In my most recent visit to The Pastor's Workshop, I began to describe the craziest (and perhaps the best) thing I did as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. It concerned our Vacation Bible School (VBS) program, which used the church's sanctuary for its large group activities. When I arrived at the church in 1991, this overlap of space usage had created conflict between the worship director, who wanted the sanctuary free of all VBS decor for Sunday "adult" worship services, and the children's director, whose volunteers didn't want to spend wasted hours taking down the elaborate decorations and then putting them up again for the second week of VBS.
My solution to this conflict was to allow the VBS decorations to remain in the sanctuary, and, in fact, to have our "adult" worship reflect the themes and songs of VBS. The results of this decision far exceeded my expectations, because the adults in the church thoroughly enjoyed a VBS-type worship experience. This became a beloved tradition in the church, one that has continued in the years even after my departure as pastor. (Sometimes even grown-ups like to be childlike as they celebrate God's grace.)
Was this the craziest thing I did as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church? Partly. But, in fact, it was only the context in which my foolishness for Christ fully manifested itself.
So here's the rest of the story.
In my third summer at the church, I decided to try an experiment in our VBS Sunday morning worship. Rather than preaching a "grown up" sermon as I had done in the previous years, I preached in character. I chose to play the role of Lucky, the young man in Acts 20 who feel asleep during Paul's sermon and fell out of the window, only to be resurrected after he died from his fall. (The man's Greek name was Eutychus, which means "lucky" or "fortunate.") So, I dressed up in a suitable costume and narrated "my" story, focusing on how God raised me from the dead after my three-story fall led to my death. The theological point had to do with God's grace and power for our lives.
That sermon was a hit, not only among the VBS kids, but also among the adults. They seemed to like the idea that their pastor could have some fun while teaching the Bible. So, the next year I did another biblical character, telling a first-person story of Paul and his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Once again, my in-character sermon seemed to have a powerful and positive impact. I was encouraged to be even more creative in the next summer's VBS.
More creative I was. In 1995, I played the role of St. Peter. But I did so in the form of Rocky Balboa. As you probably know, Peter's name means "Rocky," more or less. But it seemed to me that both Rocky and Peter had several characteristics in common (courage, foot-in-mouthness, passion, strength). I dressed up, not in Bible lands garb, but in gym shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. I entered to the Rocky theme music, jogging around the sanctuary, punching the air. Then I told the first-person story of Peter in an urban Philadelphia accent. (I worked for hours on this one, watching the Rocky movies and trying to imitate Sylvester Stallone.) It was exhausting and fun, and it brought to life Peter's experience of God's grace.
Just about everyone at Irvine Presbyterian Church that day loved my sermon, except for one visitor. Between services, I was hiding out behind the sanctuary. One of our elders found me and said I needed to come with him to meet a special visitor. I pointed to my sweat-drenched clothing and suggested this was a bad idea, but he insisted. So he led me to meet Dr. D. James Kennedy, one of the most famous pastors in America. He was in Southern California on vacation and had decided to visit Irvine Pres. I tried to explain to Dr. Kennedy why I was dressed as I was, but he seemed perplexed. He did sit through the whole second worship service, but appeared to be rather uncomfortable. Afterwards, he did not come through the line to greet me. I fear he might have thought my whole VBS worship idea was truly crazy.
In the following years, I continued to play various characters on VBS Sunday. In time, I was joined by one of my associate pastors and one of my elders. Every year, Tim, Emmett, and I would act out a "sermon skit" that underscored the theological point of VBS and fit with the VBS theme. Eventually, we ended up doing this skit every day during VBS as well as in worship on Sunday morning. My dramatic roles included: Indiana Jonah, a friar narrating the story of the Great King, a pirate, a goofy carpenter, a surfer dude, Hans from Saturday Night Live's Hans and Franz sketch, a hillbilly, Tim the Tool Man Taylor from Tool Time, Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, and James Bond. (If you're curious about what this looked like, you can find some representative scripts and photos here.)