I innocently wandered into our family room where a dynamic force had taken command. In seconds, that two-foot square brown box captured my attention and reeled me in like a light-weight paper clip to a high powered magnet. In willing submission, I abandoned my previous agenda and slid into a comfortable chair to stare at the flickering screen. My TV had collared me under its spell again. How did this mind coup happen so fast? Why do I repeatedly fall victim to it?
What’s The Story?
The secret of its potent pull is not TV’s amazing technology. Its charm is not the vibrant images of its electric screen. TV’s magnetism is much more elementary. That same attractive power has been with us for centuries, long before TV, or the video culture were conceived. The plug-in box in my family room actually owes its mental muscle to a very basic communication form. This ancient technique is the effective telling of a story. TV rivets our attention because it engages us in stories. The dramas of life snatch our attention. We love stories. We enjoy familiar, well-worn stories. We are intrigued by new stories that venture our way. Most of us just cannot walk away from a good story. When good and evil forces draw lines in battle, we tune in. We get involved in the characters. We cheer for the good guys and anxiously wait for clues of the villain’s demise. In sum, the stories of life capture and often keep our attention.
For Dramatic Effect
Obviously, churches or their pastors do not have the resources to compete with the might of the TV networks or the film industry. However, this does not mean that we cannot capitalize on the visualized story. This kind of “story power” is readily available in an alternative communication medium. Like TV, the medium I suggest is highly visual. This medium can also be effectively used in a traditional church setting if it is handled properly. Most churches have able people who could make it happen on a low-budget (or no budget). What is it?
The “dramatic illustration,” the acted-out story, is this highly useful and do-able communication tool. The concise dramatic illustration can serve well as an assistant to the traditional sermon. A dramatic illustration is like telling an oral story, except with the addition of the visual dimension. As it brings a story to life, drama powerfully gathers interest and opens the door for learning. Dramatic illustrations are slices of life that invite people’s full attention. Positioned at the beginning of a sermon, “life illustrated” stories orient the congregation to the heart of the sermon. Well-positioned dramatic illustrations can handily introduce a sermon’s focus. They fill the same crucial role that effective introductions do in normal preaching. They raise issues and questions that the sermon will address. They enlist people’s involvement and draw them to “tune in”.
There are now two generations of adults in America that have grown up on a diet of network TV, video, and film. Today’s youth seem addicted to the visual story medium. Children, teens and adults often depend on the visualized story as the method of ac-quiring much of the information that they use every day. Even the evening news comes in the form of “stories.” Since we are in a quest to communicate well with the video generation (which also “watches” in church Sunday morning), we are wise to value the story medium. Specifically, we can capitalize on the acted out story (dram-atic illustration) as a winsome friend that converses freely in a medium which people know, relate to, and enjoy.
A Few Stage Directions
The following suggestions are tendered from hands-on successes (and disasters) of using drama in a traditional church setting for two decades.
First: Remember that an appropriate dramatic illustration has a well-defined purpose and a clear, supportive relationship to the primary message of the sermon.
Consider the common use of stories in oral presentations. Since stories swell listener attention, we like to use them. Unbridled, this phenomenon can get preachers into trouble. Perhaps you have been tempted to employ a winning story, assuming that the heightened attentiveness also increased the effectiveness of the message. This is not always so. Sometimes people remember the story and forget the lesson.
A story can hinder a sermon when it does not have a strong, supportive relationship to the message. Many of us as public presenters face a dilemma at times. We know stories have a flair for increasing attentiveness. So even when we suspect that a story does not fit just right with the lesson, we may still find it difficult to resist using it, after all, “It’s such a great story.” We must not succumb to this temptation.
In the same way, we also want to cling to this high standard in the use of drama, the visualized story. The dramatic illustration must unmistakably enhance the message. If it does not, it has no place. None! If the connection is strained, we should not use the drama, no matter how winsome it is. Dramatic illustrations that merely entertain do not deserve a place in the order of service.
In suggesting a place for drama as an aid to preaching, we never want to minimize the priority of content and doctrine in our sermons. When it comes to teaching God’s Word, we must not overshadow theological depth with mere presentation techniques. Rather, the dramatic illustration is to heighten the people’s attention and involvement so they apply the truth in the sermon
Second: Use dramatic illustrations that bring a sense of identification and realism.
Good dramatic illustrations “connect” with real life. These short portrayals draw people to reflect on issues in their own lives. Yet good drama does not forge or artificially squeeze out a spiritual lesson either. People don’t like feeling like they are being manipulated. The dramatic illustration is not a mini-sermon. It is a “life illustrated” that draws people into the sermon.
An old adage applies: “No drama is better than bad drama.” I wish I had always followed this axiom. It would have erased some embarrassing moments in our church over the years. When a dramatic illustration is ill-presented or has a foggy purpose, it leaves a noxious mental odor that works against the sermon. Our congregations are normally kind, proved by the fact that they willingly endure us Sunday after Sunday; but they do not wait for Siskel and Ebert to fashion their own less than favorable reviews A weak drama will weaken the sermon.
Cast members of the dramatic illustrations also need to “own” the drama’s primary purpose. Everyone participating must know the mission. Adequate rehearsal of the dramas are vital as well. With lines memorized, our drama team members practice the script together on multiple occasions. This gives the cast time to hone their roles and establish a flow. Minor refinements are frequently made to the script in the rehearsals to make it fit the characters and the overall presentation. Props should be kept to the bare minimum, especially in a Sunday church service. In addition to avoiding unnecessary effort, simplified scenes help preclude a potential criticism that the church is being transformed into a theater.
Third: Creativity and talent are nice, but not necessary to use dramatic illustrations effectively.
Church leaders do not have to be gifted “right-brainers” to use drama resourcefully. There are people in most congregations who can do drama adequately, if they are encouraged and receive some basic coaching. There is also a growing abundance of practical-help textbooks and ready-to-use scripts now available. Reading many scripts and cataloging the themes in a personal resource file helps access the right one at the right time. We keep hundreds of scripts on file with a master notebook noting themes and settings. Admittedly, it takes time to review scripts and find the right one. It normally takes even longer to write a quality script.
Fourth: Add dramatic illustrations only when they are “environmentally safe.”
The social acceptability of using drama in the individual setting must be honored. Any teaching method, not just drama, is appropriate only when it enhances the learning process. If it distracts the learners, the method is a liability not an asset. Using dramatic material that is “edgy,” especially in the Sunday morning context, is unwise. The individual congregation’s perception of the appropriateness of a drama’s form and content must be respected.
Introducing dramatic illustrations at a slower pace can bring more positive results in many places. Frankly, launching into dramatic illustrations on a regular basis may be too big a step in some churches. If a congregation senses that something new or “show biz” is being foisted on them, they will resist. However, in the same situation, an occasional and carefully introduced dramatic illustration can be well-received.
Having the teens act out the dramatic illustration in the church service can also minimize the appropriateness question. Most congregations are delighted to see their teens participate in the services of the church. Generally, the adults will go the extra mile to support them when they see their youth serving in this public way. This approach also gives the teens an excellent opportunity to minister publicly to the whole congregation. Via their roles in dramatic illustrations, some of our teens have realized that God can use their young lives to serve others, including adults. Enlisting the youth requires some extra coaching to maintain an acceptable performance standard. In our Sunday services, teens normally participate in at least one of our Life Illustrated dramatic illustrations each month. Our adults love to see the youth up front and give them a lot of affirmation for their efforts. This high-profile role also helps the teens (drama participants and viewing teens) be a more significant part of the Sunday morning services. Frequently our adults who participate in the dramatic illustrations also discover it a fulfilling way to serve their church family.
ACT II: Now that you’ve heard some of our story, it’s your turn “to act.”
Researching the Issue:
David Riemenschneider has completed a doctoral action research project on the use of dramatic illustration as an enhancement to cognitive retention in learning. His research employed multiple services on Sunday morning in test and control groups. The results of the study, based on 1400 detailed responses gathered over a three month testing period, suggested that the use of the dramatic illustration as an introduction to conventional sermons does heighten the retention of content. Testing measured retention immediately after the presentation of the drama and sermon, and a week later as well. The research suggests that the increased attentiveness of the audience due to the dramatic illustration contributed to the retention of the sermon content.
Life Illustrated: An Example
For two decades, Bloomingdale Church a mid-sized church in the suburbs of Chicago, has utilized three-to-seven minute dramatic illustrations in its Sunday morning services as introductions to sermons. The drama portion of the service is entitled “Life Illustrated” in the church bulletin. Its purpose is to raise the level of viewer interest/identification in the issue that the sermon addresses. “Life Illustrated” is used about two or three Sundays a month. The drama team is all-volun-teer and most members have had little or no previous acting experience. The team consists of two dozen adults and teens who each participate on a rotating basis.
For example, a recent “Life Illustrated” briefly recounted a man in various moments of his life that reeked with his own life inconsistencies. He screamed at his kid for eating cookies before supper, shoed him out of the kitchen and when he was gone, looked around, and then devoured several cookies himself. Then he sat in a trance like state in front of a TV (all imagery props) staring at the tube and muttering repeatedly, “I can’t believe people actually sit and watch this garbage” as he intently soaked up every second. Five different short slices of his life (about 30 seconds each) reminded the congregation in a humorous way of the glaring inconsistencies of people. The unresolved scenes offered no solutions. Some of the inconsistencies were laughable, some were harmless, and some were perilous. Then came the sermon on the inconsistencies of people and God’s response to them. The text was the first chapter of Malachi.

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