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On the heels of the height of the pandemic, the congregation I serve graciously provided an extended time of sabbath for me. The previous months of cobbling together live-streaming, wading through public health alerts, and caring for our community across masks had compounded upon the previous seven years of ministry. This Sabbatical provided a much needed step back.
I began my time away by enrolling in an improvisation class for clergy. Yes, it was for all of us: pastors, rabbis, priests, ministers, and more. While none of us in the group were comedians, we were comical. Each week we gathered across little Zoom boxes. Every Monday at 5:30pm we met to act out. Our agenda began with a warm up exercise, moved into an improv game, and we concluded with a time of reflection considering how the practice of improv could help us lead change, connect via empathy, navigate conflict, or improve relationships in our congregational contexts. The positive forward approach of improv (“Yes, and…”) really did lead to greater possibilities and helped untap hidden potential.
Fast forward then to the context in which we find ourselves, in a context rife with strife and where division seems to be the soup du jour. Whether it’s in our congregations or in our counties, too many of us are exposed to too much disunity. Whether in our politics or in our pews, whether over sexuality or certainty, there is a growing sense that those who follow after Jesus are headed ever further toward a precipitous fall.
As a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, I see the divisions mount over the recent denominational decisions, while I hear of the rending of our sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, in the wake of her own disunion. And though I claim no great wisdom, I have found myself returning to wonder about the creative potential of improv.
You see for what might be too long our Reformed tradition has prided itself on clarity. While we often struggle with conciseness, we are clear, compelling, and consistent almost always. We’ve lauded our ability to wrestle complex theological and ethical conundrums to the mat and we’ve expressed them as settled and binding, confessional, or conclusive. But in our current context of wide spread division, suspicion, and disagreement I wonder if improv may offer us a way forward together, particularly in the way we think about our ethics.
Typically, we’ve thought of how we do ethics as propositional. Whether you are in Pella or Poughkeepsie, right is right and wrong is wrong. In such an ethical system there is black and white — context, complications, even discernment often be damned. Admittedly, there is an alluring simplicity to propositional ethics. It allows us to provide clarity and to expect or even enforce compliance.
In keeping with the improv metaphor, propositional ethics is more like following the script of a play. In a drama there are set lines which the actors are expected to recite. If a line is misspoke or missing the director and often the audience takes note. Performances can be compared to scripts which allow for objective judgments. In our ethics we value this kind of compliance to the prescribed scripts. (I’m borrowing heavily from Samuel Wells’s use of improv as a metaphor for ethics as found in his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, which I highly recommend.)
However, improv, while related in the family of theater to scripted dramas, offers the actors and the audience something very different. While the improvisers operate under general constraints (there are actual rules to improv) the flexibility of the execution allows for creativity, art, and often comedy to emerge. These products are not prescribed. An improv troupe employs no laugh tracks and has no assigned script. And yet, in the spontaneity of the moment they are equipped to react to their context through training, general governing rules, and experience. When done well, the result is still a theatrical performance that’s often filled with joy and laughter.
As I reflect upon the context of our churches, I have to wonder if we might all benefit from employing an improvisational ethic. Not that we throw out all the rules, but that we free ourselves from an explicitly prescribed script. Not abandoning our Reformed theology, but actually employing it, leaning into it, in local contexts with particular complexities. We actually do this kind of work in much of our discipleship — e.g. parenting children and teaching students with a goal of helping them become wise and discerning followers of Jesus.
Some will argue that this abandons our confessions. But I question if our confessions were ever intended to handcuff us to a prescribed script. Instead, I suggest that we engage with wisdom and discernment, informed by the rich theology we have inherited and allow for local expressions of an improvisational ethic. Some will want to know the goal, the final product, or have a predetermined destination, but such a prescription could kill the possibility of creative solutions to complex challenges.
An improvisational ethic might not only allow us to reach a new and unscripted storyline for the church, but it might also result in development of the virtues we see modeled in both the person and work of Jesus and in the Fruit of the Spirit (e.g. hospitality, courage, trust, curiosity, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.)
Unfortunately, in order to practice this kind of ethic we have some glaring gaps to fill. Our trust levels and relational capital are much too low to allow for a fluid and productive engagement. Our denominations are too fractured by our propositional priorities. Our divisions are too distinct and we’ve bought into the belief that schism, though once considered heresy and sin, is now considered virtue.
These gaps and our perpetuation of division are two of the primary reasons why I am engaged with the Better Together movement. This is an ever expanding group of members, pastors, leaders, churches and classes in the Christian Reformed Church committed to unity and mission, while creating space for disagreement on non-salvific issues, such as same-sex marriage.
In my mind, this is a worthy attempt at improvisational ethics for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ and the gospel. Those of us engaged recognize that this kind of work takes trust, nuance, energy, and effort. Better Together will not follow the in-step march of a well scripted drama. Even attempting a well rehearsed script would violate it’s improvisational core. But as we deepen relationships, engage in conversation, practice spiritual disciplines, and provide space for disagreement we might just see a whole new storyline emerge. Not every person involved in Better Together will agree exactly with my improv metaphor. And that’s just fine. But the tone, collegiality, and trust that’s represented in our Better Together conversations can’t help but remind me of the grace and joy of improv.
I’d like to invite you to take up your part, improvise with us. Not in a relativism that disregards all boundaries, but in an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to trust God who, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, “gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”
With an eye toward an improvisational ethic maybe more of us can then echo that next line with greater gusto, “And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you for seeking unity with freedom. In an age of increasingly declining membership in the family of God, realized and practiced in our churches, why can’t we see what this message would bring to the world around us.
This is so Jesus, so New Testament, so New Covenant. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven….” Thank you for such a carefully written article. I appreciate hearing about the Better Together group. It reminds me of Matthew’s rendering of the triumphal entry. He paints the odd and awkward picture of Jesus riding not one donkey but two (and even adds the word “and” to the Zechariah passage). May we be given the grace to navigate our differences with the humility and agility of our crucified and risen Lord.
I will have to look for the book on Ethics. There is also support from Kevin Van Hoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who argues for improvisational wisdom in knowing how to act biblically in new situations. He argues that improvisation is actually a form of disciplined spontaneity. The challenge is to perform the same theo-dramatic play on different stages/contexts and in different languages (and worldviews). All Christian theology is a synthesis, and adaptation of the inherited Christian tradition (quoting Bediako). Doctrines direct us to improvise new things to say and do that are still consistent with our canonical script. For details see Van Hoozer, “One Rule to Rule Them All? Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Ott and Netland editors (Baker Academic, 2006)
A growing membership in Better Together nourishes my hope.
And what a blessed function of Improv.
Well done Nate. Jesus’ ministry was so much improv and reframe. Seems to be a good model to follow. As to confessions, yes they are helpful and perhaps necessary, but not inspired. Creeds and confessions are always written to clarify or react to some threat in history. Thus , it seems to me, they are never complete and never immune from scrutiny and the need for reconsideration. Today’s threat differs from that of the 16th century. Same God, same gospel, different priority focus.
Yes, if we all are going to be together forever in the kingdom, it’s a good idea to get out of our heads and practice how now we shall live, in a joyful space for the Spirit. The best comedy also brings out truth and clarity — by a roundabout and (shall we say) narrow way. Thanks, Nate, for an uplifting piece.
Hope has holes
in its pockets.
It leaves little
so that we,
can follow it.
it doesn’t know
it knows only
that all roads
begin with one
foot in front
of the other.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (written April 4, 2020)
I applaud this insight. It reminds me of NT Wright and how he characterizes our calling in the present age. Thank you!
Much can be said for American Individualism, but it has limits, particularly when we are talking about the theological positions of a church. “Better Together” sounds nice, but if we aren’t really “together”, what is the point?
Can’t we be “together” without complete agreement on all issues?
I’m blessed by this article and the better together movement. Thanks Nate!
Really appreciate this article and the vision it casts.
“… an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to trust God who, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, “gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”