Show, Don’t Tell
<!–Angelic host proclaims: Jim Walker calls his approach to preaching “fellowship with the Word.”
The mantra of writers is at work for the preachers in this unusual congregation: they would rather show the sermon than tell it. A young man named Derek enters the room with his pants down. He wears pajamas to cover his skin; nevertheless, his pants are on the floor. Derek’s job is to take water to those who are thirsty, but he fails repeatedly because his water pitcher is bone dry and his pants are wadded up around his ankles. Yet Derek continues his attempts to navigate from person to person, shuffling across the stage with his pants down, filling thirsty people’s cups with nothing.
The pants-less Derek is just part of a normal Sunday at Hot Metal Bridge faith community in Pittsburgh, a church that shares the story of God through worship that centers on the arts. But they don’t use typical staged dramas. Rather, the art is raw, often barely rehearsed. And the dramas are not ancillary to the sermon; they are a primary method of communicating God’s word.
Co-pastors Jim Walker and Jeff Eddings were youth workers in suburban Pittsburgh when, according to Walker, they decided to “get crazy” and start a new church on the city’s south side. To reach a community of disconnected, mostly unbelieving young adults, the use of drama was a no-brainer.
“Think about how we connect with truth these days,” Walker points out. “Where do we find people? It seems to me that most people can be found at the movies, at the bookstore, and in front of a television or YouTube. We love stories. We can’t wait until CNN breaks the next story so we can devour it. Art—more specifically, the art of story—is the vehicle we use in today’s world to answer the big questions of life. It is in stories that we find ourselves connecting with Truth. We simply use art or drama to help tell the big ‘Story.'”
The drama is followed by as little verbal exposition as possible, leaving room for worshipers to make personal applications.
Walker acknowledges that their unscripted approach has resulted in a lot of unusual moments. “There’s the Sunday that we all took clay jars and shattered them on the ground,” he says. “One girl, unfortunately, went to the hospital. And then there’s the Sunday we used a toilet as a symbol for depravity. We’ve had zombies, a blanket made of evil masks, a punk rock wedding. Sometimes it can be like Murphy’s Law. Luckily, we’ve only had to call the insurance company twice.”
But Walker says the rawness is what makes the experience real. “It always seems to fall apart,” he says. “We anticipate it. We’re a broken church for broken people. Our priority is participation, not perfection. We’d much rather get someone involved than have the drama be ‘slick.’ So, many times, things don’t work out. We don’t really care. It’s not a show, it’s sharing in koinonia with the Word.
“For the church to find ways of becoming a bridge to God and the Kingdom of God, we need to help people experience the message, rather than simply listen to it. The art of drama can be that bridge.”
That was certainly the case on the day of Derek’s pants encumbrance. After Derek finished, a young lady in the audience raised her hand and, with tears in her eyes, said, “Please pray for me. I’ve been walking through life with my pants down, too.”
“If I had tried to convey the same idea in the midst of a long, tired sermon, it would not have been as moving,” says Walker. “But somehow, this young lady connected with Derek’s character in a profound way, which moved her to tears.”
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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Winter 2008, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Page 57