Improv Church: The Power of Connection — An In-Depth Interview with Katie Phillips


How can an improv comedy show explore the intersection of faith and real life in community? Doug Powe and Katie Phillips talk about how Improv Church offers creative ways for engaging people in worship. 

Listen to this interview, watch the interview video on YouTube, or continue reading.

Doug Powe: Katie, I’m so excited you’re joining us to talk about improv church. When I use the word “improv church,” a lot of people get this really strange look in their face, so I’m really excited to talk to you about some of the wonderful work you’re doing. 

Katie Phillips: I’m so glad to be here, Dr. Powe. Thanks for having me. 

Doug Powe: What made you consider improv as a way of being together in a faith community? When most people think about church or a faith community, improv is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. So, what made you think this would be a wonderful way to gather? 

Katie Phillips: Your reaction is like the Board of Ordained Ministry’s as I came through for ordination. I have experience in improv comedy. When I was a junior in college at Boston University, a chick who I bantered with during class said, “you’re funny.” And I said, “Thanks. You’re funny, too.” And she said, “You should audition for the college improv troop.” I did not have much of a reference point for what improv was, but I auditioned and got in. Through that connection with Improv Boston, I started performing with professional comedy clubs doing improv comedy and touring the country in comedy festivals. Through my experiences, I developed what I call improv theology as I recognized that there’s something powerful to this work of improv that speaks to the creative God who formed us.  

So, it is part of my experience. Probably like every pastor, I bring what I know to the table. The Vine, the fifth church where I have worked, is a church plant with only a 14-year history. They don’t have a ton of committees, so we get to “yes” a lot more quickly. We are in this experimental post-COVID season, so it seemed like the right time to combine the art of improv and the world of comedy with faith formation.  

Doug Powe: How exciting that your background is in improv. This isn’t something that sounded like a great thing to try. You started improv before you moved into thinking about this work as a pastor, and now you’re bringing together your background from improv and your love of theology and the church. Now, what is improv church? 

Katie Phillips: Improv Church uses a format for improv called an Armando. Many people have probably seen short-form improv comedy shows on TV, like Whose Line is it Anyway? I love short-form improv, which is a series of games. It’s the way many of us have made money in the industry because people love it.  

But there’s another form of improv called long form where you get one suggestion from the audience and then you do a whole 90-minute night of theater and comedy based off the original input. The comedians start riffing off each other and then everything becomes an input along the way. The Armando is a long form of improv common in comedy clubs around the country. Someone gives a monologue at the beginning. Then there are a series of improvised scenes using that monologue as inspiration. The monologist comes back up halfway through the show. They may have started the night with a story they were prepared to tell about their life. But then they come back up with a story they weren’t prepared to tell, based on what they watched in the show. Then there’s another 30 minutes or so of improv.  

I thought that format could work in a worship setting where there’s a little homily or message instead of a monologue. For us at Vine Improv Church, you come in … we have a mocktail bar in the church where we’re mixing mocktails for people. We want it to feel like a date night at a comedy club. We charge $10 because the comedians said, “Don’t make it free. No one’s going to a free comedy show. That sounds awful.” 

I welcome people and I explain to them that this is an experiment in faith and in comedy. I give an overview of the format. Then I give a brief homily, and I really work to keep it very brief because our goal with improv church is to reach people who are likely not going to attend worship on Sunday morning. These are not people who necessarily have a high biblical literacy, and we introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ. I do that by sharing a brief, planned homily. My general preaching involves improv so when I say “planned,” I know what story I will use from scripture. And then the improvisors riff for about 30 minutes, and I use whatever they do to think through what my next little piece will be, and I offer another five-minute thought. And then the improvisers go again.  

We close with an invitation to prayer and communion. We explain what the communion table is and that it’s for everyone. Then the improvisers close with a fun improv game. We invite folks then to stay, hang out, chat, and converse. Some folks leave, but a lot of folks stay. The improvisers join them around tables and some cool conversations happen. 

Doug Powe: Let’s unpack a little bit of what you’ve shared. When you talk about the improvisers, my understanding is these are actual comedians. These aren’t individuals who are from the church who are doing the improv. These are professional comedians improvising off a homily, so it’s probably stretching them some. But this is part of why you ask for a donation of $10 because these are real comedians doing the work of improvising. 

Katie Phillips: That’s right. These are all folks who have their own following and perform in the D.C. area regularly. I still jump into shows every so often, so they’re all people I know or have connected with through the shows, but they’re not all Christians. There are some stories that I’d be happy to share about some work God is up to in those spaces. They’re professional comedians. We advertise that the show is for age 14 plus and that there are no holds barred. We put in the advertising that, if you’re the kind of person who clutches your pearls, this is not the worship service for you. We welcome you to any of our other worship services. But the audience we’re looking for are folks who are looking for a comedy show. 

Because they’re professional comedians, their primary focus is comedy. Part of my idea for this is that there must be space where the church can be pliable and we can make fun of ourselves, where the issues with the institution or even holes in scripture can be pointed out. We read scripture on Sunday morning in worship, and I’m sometimes astounded that, no matter what passage I preach from or watched other preachers preach from, the congregation has been trained to react to a scripture reading with, “Mm. Yes. Mm.” The truth is there are times we should turn to each other and say, “What? That’s bananas!” For the ridiculous (“The donkey was talking? Really?”), you should turn to the person next to you and say, “Come on!” or “There’s more to this story …” In other cases, there are things that are devastating, hard, painful, tragic, or traumatic. But we’ve somehow been trained that the reasonable response for worshippers is “Mm. Mm.” And what you say to a preacher on the way out the door is “Thank you, Pastor. Thank you, Pastor. I needed that.”  

At this point, there are multiple generations of people for whom the Church is countercultural. This notion of coming to worship for an hour and standing, sitting, listening to this kind of lecture (all of which I’m a fan of, p.s.), I know there are several generations of people who are so far removed from it that the notion that improvisers taking a sermon as inspiration and riffing on it in any way that it informs them on any given night means sometimes they’re finding the problems in the story. It means sometimes they’re highlighting the theme beautifully. And I leave going “Thank you.” Other times they’re poking fun at the institution. For all of that to happen in a church speaks to a younger generation that it’s all acceptable. It’s all part of faith formation. We’re not afraid of it. God is bigger than that. The church is stronger than being afraid of someone saying, “Wait a minute. What about that? Let’s point out that problem in the story. Let’s highlight this thing.” I think it leads to some cool conversations. 

Doug Powe: You shared a story about Jesus on a walk to Emmaus, walking with the disciples, and of course they don’t recognize that it’s Jesus. The improvisers don’t know that you’re going to share this story ahead of time, I’m assuming. 

Katie Phillips: Correct. 

Doug Powe: Once they hear you share about the walk to Emmaus, share an example of what they would then do with the story. 

Katie Phillips: It could go a ton of different ways. We have about maybe 10 comedians that have rotated through Improv Church. There are maybe two or three of the improvisers who have some biblical knowledge from some amount of Sunday school at some point in their lives, so there are a couple reference points. But, by and large, they’re hearing this story for the first time. It’s not just they’re hearing my take on it for the first time; they’re hearing it for the first time. So, with your example, they’re going to pick up on a theme — like not being recognized. You will see a series of scenes from workplaces and relationships where maybe the dramatic irony is that we’re shocked that the people on stage don’t recognize the person they should obviously recognize. So, they’re going to play it out but not replay the exact scene. I’m really clear on that because it is not the way this improv format works. People are not coming to watch a Christian comedy-like reenactment of a story. They’re using the story as inspiration, so they’re going to find a theme or a moment that they are going to riff on. And they’re going to expand it, expand it, and expand it.  

Doug Powe: For me, what is exciting is the fact that we don’t typically think about homilies or sermons as something people can rift off of. Opening up that space to allow people to imagine it differently is powerful. Do you get pushback on saying it’s age 14 plus? I can imagine someone saying everything should be open to everybody. It should be family friendly. In this particular case, you have to be intentional because you’re using professional comedians who have not grown up in a church world. So, you are careful about the age group. 

Katie Phillips: Right. I’m two and a half years into this appointment, so I arrived right as we were reopening the church following the COVID shutdown. Like every other pastor/leader, I found a new landscape. Most of the tricks I’ve known in the past are not working in the same kind of way to gather people. So, we started experimenting with several different ways to worship in addition to Sunday morning.  

There’s a Silver Diner down the road that on some nights of the week seems kind of empty. We’re right near a metro stop in Northern Virginia, an urban area. I met with the restaurant manager, and he gave us one room there on Tuesday nights to have dinner. We call it “diner church.”  

We have a “yoga church” on Sunday mornings that’s online, involves communion, and prayers. It’s not a yoga class but a worship service.  

We have a group called “Imbiblers” — I’m very proud of that name — that meets at a local pub. My district superintendent said to me after meeting with me about something, “I hope you’re going to the Fresh Expressions workshop.” I didn’t know what that was, so I came to learn about what Fresh Expressions are after starting these things. I’m on board with this notion of having different modes or vehicles or manners in which we tell the same story. The mission hasn’t changed, the vision hasn’t changed, but the means has because we need some flexibility in this time and place. 

In the same way that youth group is for ages 7 through 12 and the third grade Sunday school class is for third graders, it’s okay to have different vehicles where we’re trying to appeal to different people. We need a wideness to our vision in that way. I will tell you, Doug, this appointment is different, and I’m so thankful for it. I did a workshop with a church yesterday. I’m often invited to meet with staff teams and do workshops, leadership training, and creativity training. It was a great church, great workshop, but I was reminded of previous churches where I’ve served where there’s committee, committee, committee, committee, committee; and things move a little slower. Post-COVID we’ve got to be a bit nimbler as a church. 

When I went to our board and pitched this idea, they said give it a try. In fact, Leading Ideas published an article two years ago with a thesis that was “just try stuff,” and I wrote it on a huge chalk wall in our shared office space: Just try stuff. This is what we must do. We must not be so afraid of failure. We must throw stuff up against the wall. So, when I pitched improv church to my leadership team, I was prepared with details, data, the why. They responded, “Yeah, yeah. Why wouldn’t we? That’s great. Let’s do it.”  

Then I thought, I need to push this a little bit because they will be the ones who get the emails saying, “I cannot believe that word was used in a worship space.” I painted the picture for them, and they’re all like, “Yeah. Yes. We’re a yes on this.” So, I pushed it farther and I said, “I’m about to say some bad words in front of you all because when you get an email with this bad word, I want you to be ready.” So, I just straight-faced looked at my board on a Zoom call and I said, “What if this word is said? What if this word is said? What if a scene goes this direction? It’s a comedy club. There can be sexual content but, goodness gracious, is the human body hilarious? Yes. Are relationships funny? Yes. All that is wonderful about comedy, about kind of poking fun at those spaces. I want it to be available in this spot, but I want you guys to really be prepared for what I’m pitching.”  

And the oldest member of our board looked at me and she said, “If you get any of those emails, you forward them to me, and I will respond: ‘Thank you so much for coming and for your feedback. This is not the worship service for you. May I invite you to any of these other options we have’.”  

It was just important to me that they get it, not just in this general “Oh, we love that we have a creative pastor who’s going to try something.” I need them to be on board enough that they’re going to defend it if we get to that space. So far, we’ve done it for just shy of a year and we haven’t had any of that pushback, but we try to be clear about it in the advertising, introduction, and welcome. 

 Doug Powe: You’ve been doing it for about a year. I am not one of these people who believe numbers are the only measure of success, so I’m going to ask you: Are you happy with the participation in terms of people who are coming to this form of worship? 

Katie Phillips: Yeah, I am. I’ll tell you the numbers, but you know every church looks different. We have between 40 and 100 people — 40 was our lowest on a holiday weekend. Generally, we have 60 to 70 people — 100-ish has been our highest, which to me is a solid crowd for a comedy club. Often comedy clubs are black box theaters [simple square room with black walls and flat floor]where you have 50 seats or that kind of thing, so we have felt that there has been a healthy audience, a healthy space for conversation, and a real spirit of fun. They have been fun nights. 

Doug Powe: I can imagine that people will read this, and some are going to think this is great. They’re going to want to call you up and learn more about what’s going on. Others are going to be worried about the theological grounding that undergirds all of this or wonder if this is really just a show. What would you say to those individuals who are worried that this may move far away from what they understand as being theologically undergirded and solid?  

Katie Phillips: If you lived nearby, I would say “Come and see,” which is a quote from scripture you may be familiar with. I’d say to come and see. I would say that I start with the very beginning, the notion that in the beginning there was a formless void, and the Creator God creates out of nothing. God is the first improviser. And God continues to create something out of nothing, to be informed by what is and to create. And I think that work is inspiring. This new thing that God is always up to is inspiring and exciting. For people to be in spaces where there’s that kind of potential like, “Oh, you know what’s happening?”, where they’re seeing a church that’s unafraid to address the questions and even receive a little pushback from people for not worshipping an institution, it’s really powerful. It resonates and speaks to the boundary-breaking work that Jesus was always up to.  

But I would also say every form of Fresh Expressions that we’ve engaged here started with me thinking through this fourfold pattern of worship and what that looks like at the root or heart of it. We make sure that we’re moving people through that process. At Improv Church, it just so happens that the sharing of the Word happens with a homily and this flexing against it, this kind of conversation. But then we invite people to this opportunity to respond. We invite people to the table. We’ve had multiple people take communion for the first time in their lives at Improv Church. That’s powerful to me.  

I told you earlier that, when we planned this, we thought that all the people who live in the apartments and condos right here, 20-somethings, they’re going to come. The Dunn Loring metro people are going to come. The truth is we’ve got some of those folks, but the folks who are coming are our members’ spouses who have zero interest in coming on Sunday morning or their college-age kids who otherwise don’t attend. This is a place where people are inviting their neighbors and friends. Normal attendees are inviting their neighbors and friends to come.  

But part of the power of it for us has been what’s happening in the lives of the comedians. I’ve now performed a wedding ceremony for two of them who were planning to go to a civil officiant but said to me, “We’ve really thought about this, and we want God to be part of it. Come on, come on, let’s do this thing.” I got a text from a comedian, probably midnight after one of the shows, who said to me “I’ve now heard you talk about this Jesus guy three times. And I’m starting to wonder if there’s something there for me.” I mean it brought me to my knees.  

My vision wasn’t to convert comedians. My thought was, let me use some of my friends who are wicked funny and willing to perform in this venue. But, lo and behold, God is attractive and appealing, and it’s a powerful message of grace that people are longing to hear. Give them a way to hear the same thing that you would hear on Sunday morning but through a different lens, through a different way of hearing it, and then the invitation to come to the table, share your prayers, and be part of community. “Stay. Let’s talk about it a little bit. What did you hear? What do you think? What are your questions? What do you disagree with?” It can all happen here. 

Doug Powe: If you could think about three years or five years from now and imagine, what would you like to see happen with improv church? 

Katie Phillips: I’ll confess I’m super excited there are some other churches that are interested in trying it. I’ve been contacted by several different folks. Improv has become somewhat ubiquitous at this point, and people have done a corporate improv training of some kind, or there’s an improv club near them and they’re taking some classes. I’ve been contacted by some pastors who say, “Hey, I do improv. What’s this about?” It’s a joy to meet with them and paint a picture of “Here’s how we do it. I don’t know what it could like for you.”  

If I think about the future, the exciting thing would be that we’re flexible enough to consider ways …. I love Sunday morning. I’m a local church kid. A sermon is a one-way message, so something like improv church creates space for it to be more than that. You get that piece. That’s what I bring to the table: For us to be available and flexible enough that we would create space for the community to do all those things I’ve been talking about.  

When I was in my twenties, I read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and it was powerful for my faith formation. I’m not trying to advocate for Rob Bell in his theology entirely, but he talks about our faith being built like a brick wall. And the problem with that is when any one brick is removed, the structural integrity of the whole thing crumbles. The paradigm he offers is: What if we thought of our faith more like a trampoline, and there was some space for us to jump, push, flex, ask, consider, and learn from each other. I think many kinds of Fresh Expression spaces are a bit more like trampolines and especially improv church where we even allow, out loud on the stage, people to go, “Huh. Wait a minute. What if …?” Sometimes they’re very clearly reinforcing the message of the story, but it’s kind of the church saying, “Yeah, let’s talk about it. Look, let’s talk about it.” We’re unafraid to do that because we know the truth of who God is. So, we don’t need to be afraid of a “Well, wait a minute. What about or how about this?” 

Let’s talk about it. We believe and we know that at the bottom of it there’s going to be this grace and presence of an Emmanuel who is with us. So, let’s get there together. 

Doug Powe: Katie, this has been fun for me to talk with you about improv. I hope individuals will take you up on it and either come and see if they’re in your area or talk with you further about improv because I do believe that you are 100 percent correct that we have to find ways to be nimbler and to open spaces for people who would not normally hear the Word in traditional ways to be able to hear the Word. Thank you so much for your participation. 

Katie Phillips: Thank you. Grateful to be here. 

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About Author

Katie Carson Phillips is lead pastor of Vine United Methodist Church in Dunn Loring, Virginia. She earned her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary. Learn more about Improv Church at and Katie at

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.