Improv Ministry

<%image(20050502-seinfeld.jpg|98|83|seinfeld)%> I grew up watching Seinfeld, admiring the artful humor of Jerry Seinfeld and his ability to take the every day occurences of life and make them absolutely hysterical. Whether it’s the eternal 5-10 minute wait at a restaurant or the soup nazi who ran his restaurant with an iron fist, Seinfeld was a master at making us laugh. Yet with the advent of reality TV, a new form of comedy has gained a following: improv. Drew Carey’s show “What’s My Line?” is an example of a group of comedians who work together in creating humor spontaneously, rehearsing their art ahead of time, but the routine has to come together on the spot.

Digressing to traditional church for a moment, I would compare many church services to stand up comedy. And no, it’s not because pastors are usually witty and humorous . . . Though humor is often lacking in many sermons, the pastor is expected to singlehandedly invest hours into a particular topic and become the expert, carrying the burden to the meeting time. Like the stand up comic, if the pastor is not on top of his material, things are heading down hill fast!

In addition, the audience is limited to a role of reacting spectators (blah, blah, blah, I know that critique is nothing new). Yet, it is worth nothing just how much pressure is placed on the pastor to give a good performance each Sunday. If you don’t think the stand up role for the pastor is taxing, just visit your pastor next Sunday afternoon and see how he feels. Most pastors are exhausted.

At a gathering of Christians last night the possibility of “improv ministry” was formed in my mind. This is an alternative way of meeting. Instead of one stand up leader, the whole group takes responsibility for what happens at the gathering. So while no one has to feel the immense pressure of “bringing a word from the Lord,” everyone should be contributing in some way to the group. So while we should never neglect intense exegetical study of the Bible, this should be pursued out of God’s leading, not out of a compulsory need to have a professional sermon to share lest we fall short of what church should be.

Such a set up also takes into the account the nature of information sharing in the internet age. For example, I found a broken Epson Laser printer and brought it to my brother-in-law. Though he knew next to nothing about the printer, he went online and after a few google searches, he had mastered the printer inside out, found toner, and hoped to having it working within a week after the parts shipped out. The constant need for a specialized expert is becoming a thing of the past. With the availability of information, people can find out the darndest things in a matter of seconds. So not only is the traditional pastor’s job of disseminating information unhealthy for him/her, it is also unnecessary in many cases. Once again, as a fellah with an MDiv, I understand that it is helpful to have experts around who can inform the group as a resource. But an information dissenimator is very different from a resource. As the recipient of an MDiv, I don’t see my role as that of an expert who feeds information to others. I see myself as yet another small link of information that will help the church in seeking out God and his truth.

Though I would never say what an improv gathering of Christians looks like, I think there are some helpful things to keep in mind as you experiment. First of all, we need to dispell the notion that church must involve a sermon of some sort in order to be church. Decentralized power and information sharing can create an environment that is far more open to the Spirit. Once again, this does not mean that we leave our Bibles on the shelf and flip a coin to decide what to do when we gather together, it just means that we prepare for our worship gatherings in a different way.

In the same way that an improv group gets together to practice their art, we should immerse ourselves in the story of the Bible, pray in the Spirit, fellowship with other Christians, and read, read, read. As we interact with God, the Bible (which is not the same as God!), and our surrounding culture, we will be filled up with a storehouse of treasures. When we gather together, we can seek out the Spirit of God, pulling the things out of our storehouses to share. It will surely happen that something in my storehouse will correspond with yours. And so we string the pearls of scripture together, learning from the scripture and from each other, allowing the Spirit to direct the main theme of the meeting. No one in particular has the strain of making it all happen, and with the leading of the Spirit, we can be sure that we will be fed by God.

I honestly have no idea how improv ministry would work in a larger church gathering, but if we can integrate this into small groups, that’s a great start. I have found it very freeing to know that I can gather with Christians without a clear plan of what needs to happen. If I am actively seeking God on a daily basis, he will fill my well up with sweet water that I share and swap with other disciples in my fellowship.