They say that the best improv artists have learned the art of walking backwards. Good improv artists keep an eye on the past story while building it in creative unexpected ways, which moves the action forward. The ascension of Jesus Christ enlists the church in the greatest improv event in history. As the body of Christ, we are called to learn to walk backwards. We are asked to keep our eye on the story of God as we move out in creative and unexpected ways that reveal the Kingdom of God to a world dying to see it.
But don’t mistake improv with ad libbing. Ad libbing is making it up as you go. It’s a spontaneous action without any necessary connection to what has gone before. It’s revolutionary action not evolutionary action.
On the other hand, when it is done well, improvisation is the “ability to see what is and what might yet be for the best”. Improvisation makes room for the space between and it lets a story breathe. Improvisation improves or makes profitable use of something that has gone before, it is evolutionary not revolutionary. When we embrace the life of the church as a life of improvisation we find ourselves in a ‘choose your own adventure’ story.
As improv artists, we in the church are invited to read Scripture as story and not as manual. When we read the Bible as a manual we often find that God has not given direction for every specific scenario. But when the church reads the Bible as manual its forced to find prescriptive action for situations that were even in existence when the texts were written.
The thing is, the original 12 Apostles didn’t see scripture as a manual. The book of Acts is an entire book that models improvisation. What does the church do with circumcision? What do they do with these Samaritans who are coming to Jesus? What do they do with unclean food, gentiles, women, the law? If they were reading their Old Testament as a manual, they would not allow uncircumcised persons into fellowship, they would not have given women the access to teaching that they had in the church, they would not enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. But the disciples didn’t read the scriptures as a manual, it was the Story of God which had climaxed in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
And when they considered this new hermeneutic of Christ, they improvised. They moved the story forward in new, radical and creative ways that made sense in light of what had come before.
More than ever, the church needs to re-learn the art of improvisation. Crucial to that re-learning is a recommitment to root ourselves in the story of God. Only then will we be able to faithfully push the story of God forward in creative and faithful ways. In ways that are radical for the community of God while at the same time consistent with the Story of God.
This type of engagement with our time requires vulnerability and it requires trust. We won’t be able to engage a rapidly changing world with improvisational skill until we can create a space where we can trust one another and trust we are part of the same story. Samuel Wells states this well in his work “The Drama of Christian Ethics”:
Improvisation…is about nurturing a group of people to have such trust in one another that they have a high level of common understanding and take the same things for granted.
Much of our polarized speech on current emerging issues in our culture and in the church is rooted in our fear. We don’t feel safe with one another. We pull out our litmus tests to see where we stand in relation to the other. We see if we agree on the issues, not on the story of God. The differing answers on controversial questions are attempts at being faithful to the Story of God as it is emerging. But our differences don’t have to be threatening, improvisation can a go a million different directions as long it’s still connected to the original story line.
We’re going to make mistakes as we engage in improv, we’re not going to do it right all the time. But that’s the joy of living in between the words! Our life is being played out on God’s stage of creation and this performance is very interactive. One writer has commented that this Christian practice “is communal, is done in dialogue with society, employs a variety of methods and of media, and is embodied.” As the church emerges in this new epoch of history, we need to relearn how to walk backwards as we engage the past story and the current cultural actors and props.
These are first thoughts. I’m playing with ideas as I try to engage the pluralistic world in which I live. I’d love for you to jump in the sandbox with me. I promise there is no cat poop in here!