If Church is a Play, what Act are you in?

The theme for my area’s annual conference (once-a-year gathering of United Methodist churches) is What’s Our Next Act? It seems to use a dramatic metaphor for looking to our past, working in the present, and seeking the future.

I think that theatrical metaphor could apply to pastors and churches too.

One could categorize most churches as finding most of their identity in one of three Acts found in this classic dramatic structure.

  1. Act One churches look to the past. They lift up their heritage, and what they are “known for” in the community. Often with traditional worship, these churches may ride their heyday laurels or simply focus on what they’ve always done well. They may joke that one is still a “newcomer” to their church even after being there 20 years. Even new church plants can be Act One churches if they keep the focus on their originating enthusiasm. Like a play where Act One is  setup and character introduction, these churches find more value in our traditions and–like Christmas music–make Church reflect Baby Boomer childhoods.
  2. Act Two churches look to the present. They focus on solving problems and addressing needs. Often with contemporary worship, they focus on what works and what the people want. They live, plan, budget, and respond to the now without regard for tradition or future endeavors. The ragged edge ones that live here the most use manipulative tactics for short-term gains in membership or money. Like a play where Act Two is most of the action and conflict, these churches tend to be in the news a lot for their engagement with the culture around them, for better or for worse.
  3. Act Three churches look to the future. They focus on vision and on sustainability of their churches into the future. The ones who tend towards a social vision have inevitable confrontation of justice with the antagonists and societies ills. The ones who tend towards institutionalism are into empire-building, money-raising, and long-term gains. Like a play where everyone looks forward to it “all working out” in Act Three, these churches find most value in discerning what is “next” to best position the church and society to benefit from the future and overcome conflicts of the past.

Likewise, most pastors probably fall into these categories as well.

  1. Act One pastors honor the wisdom of the past. These are the traditional preachers and pastors. They seek to replicate what worked in the past and to perpetuate traditions and values that have stretched over the centuries. Like a play that one cannot understand unless they’ve seen Act One, these pastors focus on tradition and wisdom to better build their churches’ foundations amidst the shifting sands of change.
  2. Act Two pastors do what works in the present. These are the worker bees who get things done. Practical approaches, data-mined analysis, and consensus-building towards common goals characterize these pastors. Like a play that collides all the different characters and dramatic elements together in Act Two, these pastors focus on pragmatism and addressing conflict head-on while holding tradition and innovation in constant tension.
  3. Act Three pastors seek the vision of the future. These are the visionaries and big-picture pastors. They offer a vision of who the church can be and what change they can effect as if it was already happening (and thus possible). These are the futurists and the ones who always seem to know what religious identity will need to be in the next decade. Like a play where all the Act Three “loose ends” are tied up in the future, these pastors seek to bring everyone with them into the future and to effect dramatic change in their church and cultures.

Finally, using this template, one can see what kind of pastor at what kind of church would cause the most tension. For example:

  • If you put a Act Three pastor at an Act One church, the vision of the future may or may not include the elements of the past. A church that values tradition and has enough senior citizens in it who don’t want to rock the boat will resist any vision that doesn’t clearly articulate how it is a continuation of the values of the past.
  • If you put an Act Two pastors at an Act Three church, the church expects vision but doesn’t get a clear one–they get a pragmatic approach. This vacuum leads to many different visions trying to fill the void and the conflict over “where are we going” will hurt current expressions of faith until everyone gets on the same “make it work” bandwagon.
  • If you put an Act One pastor at an Act Two church, the church expects reality but gets history and tradition. A church that values innovation and has enough young people in it to eschew the wisdom of the past may find itself with big branches but not very deep roots. This is a difficult disconnect as any culture that idolizes the “new” or “now” takes serious convincing to embrace the “old” and “traditional.”

Your turn. How do these simplistic-but-perhaps-helpful categories strike you?

  • If you are a pastor, which Act do you see yourself most as? If you are a laity, which Act is your pastor in?
  • If you are part of a local church, which Act do you see them in? Is it a good place for them?

For the record, I see myself as an Act Two pastor. I haven’t yet discerned which Act my local church is in.


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  1. Zzyzx says

    I guess I might be an act three person in general. Funny thing is, among my three congregations, they each comprise one of the different acts… But I seem to have more work time in the first act church, and surprisingly we get along pretty well actually.

  2. says

    I think this is helpful if we see pastors and churches as fluid. Each act seem appropriate in different contexts. If a church’s present is not sustainable or in anyway faithful, Act 2 is not an option, Act 1 may be enticing in such a scenario if there is a glorious past, but memorials are for the dead–Act 3 is the only option in such a church.

    I feel like I am primarily an ACT 2 pastor that leans toward Act 3 in the practice of ministry and Act 1 in theology, etc. My church has a strong present, and would probably like to stay there, so I would say it is in Act 2. Since it is my first year–We stay in Act 2 with a slight lean toward Act 3, but I know we cannot stay here. In time we will need to look further into the future and envision who we must become to remain faithful. A play without a next act is ready for the curtain to close so a new show can be organized.

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