Seven Hills Presbyterian Church's Art-Focused Maundy Thursday Service, 2019 (Photos by Jim Conley)
The church has a long and beautiful relationship with the art of theater-making. Used throughout history as a tool for instruction and community building, sacred theater reached its pinnacle during the middle ages. During this time, priests and congregations would periodically reenact Biblical stories either in their church buildings, or outside in their towns.
Often using the alter as the throne of God, they would orient themselves in the church building in relation to it, creating a physical space that was a constant reminder of their relationship to the divine. During town festivals members of each guild would create and act in theatricals and reflect their own craft in the production (for instance, the baker's guild would be in charge of the last supper, the fisherman's guild in charge of Jesus walking on the water, etc.) In this way, the emphasis was placed not on creating a professional performance, but on each member of the community using their bodies and their minds to participate in remembering and honoring the Biblical narrative.
For many Christians today, the experience of worship is highly cerebral, and in many traditions, congregants do not spend time actively using their bodies in worship. Especially difficult for those who are kinetic learners, there is no place in many churches to explore faith in a non-verbal way.
My explorations into bringing a robust experience of sacred theater back to the contemporary church have taken the form of:
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SACRED THEATER?
A More Holistic Connection with the Body - As humans, we are both body and soul, inextricable and intertwined. Simply taking an hour or two to slow down and make an effort to notice how our bodies are feeling and working is important not just for our health, but also for our spiritual walk. In addition, physical theater and movement workshops are designed to emphasize that whatever problems or challenges we face physically, there is value in recognizing that God specifically designed each of our bodies as part of who we are, and we are called to be grateful and to love our physical selves.
A Unique Experience of Community - When we take away the false idea that performers have to be professionals, theater takes on an entirely new meaning as a way of sharing truth and working together to create. Whether it is recounting a Biblical story or investigating theology, doing a workshop or performance within the church is an opportunity for participants to become part of the narrative, rather than observers. The focus shifts from trying to attain to a standard, and transforms to working communally to reflect on the beauty of God's story.
Seeing and Understanding with New Eyes - Especially for tactile learners, worship and the experience of the sacred can seem prohibitively cerebral. With minimal movement taking place, the temptation is to interpret our experience of God and the way he speaks to us as through our minds only. By utilizing physical movement during the reading of scripture, embodiment of Biblical characters and themes, and recreation and interpretation using tableaux, scene, and monologue creation, participants are freed to experience the depth of God's word in a tangible way that sinks deep into the bones. Many of us learn best by doing, and there is no exception when it comes to the sacred.