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Many years ago I worked for an interfaith organization in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Houston, Texas.  Our goal was to help congregations connect with their communities. One of the congregations we partnered with overlooked a building that had been tagged with graffiti. The business owners painted over the graffiti, but it returned. Again, a coat of white paint. Again, another tag. Finally, the church had an idea. With the business owners’ approval, they commissioned a local artist to design a mural for the wall—a mural that would incorporate the graffiti into its design. With the artist’s guidance, a team of local folks from the church and community came together on a Saturday to paint the mural. And the wall was never touched again.

Years later, that experience remains a parable for me of the ways we get stuck in old patterns: action and reaction, the way we’ve always done it, the solution that seems to make sense yet stubbornly refuses to work. As we seek to minister in a constantly changing cultural context, with fewer and fewer people who speak our language or darken our doors, we simply can’t afford to paint the wall white and expect that to get the job done.

The graffiti mural is also a parable of what it means to be improvisational. I’ve been thinking for some time about the rules of improv as they relate to life, church work, even our ideas about God. The basic rule of improv is to “yes-and” –to accept what is offered and to build on it.

Several years ago I arrived at a new congregation, ready to serve as pastor. There was some talk about how we “should” make a five- or ten-year plan, but we never got around to it. I knew too many churches that had gone through long planning processes, only to stow the three-ring binder on a shelf, never to refer to it again. The world is changing too fast for a ten-year plan. What makes more sense to me is for a church to have core values and a purpose, combined with a wide-eyed awareness of the world around it and what that world needs—moment by moment, month by month, year by year. What makes sense is to cultivate a spirit of improv:

  • What is our neighborhood offering us in terms of ministry opportunities right now?
  • How can we faithfully respond to them given what we have on hand?
  • How can we practice “yes-and”?

Together with others I’ve explored the theory behind improv through workshops and classes where we play games and participate in exercises designed to help us cultivate a spirit that’s alert, alive, and responsive to the world around us. I’m still a beginner, but I see powerful connections between improv and ministry. Here are just a few:

1. You can’t be asleep in improv.
Let’s be honest. There are times in worship when we realize with a start that we’re going through the motions—reciting the Lord’s Prayer without pondering the words, calling for the offering using the same language we’ve used for years. That can’t happen in improv—you have to be awake. Someone may be counting on you to keep the scene or game going. When you tune out, you leave them hanging. It’s hard work to stay awake, but it’s an energizing way to live and serve.

2. People aren’t looking at you as much as you think.
In our beloved PC(USA), people can get very self-conscious when it comes to interactive elements in worship—things like clapping during a congregational song. Even an “amen” is hard to come by. I experienced this same reticence at the beginning of the improv class. I didn’t want to call attention to myself. But I quickly realized that because the class was fast paced, people were so focused on their own experience that no one was looking at me anyway. It’s not that people weren’t attentive to what was going on. Rather they were present in their own bodies in a way that discouraged judgment and critical examination of what others were doing.

As we experiment with new ways of being the church, how can we let go of our feelings of self-consciousness?

3. Just go.
There were times when the instructor would introduce a game and say, “OK, start.” And we would all just stand there. Finally someone would jump in and get the action going, and it was a welcome relief. It didn’t matter if the contribution was especially clever. What mattered was setting something in motion. The times I was the  person to start the process, I felt strong and brave, even if my offering was meager.

Sometimes in life, and in ministry, we wait too long for conditions to be just right. We want to have the theology straight, or to wait for the research and facts to back up an action. Research and thoughtfulness are good things. But sometimes we just need to dive in.

4. The right amount of structure is critical.
During one class I attended, we played a word association game.  The leader called out a word and invited us to say the first word that came to mind. Every time my turn came, I froze. My conscious mind took over, and I stammered, trying to think of a “good” response. But on the next round, things changed. The instructor started a rhythm by slapping her knees and snapping her fingers. We were told to say our word in rhythm and to continue the game around the circle, never breaking the rhythm. Like magic, everything opened up. Each time it was my turn, I was ready with a response. Having a structure that required me to respond at a specific moment and in rhythm allowed me to bypass my conscious mind. As my friend Ashley Goff, who does improv with her church in Washington, D.C., puts it, “Structure promotes safety.” But we need the right amount of it.

In this issue of the Advocate, you will read stories of congregations doing ministry differently. They may or may not use the language of improv to describe their work. But I’m guessing you will see threads of “yes-and” as you read these stories.

How might your congregation go about your work improvisationally? A hungry world awaits your response.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor, and speaker living in Virginia. She is author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, and numerous other publications. She is a sought-after speaker, preacher, conference leader and writer around issues of leadership, faith formation, technology, and congregational transformation. She is a mother of three, a haphazard knitter, and an occasional marathoner. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.