I’ve been to a lot of church meetings where the drama has been over the top. Tempers rise unchecked. People stomp out of rooms. Or tensions simmer just beneath the surface and politeness masks deep division.
In fact, antics of the so-called drama queen is the stuff of many a coaching session and closed door meeting. But what if there was a kind of drama that energized people instead of drained them; that built up the church rather than tore it down?
That’s what I experienced as I entered the church sanctuary on Epiphany Sunday. I was transported into another time and place by the drama kings.
No, the drama kings were not guys having a meltdown. Rather, they were twenty-foot tall puppets of the Magi festooned in regal, flowing clothing. Their movements were accompanied by drums and hand bells. They processed—one at a time—down the center aisle of the sanctuary while the rest of us looked on in wonder. It took 3 people who were hidden under folds of fabric to maneuver each Magi. Two people handled the poles that extended their arms and hands in greeting. A third person stabilized the inner pole that held the very large puppet upright.
After each Magi had processed to the front of the sanctuary, they bowed in greeting to one another in stately fashion. They were joined by a real-live young couple with a real-live baby, dressed up as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. (This year baby Kate played Jesus.) The guiding star, suspended by a pole, also had a starring role. Camels made an appearance, as did some other minor characters.
This tableau of life-size and over-size characters became both the backdrop and the focal point of worship—from the call to worship, to the prayers, music and offering. Even as we passed the peace, people were invited to greet the Magi and the Holy Family. Their presence served as a creative reminder of the larger way these stories shape us.
Yes, this pageant mixed up the story a bit—there is a manger and shepherds—but it gets the heart of the matter right: stories move us; visuals engage us; and the larger the story, the more apt we are to get swept up in it.
This particular church has been re-enacting this pageant for about 30 years. But that hasn’t lessened its impact. The puppets have received face lifts and fashion upgrades over the years. The players have changed; previous baby Jesus’ have matured into Marys and Josephs. One day they’ll be doting grandparents. Each annual staging of this drama draws in new community members and evokes fresh wonder in new congregants. The pageant is bigger than any single one of us; it draws us into a larger story by providing access to the Eternal.
Has your congregation employed the power of pageantry? If not, now is the time.
The season of Lent is a natural time to begin. From Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday to foot washing or Passover Seders on Maundy Thursday, to Tenebrae Services on Good Friday, to Easter Sunday sunrise services, the opportunities for evocative ritual and passionate pageantry are rich indeed. But those options do not exhaust the possibilities.
Many Biblical stories lend themselves to the power of drama. Consider the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law, Acts’ rendition of Pentecost, crossing the Jordan, the Baptism of Jesus, Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancy stories, healing stories, or the feeding of the 5000. Don’t forget creative recitations of The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.
Of course, pageantry doesn’t have to be limited to Bible stories. As the popularity of the History Channel, bio-pics and re-enactors from the Civil War and Pioneer eras show, people love re-enacting key moments in history. Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic church, Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed, civil rights stories and the suffrage movement can put us in touch with the enduring values that make faith a living, breathing experience.
If worship has grown stale in your church, try something altogether new and ancient at the same time: pageantry. Whether reader’s theater, poetry or puppetry, these art forms tap into a spiritual realm that both enlivens and inspires.
There was a time when the church specialized in culture and not culture wars. When it inspired great works of art—from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass to Handel’s Messiah to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, David and the Pieta. Those days do not have to be over. Move over drama queens; it’s time for drama kings to take center stage.