December 5, 2022
by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary
Last week, we looked at how Wright and Wells invite us to consider our role in the narrative of Scripture. If following the lead of the Holy Spirit can be a bit like a wild goose chase, we think it is important to consider what that might look like in practice. Wright suggested it could be a bit like working out the fifth act of a play for which we already have the first four acts. Wells picked up and expanded that metaphor in some very helpful ways. In particular, he suggested there are six acts with the final act being The Eschaton in which functions more like theatrical improvisation than a scripted play. Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the suggestions made by Wells.
In the writing of both Wright and Wells, the Bible functions in a similar way. Wells adds some useful nuance. For Wells,
“The Bible is not so much a script that the church learns and performs as it is a training school that shapes the habits and practices of a community. This community learns to take the right things for granted, and on the basis of this faithfulness, it trusts itself to improvise within its tradition” (p. 12).
Wells is aware that talking about “improvisation” raises issues and concerns for many. It did the same for us. One particular issue is that it could imply “uninhibited freedom” or it could be perceived to be centered on being whimsical, overly clever or just trying to be witty. Wells addresses these issues and our own research revealed some of the same details. Contrary to the impressions of “uninhibited freedom” or “whimsical wit,” good theatrical improvisation requires deep trust, significant discipline, and extensive training to keep the act going forward. To put that more plainly, the only way to artfully engage in theatrical improvisation is to invest time, energy, and study into the practice. It is both an art and a craft.
Successful improv, Wells goes on to say, relies on a few specific practices. Even some cursory research on theatrical improv will reveal that most voices agree on a few guiding rules. Wells borrows and adapts a few of these to provide some insight into what it might look like for followers of Jesus to faithfully play their role in The Eschaton. Obviously, we can’t describe all of them in detail here. You can read his book and Wright’s, as well, to gain a deeper understanding.
The key thing to note is that the actors putting on a theatrical improvisation production must be adept at these practices – it is not simply unfiltered or unmitigated chaos. The actors must build on what has been given (i.e., they need to accept what has been presented), which means there is a narrative in which the entire production must make sense. At the same time, however, some circumstances will require them to block what has been presented or to reincorporate some aspect of the story which has been lost through the improvisational dialogue. The only way to be successful in this kind of work is to practice, to be shaped by the work, and to do it with others who know how it works. Having learned to recognize these practices, Wells argues that this sort of improvisation best accounts for the faithful innovations within the church since its beginning.
The phrase “faithful innovations” is important. If you’ve ever watched really good theatrical improvisation, you will know that “faithful innovations” in the storyline are significantly more impactful than one-off statements that don’t seem to fit. We contend the same is true in the work of the church. “Innovation” in the Church for the sake of innovation is doomed to fail. Faithful innovation or what Doug Paul refers to as “Kingdom Innovation” requires continuity between the first five acts of the play described by Wells and the improvisation to which we are called.
While we could expound on the ideas presented by Wright and Wells, we will spare you the challenge of hearing it from us. Their books are much better. We will, however, invite you to consider the impact their writing has on what it means to follow Jesus in community. In simple terms, we might suggest following Jesus is not something that happens in a nice straight line. If following the Spirit is one part “wild goose chase” and one part “theatrical improvisation” then it must also be (at least!) one part “discernment.” As a result, we should expect some curves along the way.