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Let Story Form Your Worship: Old Testament and lectionary dramas

Here are two church worship drama models based on Bible texts. Part of a feature story exploring dramas based on the Old Testament and lectionary texts.

According to a Barna Group study, about 62% of Protestant churches in the United States use live drama in worship services. Churches say they include drama in worship to:

  • present slices of life that lower people’s defenses
  • allow actors to use God-given talents
  • engage people in looking to God for answers
  • win the lost
  • communicate biblical truth
  • provide an insightful yet often hilarious counterpoint to the sermon
  • manage emotions in ways that draw people in

Meanwhile, surveys show that Bible literacy continues to drop, even among Christians, according to Gallup, Barna, and surveys at Wheaton and Seattle Pacific University.

Among many excellent models, two theater professors help students produce worship dramas based on biblical texts. Jeff Barker revives the tradition of presenting Old Testament narratives as plays. John Steven Paul dramatizes lectionary readings. Both say their methods will work in nearly any kind of church.

God is still speaking

Slice of life worship dramas may strike you as more relevant than stories of what God did millennia ago. Yet enacted Bible stories often surprise worshipers into realizing that God is still speaking.

“There’s a difference between hearing a solo storyteller and seeing a Bible story acted out. Putting the text on its feet puts the Bible in the present. But for years I was hung up on the past tense nature of the Bible,” says Jeff Barker, theatre professor at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Two things shifted his “old old story” perception. He experienced traditional kabuki theatre in Japan. And in 2002, Tom Boogaart, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, shared his theory that Old Testament historical stories are written in play form. Since then, Barker and his students have been performing the Hebrew Bible in simple and elaborate ways.

“In kabuki, I saw men playing male and female roles. Offside there’s always a singer and instrumentalist. I learned that person was the narrator. I started to think about how in the Old Testament, there’s always a narrator and character voices,” Barker says.

In kabuki, at least one character speaks directly to the audience. To modern ears, this feels odd. But this ancient dramatic device was common till the 1800s, when realism came into fashion.

“Narrators are valuable for stories that need to make jumps in time and space—especially in worship settings where other activities segue in and out of the storytelling. And the narrator can acknowledge the congregation’s participation in worship,” Barker says.

Stage it to see it

There’s another similarity between kabuki and original Old Testament texts. The English language has up to a dozen ways of using verb tenses to precisely pinpoint an action in time. Japanese, however, uses past tense more ambiguously and doesn’t have a future tense. Hebrew has no tenses at all—no past, present, or future.

Still, we often read English translations of the Hebrew Bible as if all God’s actions were completed centuries ago.

“We tend to read what is familiar into the unfamiliar,” Boogaart explains. He quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel’s caution that “what impairs our sight are habits of seeing.”

Boogaart spent years “trying to ‘see’ the group of biblical texts that contain the people of Israel’s remembrances of their ancestors, commonly called stories or narratives.”

He notes that our culture transmits essential information through written documents. But most Israelites couldn’t read or write. “They held information in memory and transmitted it through ritual and performance,” he says.

“Dialogue demands voices, and, once voiced, the characters are alive again,” Boogaart says. The narrator is central in biblical texts. He or she reveals the presence of God, in part by empathizing with characters. The narrator “mediates between the action and the audience, drawing the audience out of their time and into the time of action.”

At a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Barker’s students performed his Elisha play, “Jars of Oil,” based verbatim on 2 Kings 4:1-7. A single storyteller spoke the narrative lines. Separate characters spoke the words of Elisha, the woman, and her son.

“Elisha is saying, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ The text doesn’t show her filling the jars with oil. But theater has this ability to show two times at once. So, at the same time in the play, you see Elisha talking to the woman—and you see forward as the woman and her sons fill borrowed jars with oil,” Barker explained.

Meanwhile, the narrator stood near the (invisible) jars with one arm up and one down, so it seemed oil was flowing from God down into the jars.

After the brief play, Boogaart said, “A common biblical theme is that all power and love and glory begin with God and spill over to all the world. In the Elisha play, the woman starts with an almost empty jar, yet gradually fills so many jars—all by the secret miraculous providence of God—that she can pay off her creditors.”

Barker added, “You don’t get the expansiveness of what Tom is talking about just from reading the text. But when you put it on the stage, you see it.”

Recover a full concept of worship

Barker says his Old Testament performances depend on resources every church has—the Bible and people in the pews. “Almost every church on the planet can do the texts in this way. You just need some platform space, a mike, and a drum or rhythm instrument to mark scene changes,” Barker says.

Just as his students do, your church drama team can begin with a translation meant for speaking, perhaps the King James Version or Contemporary English Version, though the NIV works, too.

Look at the interplay between images and scenes. Have characters mime simple actions while a miked narrator reads the text. You don’t need costumes. It doesn’t matter which gender plays which character. Someone who feels secure as a singer can hum or vocalize—no words necessary—to convey dramatic flow and climax.

Barker and Boogaart believe that recovering Old Testament texts as plays will help churches deepen their theology…and their concept of worship.

They say that too many people equate worship with music. Or they think the only part of worship that matters is the sermon. Barker urges churches to integrate Scripture, story, music, and image in more ways, including drama and enacted prayer, in worship.

“ ’Bible story’ has become synonymous with children’s Sunday school. Adults, it seems, can bypass the story and go straight to the moral. God’s work in the lives of his people today is good news that remains unspoken and thus unremembered in many of our churches,” he says.

Learn More

Download Jeff Barker’s Old Testament play scripts and watch video clips, including the “Jars of Oil” play and an enacted prayer scene. Get tips on doing enacted prayer in your church. Go to Barker’s blog to read his new book on the art of story and worship, The Storytelling Church: Adventures in Reclaiming the Role of Story in Worship, or Quiet Demons and Screaming Peter Pan.

Book a summer performance of “Sioux Center Sudan” by Northwestern College students. See results of a Vertical Habits grant Barker used to help story form the worship at Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

Listen as John Steven Paul explains how to turn lectionary readings into dramas. Download Paul’s liturgical drama The Wedding, first performed at a wedding. Book Soul Purpose drama ministry to be part of your worship service and give a drama workshop.

Request a catalog of lectionary dramas by writing to John Steven Paul, Valparaiso University, 1401 Linwood Avenue, Valparaiso, IN  46383. “You may then order free perusal copies of plays in which you’re interested. If you decide to produce, there is a one-time royalty fee,” he says.

Attend an event to learn more about doing worship drama in church:

Study theater resources recommended by Jeff Barker and John Steven Paul:

Read Barna Group research on how Bible reading frequency affects Christian behaviors. Consider the power of biblical content as you choose dramas to use in worship. Read a thoughtful essay on biblical illiteracy among Christian youth. Brian Singer-Towns, general editor of The Catholic Youth Bible, explains how to move from biblical literacy to biblical spirituality.

Check out Calvin Institute of Christian Worship drama resources and Reformed Worship stories on liturgical drama. Order dramatic songs, scripts, CDs, and devotionals for drama teams from Lillenas Drama.

Browse related stories about biblical storytellingvisual arts in liturgy, and worship aesthetics.

Start a Discussion

Talk about using liturgical drama in worship.

  • Describe your experiences with seeing (or performing) liturgical drama in worship. In what ways did it add or detract from how you understood a Bible passage or felt connected to God or fellow worshipers?
  • In an average year at your church, how many worship services include drama? What are the pros and cons of adding drama to your worship services?
  • Jeff Barker and John Steven Paul both recall feeling, as teens, that the church had no use for their acting talents. Barker says, “I never heard ‘Play a new play unto the Lord,’ only ‘Sing a new song to the Lord.’ ” Does your church follow a hierarchy of which gifts are valued and used in worship?
  • How would you rate your congregation’s Bible literacy? How might you use worship drama so that Bible stories begin to shape your worshipers’ lives?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to use liturgical drama for Scripture reading, sermons, or other places in worship services?

  • Did you find a conference, workshop, book, multimedia series, or other resources that helped you build a biblical drama ministry?
  • Did you create a worship or education series to help people experience a certain genre of worship drama? Which genres have been easiest to implement in your congregation?
  • Have you developed a grid to help you identify various places in a worship service or Sundays in the church year where drama would work well?