By Jennifer Stiles Williams and Melissa Cooper
According to Wikipedia, stewardship can be defined as “utilizing and managing all resources God provides for the glory of God and the betterment of God’s creation.” The church often thinks of those resources as financial resources, spiritual gifts, and people’s time. However, often people’s talents are never considered by the church or only tapped for use internally in worship or age level ministries. But for us at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, FL, very often public witness is actually the most impactful version of stewardship.
St. Luke’s is located in the epicenter of the theme park world in Orlando, and while you may think rollercoasters and magical characters are most important, from each theme parks’ perspective the true focus is the complete entertainment experience. Our neighborhoods are filled with people with incredible talent, both on and off the stage. For years, congregants asked to produce a musical, but why would we do that when fantastic entertainment was just around the corner?
Ten years ago, the vision for Theatre at St. Luke’s began. Our intention is to use theatre as a public witness for beginning community conversations at the intersection of cultural issues and our core values. It is also a powerful vehicle for evangelism.
Every August, a troupe of often more than a hundred actors, dancers, singers, musicians, techs and production crew come together at St. Luke’s to create something for the community. Many members of the troupe have been marginalized by the church. At St. Luke’s they discover people willing to trust the story of God’s love for all and welcome them into a faith community.
We begin each first script read by creating a safe space for everyone to live into their full humanity, and by the final weeks we share devotions that connect scripture, theology and our values with the script’s story. Our ultimate goal is three-fold.
- We welcome community artists to be public theologians alongside us.
- We invite them to recognize their God-given gifts.
- We utilize the gifts and grace of all people in our community—church members and community artists.
It is our full community—artists and members alike—who takes the stage, and uses it as a pulpit to preach the gospel of love and grace, justice and equity, for thousands of guests.
We choose stories that help us express Christ-centered love lived out in acceptance, hospitality, and community; and we highlight how love creates a community for living lives of justice, grace and equity. But it’s not just about the story we tell; it’s about the people doing the telling. Performers who have never been to seminary or never considered attending church—much less speaking in one—give a month or more of their time preparing to preach a message that reaches a larger audience than any worship service ever could, and through their work they change the climate and conversation of our congregation, community and city.
- Mary Poppins: Our performers have shown us the gospel through a practically perfect nanny who meets us in our brokenness, and, with a spoonful of love, changes our perspective and heals our homes.
- Big River – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: They have shared a gospel of equity as Huck Finn and Jim travel a Big River and prove that although our differences make us worlds apart, we see the same stars in the sky.
- Footloose: Our performing artists,who may have never been a part of any church, or may feel unwelcome in church, share the gospel story of love and forgiveness as a small-town preacher’s daughter and a stranger from the big city prove that heaven helps the ones who fight their fear, and they help the preacher heal from his grief and fear.
All of this comes together—a grand stewardship of gifts joined on and off stage—to create beautiful art, but ultimately to invite our entire community deeper into the larger theo-drama of God’s story.
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About the Authors
Jennifer Stiles Williams and Melissa Cooper are pastors at St. Luke’s UMC in Orlando, Florida.
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