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Base Worship Drama on the Lectionary

In contrast to Jeff Barker, who often presents Old Testament passages as brief plays or mimes in place of or during the sermon text, John Steven Paul writes liturgical plays long enough to replace the sermon.

In contrast to Jeff Barker, who often presents Old Testament passages as brief plays or mimes in place of or during the sermon text, John Steven Paul writes liturgical plays long enough to replace the sermon.

“I have been writing liturgical plays—designed to fit into worship services like sermons—for 18 years,” says Paul, a theatre professor and director of the Soul Purpose drama ministry at Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Indiana.

He bases a play on a lectionary reading but writes it so that the congregation “hears echoes or allusions to the other readings and psalm for the day.”

Inspired by the lectionary

Paul’s choice to stage lectionary dramas flows out of his heritage. He grew up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, married a Roman Catholic, and teaches at the largest independent Lutheran university in the U.S.

He’s used to hearing the Bible each Sunday—“mainly in chunks.” The lectionary tradition lets you hear, sing, or speak four passages each week. But Paul notes that if you don’t also read the Bible on your own, you might not grasp the stories or understand the Bible as a whole.

“It always bugged me that actors weren’t as welcome to contribute their art to liturgy as musicians and banner makers have been. I think there’s been more openness to drama in evangelical churches than on the Lutheran and Catholic side,” Paul said at a recent Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing workshop.

Writing lectionary drama is a practical way to fit drama “unannounced, as seamlessly as possible, as a reading or sermon,” into highly liturgical churches.

“Barbara Brown Taylor has called the liturgy a road map back to God. It’s a neat way of thinking about liturgical drama. God comes to us, calls us in worship, heals us, forgives us, enables us, empowers us,” Paul said.

Unlike some playwrights, Paul says his head isn’t filled with stories. He’s not a natural joker or storyteller. He gets his inspiration for non-liturgical plays from the newspaper and listening to people talk.

He finds that using the lectionary as a story source is also a good way to cross boundaries out of liturgical drama into other drama.

In about one of five performances, Soul Purpose presents a lectionary drama in a non-lectionary church. “It’s liberating, because we can perform any play that seems appropriate,” Paul says. The plays seem to work well whether or not churches follow a set cycle of Scripture readings.

Internalizing Bible stories

Paul likes how lectionary plays serve his students and the church. His playwriting workshops start with very close readings of lectionary texts. Students repeat readings till they really understand a passage’s setting, emotions, and meaning. They use the New Revised Standard Version, and Paul asks students who know Hebrew or Greek to contribute their insights.

The group identifies various voices in a passage and applies classic theater techniques, such as panning, pulling back, framing, and posing a central question to keep the plot interesting.

These techniques even work for lectionary passages that aren’t narrative, such as the Beatitudes or the Prophets. “Pulling back from Matthew 5:1-12 helped us see Jesus telling his disciples who the really blessed people are…and that they’re on the non-blessed side, even though they’re with him,” Paul says.

Next workshop students write dialogue to overcome what Paul calls “a dehydrated presentation of Bible characters. They don’t say much. You have to fill it in to humanize characters and create dialogue.”

Paul says, “The actors come to understand the Bible stories in a profound way, because they explore and internalize the stories' action and character. They contribute to the worship life of the church with their art. They find a source of spiritual support from the other members of the company with whom they tell the stories.

“The people in the congregation are engaged and surrounded by the Bible stories in new ways that appeal to all their senses. They also see the way in which these young people are committed to communicating the Gospel in these creative ways.”

Drawing in worshipers

Paul knows that, by its nature, theater can polarize a group intoactors and audience. His lectionary dramas use several methods to overcome such polarization in worship.

He stages a play so the audience feels in the middle of the story, not leaning back, looking up at the pulpit. In “A Fish Story,” based on Luke 5:1-11, a church balcony becomes a boat. Simon, James, and John lean over the balcony, straining to hold onto a net (an invisible one) stuffed with fish. Paul confides, “By the end of the play, it’s the people in pews who will be caught in this play.”

Paul’s lectionary dramas often use humor, not to divert but to alienate. “When people are alienated, they think. When they’re awash in emotion, they cry. That’s okay, but there needs to be thinking, too.”

He chooses simple images to help worshipers connect with the story. “The Hard Part” is based on two stories about leprosy, Naaman’s healing in 2 Kings 5 and Jesus healing a leper in Mark 1:40-45. (These readings fall on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany in Year B of the three-year lectionary cycle.)

Lepers in “The Hard Part” wear a single latex glove and aren’t allowed in the temple for ritual cleansing. Paul says the contemporary image of a glove is stunningly effective in making worshipers think about non-leprous situations that make them feel scared or alone.

If it’s okay with the church, Naaman and the entire cast, including the lepers, wash their hands in the church’s baptismal font. “It’s a way for church furniture to reinforce ideas about baptism and healing,” he explains.

Every play ends with a song. “The Hard Part” ends with “Healer of Our Every Ill.” Paul says, “When actors and audience sing together, it unifies people.” And this unification helps worshipers easily segue into whatever comes next in the worship service.

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