What Improv Comedy Can Teach Us about Evangelism

Like-a-scene-in-a-diverted-improv-sketch

Have you ever experienced improv comedy? Chicago is the home of the most influential comedy theater in the world, Second City. From the elevated train running through Chicago, you can read billboards advertising the Second City Improv class: “Because Everyone’s a Comedian.”

Improv, or improvisation, is a form of live theater in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a story are made up on the spot. The actors don’t know what each other will say, so the story line and dialogue is completely unpredictable. Yet, if it is all made up in the moment, why would Second City advertise a training class? What is there to learn? The reality is that improv appears spontaneous and random, but it is not. Being “in the moment” is a developed skill cultivated through practice. Improv works by following a set of rules, and anyone can learn it, practice it, and improve at it. “Because Everyone’s a Comedian.”

One key improv rule is the rule of agreement, also called “Don’t deny.” Any time one improvisational artist refuses an “offer” made by their partner, the scene will almost instantly come to a grinding halt. For example, if player A says, “Hi, my name is Joe. Welcome to my house,” and then, player B replies with “This isn’t a house, it’s a spaceship. And you’re not Joe, you’re a hippopotamus,” the scene crashes. No matter how clever player B’s idea was or how funny he thought it could be, it stalled because he did not follow the simple rule.

So what does this have to do with evangelism and engaging in meaningful conversations about Jesus with people who believe differently?

Like a scene in a diverted improv sketch, many of us stall out in our conversations about God with our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. We want to have a spiritual conversation, but end up bumbling around, saying too much too fast or not saying much at all. What if there were guidelines for meaningful, natural interactions?

Maybe there are. Here are four guidelines, similar to the rules of improv, to help you engage in conversations about God:

#1. Look for where God is at work.

The adventure of God’s kingdom is discovering where God is at work and joining Him on His mission to reconcile people to Himself. Since He is already at work all around us, we can ask Him to show us where He wants us to participate in His activity of love and grace. You could call it “praying behind people’s backs.” This could be the first step of engagement in what God is up to, so that you can recognize where God is at work and join Him. This secret prayer approach provides an opportunity for all Christians—whether talkative or quiet, outgoing or shy, silly or serious—to experience God more and to participate in His work. To understand what God is doing in others’ lives and what our role might be, we can ask Him. Here are three key questions to start with:

God, where are you already at work?
God, what does this person need right now?
God, how can I invite this person to experience Jesus in a fresh way?
#2. Be curious.

Asking God these questions will stir you to be more curious as you engage with other people. Curiosity focuses your attention on the other person, not yourself. It reduces the fear of not asking the “right” question, saying the “right” thing, or having the “right” answer. Curiosity is the bridge that gets us from silently noticing another person to actively engaging with him or her. Notice the good in the person, the image of God imprinted on his or her life, and get curious about it.

The Apostle Paul points out the ultimate example of Jesus as he encourages believers to follow this way of life: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Phil. 2:3-4).

Just as Jesus sacrificially put others’ needs above His own, we are called to be interested in others, not for our sake, but for theirs. This means that we can tap into our Spirit-led curiosity during a conversation and lead with questions—questions that invite people around us into dialogue, uncover their struggles, and find their story. Then, we can be curious about where God’s story intersects their story.

#3. Pique curiosity.

When I went fishing for lake trout in the Ozarks as a kid, we would put corn on our hooks and throw them in the water. Then, my father would toss a handful of corn in the water to “chum,” or attract the fish more eagerly to the corn bait. “Little and often” is the motto for successfully chumming when fishing. What if in the course of our conversations, we did the same? When engaged in any conversation, what if you piqued the curiosity of your friend by offering small, transparent mentions “little and often” of your faith, your walk with Christ, your dependence on God, your transformed life? My experience with this approach is that people naturally begin to get curious about my faith story, opening up greater opportunities for conversations about God.

#4. Be safe.

The idea of engaging in conversations about God can feel risky and unnatural to us—and to people with whom we interact. We fear the thought of turning people off, of communicating in a way that repels them. But when we understand and practice simple relational principles, our intentional interactions with people can create a safe atmosphere for spiritual exploration, thaw a cold heart, and become an invitation to freely investigate God’s truth without judgment, correction, or argument.

People crave engagement. They want someone who will acknowledge and respect their thoughts and feelings. For Christians living in this technologically interconnected, but relationally disconnected culture, engaging in simple conversational practices will communicate the unconditional love of Christ to people all around.

Participating in the Great Commission will inevitably mean talking with people in ways that will introduce them to Jesus. So, to be Great-Commission Christians, we all need to improve in our conversational ability, to engage the spiritually curious, and to begin a journey of discovery with them about God and the Bible.

Perhaps as much as apologetic arguments, we need simple conversational “arts”—like the principles of improv. If we can understand them, practice them, and apply them, we could multiply the quantity and quality of our gospel conversations and see our interactions about faith flourish, introducing more people to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Wouldn’t it be great if our churches helped everyone to learn it, practice it and improve at it? Because “Everybody Can Do It!”

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