The church as interactive community theatre: creating places of conversations

“Each conversation is like a small piece of Theatre” (Wardheugh, in Smith H, 2010)

“Dialogue creates a critical attitude, it is nourished by love, humility, hope, faith and trust. When the two poles of the dialogue are thus linked by love, hope and mutual trust, they can join in a critical search for something. Only dialogue communicates” (Freire 1974, p42)

Creating the right kind of environment and spaces for conversation has been a bit of a mantra in Christian faith based youth work, when I say mantra, I mean essence of its being. So whether on the streets, in the clubs or in a minibus, creating the environment, (an environment framed by mutual love, hope and trust) and then giving space for conversation is key for the ongoing personal relationship, the space of education and the space where the possibility of these critical searches take place.

The question is – why hasnt the church used conversation as a tool more in critical discipleship and evangelism?

You know the routine, the big evangelistic event is looming, invite your friends for a meal at the local Hotel, have some benign chit chat about the food, pets or childrens tv programmes, and then everyone shuts up having conversation to listen to someone at the front, someone with a gift in evangelism, do a talk. Or talk at people. Yes they may have a ‘gift’, yes they may have been successful, and a few may respond.

What usually happens though is that the chit chat is only the warm up, and any energy in the room, any quality conversations and moments of meaning are affected and dissipated by the change in the dynamic in the space, of one person talking, and several people just listening.

Going back to the days of Alpha, maybe one of its reasons for success, was not the videos, but the group work and conversations, that built, and relationships that formed, and developed over the period of time. Yet the success of Alpha tends not to be narrated as the conversations and group work, but the material. The material is limited without the environment being created to have conversations. The problem with Alpha was that the culture of the church didnt move with the process, and expected alpha disciples to fit in into a different educational and as seen below theatrical performance of church

The epilogue at the end of the evangelistic social feels far too similar to the games night at the youth club with the same kind of energy sapping moment of limited participation. though times are changing.

What am i implying? well maybe what i am implying is that when it comes to mission and evangelism, relying on the slow build of many conversations, and relationships, and the complexity that these take is something alien in churches. Yet it is something that should or could be encouraged and embraced.

What would be the down side in creating regular welcoming spaces for people to do the same activity in the space of a church – be it food, or sport, or social action, and then in those regular spaces give people all the time in the space to have conversation, to essentially create community of their own accord. For church people to be posed questions by their friends in the space, to have to respond, to receive gifts and tools and actions from people from ‘outside’ because they invest in the community.

Then all become disciplers of others, all become gifted in conversation, all become witnesses. The community guided by the overarching story of the church, of redemption and hope creates the environment, and within the actors improvise, or to use the term above enact mini scenes of theatre in conversation.

“The Divine improviser thus shows himself to be both faithful to the movement of the play and creative with regard to new situations” (Vanhoozer 2005:341)

The possibility of conversations, or faith conversations, intrigue, action and reaction is only possible in the rightly created environment, if it is allowed to happen, and shaped in such a way. And for many churches, developing community in such a way has become part of their practice. It is especially true in types of group and community development work in faith based youthwork, which has developed these conversations further outside the church to find places where the environment can be created. One process of the development of group work conversations is details in ‘Here be Dragons’ above. Its not the only process, yet many relationships and conversations between people start with cold contact, develop in trust, and actions and challenge, and where possible discipleship from within the relationship. Its not only happening outside the church structures in missional youthwork, but some churches are embracing it too.

The obvious issue with exploring faith through conversations in this way is their lack of predictability, need for flexibility, the reality that people are at different places even in one larger group, and that resources, aside from the intutition, guidance and support is going to be limited, as a one resource, or size fits all approach has been negated. Yet creating space for conversation that is appropriate does take into account everyone at different places, and trusts in people and conversations to move the action forward as these spaces continue. It is as if in those conversations between friends that Jesus joins in. At other times he might be hard to find, but thats also ok, the disciples on the Emmaus road didnt recognise him either. What if small groups form from a larger one as people ask, trust and want to learn from each other. well, great, and the rest. Community disciples community. Maybe even the clergy is invisible- maybe they’re just there to help shape the action and guide the environment, to interject when appropriate.

What the mess of the conversations might look like is an interactive theatre – in which the script is yet to be played during the course of a gathering of the community, and yet the shared space of the food, the activity or sport is a starting block, is a commonality, and then the action between the guests and actors, (and there is sometimes limited disctiction) is a shared listening and learning one. Though the overall direction of the play is both the cue of the Spirit in the midst, and the desire for reconciliation & redemption. The contrast between the interactive theatre where all play parts in an improvised way not unlike the medieval theatre, and the current theatrical concept of the stage performing to the audience, often masked, distant and pretence, couldnt be more stark. The conventional theatre holds the audience captive, by imposing finished visions of the world and purging spectators of their tragic flaw, namely their ability to change society ( Boal 2008, p155)

At a time when the public places of conversation are being shut down, (click the link for a guardian article yesterday ) and the social poverty that this will cause, such as loneliness, mental health and less support and resilience – then its not just a faithful act to create open spaces of conversation, but a social, practical and provocative one. Mission begins with conversation, God is about conversation (more about that later) and so as churches creating places where the action of conversation happens appropriate for all ages, for specific ages or specific groups is what we need to do.

The most important thing in all human relationships is conversation, but people don’t talk anymore, they don’t sit down to talk and listen. They go to the theater, the cinema, watch television, listen to the radio, read books, but they almost never talk. If we want to change the world, we have to go back to a time when warriors would gather around a fire and tell stories.

Paulo Coelho

In the participative space of interactive community faith conversation theatre, The gloves in a sense are off, there are no lead actors and non participants, for all are on the stage as performers. The spectator is free to perform.

“The church as a theatre of the gospel, a theatre of community faith conversations is revolutionary, overturning idols and ideologies alike, as it displays the first fruits of eschatological reality” (Vanhoozer, 2005, p404) And if a church has enabled a community to be created in which all are welcome, from many faiths or none, young age or old, in which conversations are trusted and people share life, hope, stories and faith together, then as a ministry of reconciliation of redemption there is nothing less revolutionary, less politically challenging, less fruit displaying than that.

To trust in conversations, even as youthworkers, but let alone a pastor in a church with evangelism tendancies, might have to let go. The same youthworker or clergy might feel very alone or pioneering compared to their contemporaries who maintain an event based, programme based, or even pre determined group based ministry. The same youthworker or clergy might have to develop their own tool box for the trade, from community development, from liberation theology, from contemplation, or even from the metaphor of theatre. And to learn to become a different role in the space.

If the new spaces are being created that encourage faith conversations and essentially encourage curiosity, community and belonging in a church, then why might old forms of church seek to influence or discourage it if it is having a positive impact in a local situation. Where it is happening and the shoots of greenness are there, inherited church should learn from not rally against. It might represent a change in method, but that should not be threatening, in a position of decline, nothing should be discouraged. This isnt a model for an old form, its a culture shift and a new way of being. Relationships and conversations are interactive and unscripted, not a quick win. Culture needs to be created, culture needs to shift.

After all there is nothing untheological about a small group of people sharing a meal together , having conversations and Jesus being there amongst them is there. Or for people to have conversations and then for one person to suggest in the community they would like to be baptised. These didnt happen in the Bible at all did they?

So, what about trusting in conversations and creating spaces of welcoming community in churches for faith to emerge through conversations, for community discipleship to occur within friends. And who gets the same credit – Jesus, and who is active and performing on his behalf, the church. The power of God might just move between the saints and wouldnt that be an exciting prospect – rather than the pre planned scripted performance of one whom the rest watch as audience. And yes at the moment it looks nothing like sunday, or spaces that still look like a version of sunday church but bigger. Old wineskins are hard to get rid of, or abandon completely, sometimes new wine has to be poured in to stain the wood into new ways of being. But cultural shift and paradigm shift to community interactive church is required.

“The church is a local theatre, a place in which Christ comes to be present. Christ is between the saints, in the dynamic interaction that characterises loving relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit” (Vanhoozer, 2014, 176)

Oh yes, and established church learning from the conversational practice of faith based youth work in developing spaces of community. learning from youthwork practice might just catch on…and youthwork practice was only ever about facilitating conversation whether in the club or streets anyway.


Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury, 3rd ed 2008

Paulo Freire: Education for Critical Consciousness, Bloomsbury , 2013

Paulo Freire & Miles Horton: We make the road by Walking, Temple 1990

Richard, Lorimer Passmore, J Ballantyne, Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the Map, FYT, 2012 (see link above for more details)

Heather Smith, Engaging in Conversation in Youth work Practice (eds) Jeffs & Smith, Palgrave, 2010

Kevin Vanhoozer, , The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking and Understanding, WJK, 2014

3 thoughts on “The church as interactive community theatre: creating places of conversations

  1. Very interested in this, my local church is moving towards this kind of approach for worship. One of the reasons behind this I believe is due to the way a house group has seen two people on the edge of belief come closer to God and have professed their faith. Happily one of them is my wife!
    I need to think about this some more, can you please put the references in?

    Many thanks for this James!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read it twice and absolutely loved it. I would love to be part of a church that sits around a fire, shares stories… and creates a safe space for people to be vulnerable and where those who gather become the protectors of each others hearts. I do believe we’d find God in the midst

    Liked by 1 person

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