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Volume 16, Issue 4: Presbyterion

Congregations and Plays

Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson
Suppose a group of fifteen pastors got together for an extended visit. They all assembled from different parts of the country, and in the course of their visiting they began to talk shop, going over some of the pastoral challenges in their congregations.

Now suppose that, instead of pastors, we are considering a group of theater directors, and all of them are producing the play Hamlet. In the course of their conversation, they too begin to discuss their work. "Who do you have playing Ophelia?" one of them asks. "How does she do?" "What about Claudius?" says another.
Now let us consider how much these two groups are alike. In many respects, pastors from many different churches are actually directing the same play. All of them have an "Ophelia." All of them have a "Claudius," and so on. The personalities vary, but the play is identifiably the same one.
This can be more than a little disconcerting. When a congregation is working through its issues, the temptation for everyone (congregants and pastor alike) is to think that "this situation" is unique in the history of the world, and it is hard for anyone to comprehend that the same play is being shown just fifteen miles down the road. And then again in the next city. And in the next one, all across the country.
Some time ago, we had a situation in our church where a couple families went through a fellowship meltdown and caused considerable distress throughout the congregation. Shortly after this, I noticed a book title in a Christian book catalog that indicated it might address some of the issues involved. When I checked the book out on Amazon, that full-service provider helpfully suggested a bunch of other titles. You know, the kind that says, "People who bought this book also bought . . . ." And I realized, much astonished, that there was a small cottage industry of book publishing out there that was dedicated to this particular problem. One of the books was entitled Antagonists in the Church, which I got and read. And I realized that I was reading the script of what we had just been through. It was a pastoral Twilight Zone moment.
My situation was like a man who had watched a production of Hamlet, assuming that the actors were making up their lines extemporaneously. He was much impressed with their abilities, but we can imagine his astonishment months later when he picked up a copy of Hamlet in a used book store. Thumbing through it, he realized that what he saw was not a spontaneous display at all. It was the production of a play, written centuries before.
The drama of congregational life contains many of the same characters, and God is the playwright. Understanding this is the key to acting well. Moreover, the pastor is required to understand this, and required to act well. He must understand the story, and his own role in it, and the role played by others. Shepherding wisely is impossible apart from understanding the nature and application of story.
The cast of characters includes, but is not limited to, the range we see in Scripture. But we always begin with Scripture. We see the treachery of Judas, and the rollercoaster loyalties and betrayals of Peter. There are the women who are always learning, but never coming to knowledge of the truth; Diotrephes, who loves to be first; Demas, lusting after the world's respectability; the worldly businessman, his spiritual life choked out of him by the cares of the world; faithful saints, awaiting instruction; sanctimonious Pharisees who despise others; and the idiot congregant who needs an explanation why Christians are not allowed to visit prostitutes. A wise pastor looks at all the assembled, rubs his hands together, and says, "Everybody here? Good! Places everyone. Let's get this show on the road!"
There are the people who receive more care and attention than anyone in the church, but who finally leave because "no one has time for them." Others bolt for the door as soon as the benediction is said, but complain that the church is "unfriendly." Some love to get counseling, but never take counsel. There are even characters who gratefully receive the teaching from the pulpit, take it to heart, and apply it quietly to their lives. Some men (they believe themselves to be leads, but they're bit players) never submit to anyone or anything, but demand their wives submit to them. (After fifteen years of such a character, the wife finally implodes spiritually, and runs off to Las Vegas to marry anybody else, while the aggrieved husband wants to know what the church is going to do to "get her back for me.") There are also the volunteer empathy-ears who find themselves the dumping ground for all the complaints that are circulating in the church. There are men and women who patiently listened to fifteen years of sermons, but when a crisis requiring application finally arrives, quickly reveal that they hadn't heard a word. But then there is the surprising character; the young man that you assumed wasn't hearing anything, but when he turns twenty-two suddenly begins exhibiting manifest signs of wisdom.
And there is the glad, laughter-filled realization that virtually every pastor in the country could put a name from his church next to each one of these characters.

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