The Rules of Improv: Take Action!
Every year around this time the family of Calvary Baptist Church takes a step back to think about what it is we are doing here on this corner of Washington, DC, trying our best to be followers of Jesus and to live together in Christian community in such a way that how we live, what we do, who we are, makes and impact in the world around us. This is no small challenge, so today we think again about our individual commitments to life together in this place.
As in weeks past, guiding our consideration are the rules of improv, the rules you would follow were you in the middle of an improvisational comedy exercise. I myself am not a professional actor, but the rules of improv have been widely considered helpful guides for life in general, and in our case, life in Christian community. Today’s rule of improv is “take action.”
It seems that if we are engaged in an improvisational scene on stage in front of an audience, the audience will get a little bit bored if the actors in the scene are sitting around doing nothing. Riveting dialogue or suspenseful action doesn’t really ever happen, you know, if everyone in the scene is sitting on the couch, say, watching TV. The “take action” rule of improv is the essential, underlying truth that everyone on stage should be always working to contribute to the scene.
We talked last week about the rule that anything is possible. If we’re following that rule and have opened ourselves to accept any eventuality that a scene may present, well, then, today’s rule—take action—is about jumping in with both feet to contribute. Everyone in the scene must contribute. Everyone on stage is important if the scene is going to move to its next chapter.
Of course, this rule of improv is a rather risky one. When you jump right in and take action you are giving up your safe spot on the couch. And you are trusting that the other actors on stage will also take action in response to yours. It is very true that you could lose your spot on the couch. It is also true that others might greet whatever action you take with apathy.
But consider the alternative.
You could sit on the couch and talk about why you are not taking action—that you need to wait for the right moment, or you have to see what the other people do—but the truth is that the scene on stage is not going to go anywhere at all until you get up off the couch and start singing…or announce that you are joining the army…or climb up on the coffee table and do a short but impressive tap dance. Until the actors actually take an action, the scene on stage will not go anywhere; it will just sit there, stagnant.
One commenter describes it like this: You could sit around and pretend to smoke a cigarette while waiting to see what the other actors do (although, as we all know, smoking is bad for your health), or you could throw out open ended, inconsequential questions like, “So what should we do now?”—neither action adding anything at all to a scene
The opposite to this passive approach, of course, is to jump right in with some directed action. For example, while you sit on the couch, you could say something like, “I’m so glad our hot air balloon was able land here in theSaharadesert;” or “Hi, I’m Amy and I don’t think I’ve ever met an alien like you before.” See the difference? The best improvisational actors continually step up to the plate, take clear and assertive actions, and do their part to move the scene along.
Those improvisational actors who kill a scene every single time are the ones who refuse to make a clear choice, who are unsure about their commitment to the scene, who wimp out and go back to sitting on the couch. If the scene doesn’t fizzle out after that, the actor who is unwilling to take action to move the scene forward has, in effect, placed all of the responsibility for the success of the scene on the other actors up there on the stage.
That’s not funny, and it’s not fair; a lack of investment and action on the part of any actor in a scene can cripple the production altogether and make pulling off successful improvisational interplay even more difficult for everyone.
Informing our consideration of how this rule might apply to Christian community is a familiar passage from the Gospel of Mark, the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Mark is a perfect Gospel for the “take action” rule of improv because Mark is the Gospel of urgent and immediate action.
Just look! The Gospel of Mark doesn’t even bother to tell the story about the baby and the shepherds and the star; Mark starts with the baptism of Jesus and jumps right into the story of Jesus’ ministry with both feet. The first words Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, even, are immediate: “The time has been fulfilled”—in other words, it’s time to get busy. No more sitting around waiting. Jesus doesn’t let anybody wait, either.
Just look at how urgent his call is! He calls for specifically two courses of action from everyone who is listening to him: “repent” and “believe”. For the call to repent, Mark uses the Greek word “metanoia,” which means something rather different than feeling bad about what you’ve done and hoping you do better in the future. The word actually means to turn around. It’s an action word that means facing in a new direction and going in a different way from the way you were going before.
And for his challenge to believe, we might think of Jesus’ call as an intellectual assent to a set of ideas—we decide we believe in a certain ideology or set of doctrine. But that’s not what Jesus meant when he called on the crowds to believe. His idea of believing was more an action word, the act of placing your whole life into the hands of God and trusting God’s direction for every part of who you are. Taking action.
To take Jesus up on his urgent direction was going to require getting up off the couch and doing something.
…which is, of course, what happens immediately next in the Gospel story this morning.
Jesus was passing along theSea of Galilee, Mark tells us, and he called to the folks who were on their boats, fishing. He capped off his call to repent and believe with an even more radical call to action: he invited them to follow him.
True to his urgent style, Mark writes that immediately Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, put down their nets and follow him. They took action; they left something behind; they went to follow Jesus. And, don’t you know, their action of following set a whole new scene in motion, the unfolding of God’s kingdom starting right there, with them and the action they dared to take.
This week I will travel toOrlandoto meet with a group of American Baptist pastors from all over the country. For the past year and a half we’ve been meeting via phone and in person to talk about the Baptist version of the crisis of the mainline church. That is, over the last 40 years there has been a steady decline in church attendance which leads some of the bigwigs to conclude that something is wrong.
Everybody has their own theories about why church attendance is in decline across the board; one commentator I read this week highlighted a couple of theories. One was his contention that we are the end of the age of duty. That is, nobody thinks you are a bad person if you don’t attend church regularly. Which I find to be true.
But on this Sunday of considering Jesus’ call to take action, why would we passively allow the standards of our society to dictate our actions one way or the other? The call of Jesus is immediate and urgent. If you are being called to invest your life in a community of faith, then it’s time to take action, don’t you think?
The second reason this commentator highlighted was a little more serious. He says that many people have a hard time understanding how the Christian narrative helps make sense of their lives. In other words, many people feel that what happens on Sunday mornings has no tie or relevance to the rest of their lives.
What a sad state of affairs. In the face of all of this, we could sit back on the couch, cross our arms and passively say things like, “So what should we do next?.” But if it is our conviction that our faith actually does inform our lives, that worship with and membership in a community of faith have direct relevance and impact on our lives, well, then, it’s time for us to take action, isn’t it?
Today is membership rededication Sunday. I often say that everyone is always welcome to come and worship with us, but being a member in this community of faith is something that requires action. In this scene we’re living together, the day by day and moment by moment scene that is the community of faith here atCalvaryBaptistChurch, we cannot afford to sit back, passively.
If we do that, pretty soon exactly what church specialists have noticed will happen…our scene as the people of God will stall. It won’t go anywhere. And as we’ve already noted, a scene with no action, no relevance whatsoever, is a scene that surely does not depict the radical unfolding of God’s kingdom for which Jesus came to earth and so urgently called for action.
Today is membership rededication Sunday. Perhaps you have been a member here for over 60 years. Perhaps you are a little newer. No matter how long you’ve been around, it never hurts to reevaluate what we’re doing here, to ask ourselves if we’re willing to get up off the couch and take action, if we are ready to really invest our lives, our money, our time, our intention, in the work of God in this little community of faith.
In a few moments we will add our prayers to the different pieces of theCalvaryquatrefoil, as the children did a little earlier. What is your prayer for this family of faith in the year ahead? As you write a word or phrase, a prayer for the church, you are actually getting up off the couch, uh, pew, and taking action. You are adding your voice to all of our voices and signifying your own willingness to take action, to be an active part of the work of God in this place. Shall we pray?
Gracious and loving God, you who call us to follow,
Today, this day, we join the company of every disciple, every outcast, every doubter, every hesitant follower, with whom you shared a meal and to whom you offered grace. We join the company of the poor, the sick, the blind and lame, with whom you laighed and wept and whom you healed.
We join the company of beggers, prostitutes, and outcasts, sneered at and rejected, haunted by guilt and pain, and to whom you gave dignity, freedom, and life.
We join the company of the self-seeking and unscrupulous, those who were hated by others and who hated themselves, into whose homes you were welcomed and whose lives you transformed.
We join the company of the zealous, the disciplined and the dedicated, those who have insurrection in their thoughts and revolution in their dreams, those utterly impatient for the overthrow of oppression.
We join the company of the doggedly loyal, unwilling to settle for second-hand faith, of those who betrayed you and were welcomed back into your loving embrace, covered by grace.
We join the company of the church through the ages. We share their need, we have their doubts, we know their failures, we are also sinners hungry for grace.
With courage and renewed commitment we take up the call to be your people in this place, for this time, so that those who come after us will see our lives, transformed by your grace, and also summon the courage to join us. And for courage and faith ourselves, we ask this day as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us: