama, as an expression of God-given creativity, may have a place of honor in the life of faith.

So, the walls are there - but to be climbed over. If we make the effort, what can we learn?


The infrastructure of the theatre is primarily twofold: building and staff (ie: people). In this sense, it is very like the church. It is a popular aphorism that "the church isn't the building, it's the people" and the same can be said of the theatre. However, it is the case that a performance needs to take place somewhere and that for a theatre company, as with a church, it is much more convenient to have a home-base available for exclusive use. What is convenient for the provider is not necessarily what is best for the prospective audience. Roberts (2000) comments, "Why do evening performances often give people no time to eat? Why don't we broaden access in time - be open and provide services when people are free to take advantage of them? We could create arts multiplexes where all sorts of things happen (not just what we now call arts)". As Thorold (2000) points out, "The buildings that arts activity takes place in are dated, uncomfortable, often inaccessible and open at very inconvenient times of day," going on to say, "To attract young audiences live theatre needs to be cool. In urban areas particularly, theatres are competing with trendy bars and restaurants, the cinema and pubs. There are lessons to be learnt from these competitors." Lessons which also need to be considered by the churches.

One aspect that came to my attention through placement interviews more than reading was that there seems to be a perception that all the non-theatre building based activity (such as school work, street theatre, etc) is there as a mechanism for ultimately drawing people in to experience "real theatre" in the home building. It is my assertion that it is better to see such activities as being worthwhile in themselves, rather than as a conduit for people on the way to another place. In a similar way, when we have church house groups or pub groups that these should not be seen as mere funnels to "real" church but should be viewed as "proper" expressions of church in themselves.

Some theatres have developed a dependency culture when they have been reliant upon government handouts for too long, the relevance and quality of their work decreasing. Some churches can also be thought of as having gone down this route, depending on money from the Church Commissioners to such an extent that they have not had the need to interact with the community until it is too late as the money has run out.


Marketing has essentially two components: proclamation (telling people how good your product or production is) and experience (delivering what you promised to people). A situation where the audience have never heard of you, or where the barrier to entry is too high, will never gain a popular following. Hedley (2000) writes that, "Any arts organization where concessions go no lower than say £10 must have to accept they have decided to exclude at least a third of the population." Whilst most churches do not charge any admission price, there are other barriers common to both worlds. Hedley goes on to comment, "Another obstacle to widening accessibility can be the style of the marketing. Arts posters seem to me to be more often designed to impress other poster designers that to entice a newcomer to the arts." This reminds me of a poster I saw recently outside a local church: "Come to Pentecost Service on..." How many extra people will come to the service as a result of that poster I wonder?!

Hedley provides another useful insight when he comments, "Staff who meet the public should be retrained to be aware how much of their language is jargon. Imagine the mystification of the newcomer to such remarks as 'Well, we could put you in a box'. One moment of embarrassment on their first visit means that newcomer is not coming back." Such a remark could be doubly unfortunate at a funeral in a church with old-fashioned pews! But seriously, such lessons need to be heeded by all "welcome" staff and worship leaders.

Hedley comments that, "Removing obstacles to accessibility is one thing, being proactive about social inclusion is another. One of the most effective ways of doing this is unquestionably by employing a Community Liaison Officer (CLO)." Such an activity is a long-term proposition: building relationships with community organizations takes time. So, it needs confidence and determination to not be side-tracked by a week-by-week focus on getting bums-on-seats. The CLO is not to be merely outward looking: there is an important duty to express the voices of different local communities to the organization, giving the context within which events are designed.

Lastly, both church and theatre need to recognize the need (as a form of marketing and advertising) to educate young people to have any hope to reach out to future generations. Moynagh (part 5, 2000) describes the school system in which this will take place: more pressured and with greater technology. It is in this environment that theatre in education (TIE) and religious education will have to operate.

However well we do our infrastructure and marketing, there will be hardly any point if there is little a congregation or audience can connect with on the other side. With this thought in mind we turn to the "creative" side of theatre.


The word "creators" is meant to indicate both those that write material and those that speak it out. In much of the theatre world there is considerable overlap between the two as many actors have to double up as scriptwriters. This highlights the chronic and severe shortage of money within the artistic environment. As Rookmaaker writes, "The artist in our society is in a very peculiar position. On the one hand he is regarded very highly, almost like a high priest of culture who knows the inner secrets of reality. But on the other hand he is a completely superfluous person whom people like to think highly of but are quite ready to allow to starve." There will be many vicars, of either sex, who could find much to empathize with in this quotation. The point is that if our society wants to take seriously the spiritual and cultural, it needs to value the participants in these areas more than it does at present.

Within the theatre, there seem to be two main ways of approaching acting and playwriting. The first is Method-Acting put forward by Stanislavski. The second is Epic Narrative Theatre (ENT), promoted by Brecht (1994). Essentially the difference is that in the former the actor becomes steeped in the character they are attempting to portray, self-emptying themselves in a way suggestive of Vanstone (1977), so that they can more effectively convince the audience that they are really the person they are purporting to be on stage. With ENT, the actor is more obviously involved co-operatively with the audience in a series of stories (hence, "Epic Narrative"). Both have their advantages and limitations. In church we can see a comparable difference in approach, with the Anglo-Catholic wing being similar in practice (if not in intent) to Method Acting, and with the Evangelical wing (for example, in their attitude towards theology of the Eucharist) tending towards an ENT-type understanding. Whichever approach is taken, the artist or worship leader is emotionally exposed as with, "What do you think of it?" the question really being asked can be, "What do you think of me?" (Schaeffer p27, 1990). Indeed, if this is not the case there is a case for saying that one has become a second-hand actor (Forde p26, 1986) whose insincerity people will eventually see through whatever part one tries to play.

Creative Process

The traditional view of the creative process by which a script and subsequently an event is put together has been one of the lone man (for such were most writers in the past) sitting in his room laboring on a script. Frequently the approach is now to get together a multi-discipline group - for some reason called a "pod" group - in order to pool experience, spark off ideas and provide a multi-view input into the creative problem. Such groups can be very structured and methodical in their approach - they don't just dive in and start writing after someone has had a "bright idea": all aspects of the situation are explored using methods which would not be out of place in traditional business problem-solving.

This team-based method, using a mixture of inspiration and business techniques, for me is very striking in an area which often is viewed as being off-the-cuff and unplanned. Perhaps it is an approach which would commend itself to the leader(s) of a church or group of churches.

Creative Event

The essence of any creative event, be it someone watching television, reading a book, looking at a picture, going to the theatre or attending a church service is communication: something must pass from the event to the audience. The nature of that communication, however, is highly dependent upon the medium used to enable such a transfer. It is important that, whichever route is used, it is done using language, structure and technology that is relevant and accessible. Only in this way can communication be challenging. However, even if these factors are optimized for individual communication media, it is my assertion that with the theatre or the church it is also more likely that a sense of community will arise.

Christians sometimes take the attitude that what is communicated in a play must have an easily identified meaning and moral, preferably religious. Otherwise a play can be labeled as useless. Schaeffer (p87, 1990) argues that though art may be useless (in terms of performing a propagandist rôlé) it is far from meaningless. Moltmann's book endorses this theme by encouraging us to "sing in exile" (p25, 1973) with echoes of Ps 137. As we have seen above, we believe in a creative God who, as illustrated in Job 41, in some sense balances the creative and orderly sides of the universe in a risky but ultimately successful performance. As most of the Christian writers in the bibliography argue, we are called to play in purpose-free rejoicing (Moltmann p15&80, 1973). This is not to say that Christian values are not to be found in the work of a Christian, but that Christians should be encouraged to work in mainstream theatre without being made to feel guilty that they are not propagating an overtly Christian message. The corollary for the church is that leaders should feel more relaxed about having events where "an answer" is not rammed down people's throats: where space is left for individuals to reflect and form their own opinion.

If Christians sometimes look too much for a moral message, others connected with the theatre can be looking for a cultural experience. The danger here is that a play falls into the danger of what Peter Brooke terms "deadly theatre": an event which gives sufficient boredom to validate that a person has had a cultural experience. It goes without saying that a number of church services would satisfy the criteria for "deadly church": an event which gives sufficient boredom to validate that a person has had a religious experience.

What should be communicated then? I would argue that in both theatre and church we should not be prescriptive. That what we should be about is providing the opportunity to be challenged leaving the content, the contents of the challenge which is communicated up to individual circumstances and preferences. The fact is that the intrinsic nature of theatre, and one hopes the church, leads to a greatly increased chance of a person being challenged by what they see and hear. It is not like other media, like television, pictures, etc, where one can turn away in one's own time. More than this: there is something enthralling about being told a story face-to-face. There is a special resonance that goes deep into our psyche as we reach back over the years to when we were first told stories by our parents. It is a predilection that we find addressed and catered for in the Bible as we read great narratives of God's dealing with his people. We are challenged with theatre as our minds are engrossed: we know that everything that goes on a stage - movement, action, sound - has meaning. Thought fills the stage when nothing is going on (Forde p30-39, 1986). The same is true in the best church service. Howarth (2000) writes, "It is the nature of Art that it frequently poses radical challenges and insists on values which the day to day political debates about power and money largely ignores. It bridles at political correctness and insists on dealing with contemporary issues in a direct and forthright way. Occasionally it repels as well as challenges." Would that our church today had a similar nature!

So the best theatre communicates in a way that people pick up the challenges appropriate to them. There is, however, one challenge that is relevant to all and which is getting more difficult to fulfill: the challenge of living in community.

As society becomes more fragmented under the pressure of changing lifestyles and enabled by unthinking application of technology, the sense of community becomes increasing tenuous. To form a community takes at least two entities - in the case of theatre, artists and audience. You cannot have a communion service in church unless there is a president and congregation. In a similar way, there cannot be a theatre performance without artists and audience. For a performance to take place there must be trust between artist and audience - that the play will be of good quality, that the audience will take the risk of turning up and engaging. For real community to arise, real humanity must be recognized in self and others. As Forde describes (p41, 1986), acting is ultimately about learning to be a real person. Surely the same can be said about appreciating the nuances and subtlety of a play and also about growing and maturing in faith.

Barriers to community come from both sides - the theatre professionals become too wrapped up in their own gratification and fulfillment. Hedley (2000) comments, "...a healthy arts organization must touch with actual and potential audiences. Reflecting their interests, checking that all communications with them really connect, listening to them, making them feel welcome." Howarth (2000) suggests that there is a challenge to the arts world to "change the culture of culture." Barriers also come from the audience who may expect to be entertained wholly on their terms. Audiences may not risk coming to see an event despite the fact that they have been satisfied and fulfilled in the past. Sometimes they want easy answers - for the church, Ecclesiastes is a resource to fight against this however there is always the risk of alienation and conflict should this route be chosen. In the short term it is much easier to put on what the punters want even if this leads to problems of boredom and dissatisfaction in the long run.

The range of issues which find parallels with church are hopefully so apparent to not require spelling out - the solutions are common to both arenas: those organizing events should ensure they give more emphasis on connecting than on doing things they are happy with; audiences and congregations should be more willing to take a risk with new concepts and styles. Hedley (2000) writes, "The more widely representative the audience is of the local or city-wide community the more the whole experience means for performers and audience. An audience mixed in age race and class will at first react differently in different parts of the auditorium as the play produces different resonances. Gradually you can feel the audience subconsciously uniting to find themselves as a group. The more narrow the audience in its composition the less the play means." Transferring this to church, we need to strive for diversity in all aspects of the life of the church: not necessarily by all meeting together all the time, but by some other synthesis. This may be at times uncomfortable, especially when it is first attempted, but only a diverse church is truly expressive of the body of Christ.


Much has been said with regard to audiences in the preceding section. This part of the essay moves on to look at the composition of the audience. At the risk of too broad a generalization, the typical theatre audience is two-thirds female, middle/upper-class, middle/older-age. Of course, none of these segments are bad in themselves! However, as described above, to achieve the "best" community, there needs to be a wide range of interests and experiences. Theatre has the desire to widen its appeal, but also needs to be realistic in targeting audiences given its current range of products - as Roberts suggests: "We should stop our obsession with youth - people over 40 are valid audience members and participants too! We don't run campaigns to bring the over 60's into night-clubs." For both church and theatre there is a delicate balancing act - we want to welcome all sectors in, but not at the risk of alienating those people we already have. Welcoming new audiences may require the development of innovative ways of being theatre or church.

One striking aspect of the composition of both theatre audience and church congregation is the lack of males in both. As far as I am aware there has been no study on gender balance in theatre audiences. Wakefield (1988) has produced one applicable to the church scene. There is insufficient space here to explore this issue in depth, but perhaps the greater tendency of men to problem-solve and compete compared to women's greater preference to network and communicate lies behind this difference. The question then arises, do we try and alter men's behavior and perception or change the experience that makes up theatre/church to equalize this aspect? Interestingly, Wakefield does not seem to consider the latter option. Again, there is not time to fully debate whether this route would be practical or desirable, but one could postulate that a more practical, participatory theatre/church might attract more men.

The Future

Although not explicitly mentioned in Moynagh's (2000) analysis of likely future scenarios, there are number of conclusions within this book/magazine which are likely to have an impact on the theatre:-

  • new technology will have a significant impact
  • 24hr culture will mean people have less free time, or at least they will feel that way
  • consumerism and personalized scale will give people the sense that all products should have a "perfect fit"
  • less government funding will be available as due to the impact of the Internet and multinationals the tax base will be much lower
  • the explosion of media channels will mean that there is less common language
  • as the move from an education ethos to a training culture in schools continues, there may be even less time in schools for "softer" subjects such as arts as opposed to more "useful" topics such as computing.

In summary, the future holds the prospect of a battle between a "relational society", where "much greater emphasis would be placed on developing healthy relationships of mutual fulfillment" and a "technical society" being seen "continuing to emphasize technical solutions to problems." (Moynagh p113, 2000)

Both theatre and society have key decisions to make: whether to pander to the technical society by largely giving up the idea of meeting together in favor of utilizing new technology channels such as the Internet and/or digital TV; or, holding to the centrality of community for theatre and church whilst being willing and able to ditch outmoded methods and buildings.

An important decision to be made will involve the size and scope of theatre or church. It is likely that increased numbers of small sector-based groups will be initiated. At the opposite extreme, larger cross-traditional churches/theatres will develop, perhaps drawing upon feeds from smaller groups in their area. The traditional midrange churches/theatres will struggle, having neither the small scale to provide personal service or the large size to provide a professional quality product or buzz that sometimes comes from being in a large group.

The current audience/congregation need to be brought on board as equal partners in these transformations. Only in this way will they be able to accept and enable change. As society changes, they have a vital rôlé in communicating the way things really are to those who would act out the truth in church or theatre. The audience/congregation has a responsibility which comes with their privileges: to stand aside from contemporary culture but not adrift. They need to be sufficiently free of the consumer culture to not demand a "perfect product" which never chaffs or rubs. The tension is that they also need to be close enough to speak the same language, translating to those who seek to communicate the deepest truths in many tongues.


Both in the theatre and the church, there are often debates over why attendances are falling and why interest and prestige is decreasing. Often the argument centers on "truth" - either "the church isn't preaching the right message" or "the theatre is doing the wrong sort of plays". The church must wake up to the fact that so much of what it does inside its building is frankly boring and out of touch with society. That "truth", in terms of what sort of message (be it liberal or literal) is important - but pointless if there is no-one listening. The theatre must wake up to the fact that so much of what does inside its building is frankly irrelevant. That "truth", in terms of the artistic endeavor and challenges that are carried through are important - but pointless if there is nothing to be heard. Deadly theatre and deadly church are both terminal cases. Perhaps Christian theatre companies, with their fusion of style and truth, are not always perfect but they would seem to be good beacons to follow.

The nature of both theatre and church is that to be successful they each need to have community in order to challenge and communicate. With both there are a host of detailed hints and tips which can usefully be shared between each camp. More important than this, however, is that they each should be done "for what it's worth". Sometimes used dismissively, for me this concept sums up what theatre, church, indeed the whole of life, has to be lived under and for. When we understand the importance of community, mutually challenging and jointly communicating, and its place within the creative universe of God, then we will abide in "the joy of God and the enjoyment of each other in God" (Moltmann p80, 1973). We will be truly performing, worshiping and living "for what it's worth." Not with any human cleverness, or pretend piety, but with our hearts full of the joy of creating as our Father creates, bringing meaning out of suffering as Jesus does, communicating deep truths as we allow the Holy Spirit to groan within us.


Brecht, Bertolt: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Methuen Student Edition, London 1994

Burbridge, Paul & Watts, Murray: The Best Time to Act, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1995

Edwards, Brian: Shall We Dance, Evangelical Press, Welwyn Herts 1984

Forde, Nigel: The Lantern and the Looking Glass, SPCK, London 1997

Forde, Nigel: Theatrecraft, Monarch Publications Eastbourne 1986

Hedley, Philip: Expecting Company, Arts Marketing Association, 2000

Howarth, Alan: The Minister's View, Arts Marketing Association, 2000

Judd, Graham: Soul of Britain: Art for Art's Sake, BBC TV 23/07/00 (copy available)

Kidner, Derek: The Christian and the Arts, IVP, London 1968

Manser, Martin H. (ed): The Hodder Dictionary of Bible Themes, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London

Moltmann, Jürgen: Theology and Joy, SCM Press Ltd, London 1973

Moynagh, Michael & Worsley, Richard: Tomorrow, Lexicon Editorial Services Limited, London 2000

Roberts, Anne: A New Formula for a New Century, Arts Marketing Association, 2000

Rookmaaker, HR: Art Needs no Justification, IVP, Leicester 1978

Schaeffer, Franky: Sham Pearls for Real Swine, Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers Inc, 1990

Thorold, Nicola: Key Issues, Arts Marketing Association, 2000

Vanstone, VH: Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 1977

Wakefield, Gavin: Where are the Men?, Grove Books Limited, Nottingham 1988

Watts, Murray: Christianity and the Theatre, The Hansel Press Ltd, Edinburgh 1986

Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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