If you do drama in church, it won’t be long before someone bounds up to you and says something like “I’m preaching in four weeks. Can we have a drama about Jonah?” or the Good Samaritan, or Noah, or the Last Supper, or some other Bible story. Which is perfectly normal because this is Church after all, so you say yes and think you will write something yourself because, after all, how hard can it be dramatising an existing story?

From triumph to tears

So you and your unwary drama group step into the fray. You consider the story at hand and write a script that presents this part of the Bible in a lively and dramatic way. A few rehearsals and it’s Sunday morning showtime. You are lulled into a false sense of security by your audience’s (sorry, congregation’s) apparent acceptance of totally fictitious dialogue involving well-known Bible characters. You get a big laugh as Jonah tries to negotiate with the whale about where he’d like to go and what services will be provided on the trip. There are guffaws as the disciples bicker over whether to buy garlic bread or tortillas for the last supper. The drama goes down well and you think to yourself “this presenting the Bible in an accessible way lark is easy”.

Then there is a deathly hush. No laughter, no smiles, just embarrassed twitching. What went wrong? A quick post-performance discussion fails to discern what happened until a friendly member of the congregation provides the answer – you made the dreadful mistake of Changing The Actual Bible Dialogue! Even worse, you Put New Words In The Mouth Of Christ!

When can you paraphrase?

So what is acceptable to a Church audience and what is not? After all, there are many translations and modern-language paraphrases of the Bible out there (including on the shelves of Christian booksellers), so what did you do that was different? How much paraphrasing or rewriting is acceptable? Unfortunately that is a bit of a mystery! I’ve spent many years trying to figure it out – and I haven’t found the answer. Here, though, are some hints and observations:

  • What sort of church is it? A generally mixed local congregation with a busy parent and toddler corner and coffee served in the porch may be more interested in the message than the words. If the sign outside says “Original Fundamental Reformed True-Life Assembly of Believers” you are probably going to have to tread carefully.
  • How “important” is the character? A character who has got few recorded words or actions can say pretty much whatever you like so long as overall it is in keeping with the story the Bible tells. Others such as King David or, particularly, Jesus have very well known storylines and the audience has a fair idea what they are like so you can’t meddle too much.
  • How well known or theologically important are the original words? Most of your audience are going to be familiar with the more prominent speeches of Jesus and believe them to carry serious meaning, so you can’t alter those very much. Paraphrase Jesus at the Last Supper (“Yo, get some of this guys, it’s my blood!”) and you’ll upset most of the people. But recently I added an “Ahoy there!” to the lips of Jesus as he called to the disciples from the shores of Lake Galilee and I think I got away with it!
  • How relaxed have you made your audience? Make them laugh early on and they will be more willing to treat what follows as fun with a message, rather than a Bible recitation with errors.
  • Who is doing the performing? It is a universal fact that children are looked upon more leniently than adults by an audience who, anyway, expect them to mangle whatever words they are given. So despite everyone knowing the Christmas story, a nativity play can be highly embroidered and everyone just smiles.

Do it with confidence

The truth is that whatever you do, someone will probably complain. Every church contains people who like to point out what they consider to be factual errors. Generally pointing out to them that the words they think are the words of Jesus are translations and that he did not actually speak in King James English may quieten them – but alternatively it might seriously wind them up. All I can suggest is that you weigh up what effect you are trying to achieve against the possibility of causing offence, in the light of what you know about your audience and the context of the performance – and then go out there and do whatever you are going to do with confidence!

Sections of this article originally appeared in the post “Mind Your language – the minefield of paraphrase

How To Do Drama is a slightly haphazard guide for the new or young drama group and its terrified actors, hopeful director and baffled script writer.

You can see our full collection of instantly-downloadable drama scripts at Drama scripts.