“Improv Church: The Power of Connection” featuring Katie Phillips

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“Improv Church: The Power of Connection” featuring Katie Phillips

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Podcast Episode 137

How can an improv comedy show explore the intersection of faith and real life in community? In this engaging episode we speak with Katie Phillips about how Improv Church offers creative ways for engaging people in worship.

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How can an improv comedy show explore the intersection of faith and real life in community? In this engaging episode we speak with Katie Phillips about how Improv Church offers creative ways for engaging people in worship.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Reverend Dr. Katie Phillips of Vine church in Virginia.

Our focus for this podcast is improv church. Katie, I’m so excited you’re joining us and excited to talk about improv church. This is going to be a great conversation. I know a lot of people, when I use the word “improv church,” get this really strange look on their face, so I’m really excited to be able 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: Before we get into what is improv church, I’m curious, what made you consider improv as a way of being together in a faith community? I’m thinking that for most people, when they are thinking about church or a faith community, improv is probably not the first thing that comes to their mind. So, what made you think this would be a wonderful way to gather?

Katie Phillips: Yeah, your reaction is similar to 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 in my class who — we just bantered during class — she goes “you’re funny.” And I said, “Thanks. You’re funny, too.” And she said, “You should audition for the college improv troop.” And I really had not much of a reference point for what improv was, but I auditioned and got in and through that I connected with Improv Boston and started performing for a number of years with professional comedy clubs doing improv comedy and touring the country in comedy festivals and, in the course of that, developed what I call “improv theology” and just recognized there’s something really powerful to this work of improv that I think speaks to the creative God who formed us.

For me, it just is part of my experience. Probably like every pastor, you bring what you know to the table. This is the fifth church where I have worked. The Vine 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. Post-COVID, we are in this experimental season, so it just seemed like the right time to try this kind of wacky idea of combining the art of improv and this world of comedy with this space of faith formation.

Doug Powe: This is pretty exciting that your background is actually in improv. This isn’t just something you’re just like, “This sounds like a great thing to try.” You actually started improv before you moved into thinking about this work as a pastor, and now you’re bringing together your background from improv and, of course, your love of theology and the church. Now, let’s get to the question everybody wants to know. What is Improv Church?

Katie Phillips: I’m so glad you asked.

Doug Powe: I thought you would be.

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

But there’s this other form of improv called long form where you kind of get one-ish suggestion from the audience and then you do a whole show, a whole 90-minute night of theater and comedy based off that original input, and you just allow the comedians to start riffing off each other. Everything becomes an input along the way. The Armando is this form of long form that lots of comedy clubs do around the country where there’s someone who gives a monologue at the beginning. And then there’s a series of scenes that are improvised using that monologue as inspiration.

And then the monologist — I don’t know if that’s a real word or not …

Doug Powe: I like it though.

Katie Phillips: You like it. The monologist comes back up halfway through the show. They may have started the night with a story that they were prepared to tell, about their life. But halfway through they come back up with a story they weren’t prepared to tell, based on what they just watched in the show, and then there’s another 30 minutes or so of improv.

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

Doug Powe: Yeah.

Katie Phillips: You’ve got to have some value to it. So, it’s 10 bucks and mocktail bar. You come in. Then I welcome people, and I explain to them this is an experiment in faith and in comedy and tell them the format. Then I give a brief homily; and I really work to keep it very brief because the folks that we attract to Improv Church — our goal with Improv Church is to reach people who are likely not going to come on Sunday morning. These are not people who necessarily have a high biblical literacy, and we want to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ. I do that through story, a brief homily. Then the improvisers start the comedy. I come back up — and I plan what I’m going to say there. My general preaching involves improv, so when I say “plan,” I know what story I’m going to use from scripture. And then the improvisors riff for about 30 minutes, and I use whatever they just did, you know, to think through what my next little piece is going to be, and I offer another little five-minute thought. And then the improvisers go again.

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

Doug Powe: Well, let’s unpack all of what you just said a little bit here because you’ve said a lot. I think this is going to be really exciting for individuals. The first piece is, when you talk about the improvisers, my understanding is these are actual comedians. These aren’t people who sort of, I don’t want to use the words “play at,” but these aren’t individuals who are from the church who then are trying to do this. These are actually professional comedians that are improvising off of a homily, so it’s probably stretching them some, also. But this is part of why you’re charging. The donation of $10 is because these are real comedians doing the work of improvising.

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

Doug Powe: Right.

Katie Phillips: We welcome you to any of our other ones. Right? But the audience we’re looking for are folks who are looking for a comedy show.

Doug Powe: Yes.

Katie Phillips: But because they’re professional comedians, their primary focus is comedy. Then part of my idea for this is that there has to 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. And when I say “holes in scripture,” I mean, you know, we read scripture on Sunday morning in worship, and I’m sometimes astounded that, no matter what passage I preach from or I watch other preachers preach from, the congregation’s reaction to a scripture reading … we’ve been trained that our reaction should be, “Mm. Yes. Mm.” The truth is there are times we should be turning to each other and going “What? Like, that’s bananas!” I mean, from the ridiculous, “The donkey was talking? Really?”, you should turn to the person next to you and go, “Come on!” or, you know, “There’s more to this story.” Or things that are just devastating or hard or painful or tragic, 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.”

I just think there are now, at this point, 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 just so far removed from it that the notion that improvisers could take as inspiration a sermon and riff on it, run with it in any way that it informs them on any given night means sometimes they’re finding the problems, if you will, in the story. It means sometimes they’re just highlighting the theme beautifully. And I leave going, “Thank you.” Other times they’re poking fun at the institution.

All of it, for that to happen in a church, I think speaks to a younger generation that it’s all acceptable. 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 going, “Wait a minute. What about that? Let’s point out that problem in the story. Let’s highlight this thing.” I think it creates some really cool conversations on the other side of it.

Doug Powe: I don’t know if you can do this and I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but just help our listeners or those who are viewing on YouTube to get a better perspective. If you shared a story, and I’m just going to try to pick something really innocent, about Jesus on a walk to Emmaus, walking with the disciples and of course they don’t know that it’s Jesus. Right? The improvisers don’t know that you’re going to share this story ahead of time, I’m assuming.

Katie Phillips: Correct.

Doug Powe: Then, once they hear you share about the walk to Emmaus, can you share an example of what they would do with the story?

Katie Phillips: Yeah.

Doug Powe: What would happen?

Katie Phillips: I mean, it could go a ton of different ways. Again, there are maybe two of the improvisers (we have about maybe 10 comedians that have rotated through Improv Church and I’m kind of guessing here), I would say two or three of them have some biblical knowledge …

Doug Powe: Okay.

Katie Phillips: … 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 that example, they’re going to pick up on a theme, this theme of not being recognized. You’re going to see a series of scenes from workplaces and relationships where, you know, maybe the dramatic irony is that we’re shocked that the people on stage don’t recognize the person they should obviously recognize. Right? So, they’re going to play it out. What they are not going to do is replay the scene. And I’m really clear on that. That’s not the way this improv format works. People are not coming to watch a Christian comedy-like reenactment of a story. They’re just using the story as inspiration, so they’re going to find a theme. Moment is a word sometimes that I use. They’re just going to riff on it, and they’re going to expand it and expand it and expand it.

Doug Powe: Thank you. I think, for me, what is exciting is the fact that we don’t typically think about homilies, sermons, as something people can rift off of like you said. I love the way you did the “mm.”

Katie Phillips: Right, yeah.

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Doug Powe: You know, literally, we think about it in that way.

Opening up that space to allow people to actually imagine it differently I think is powerful. Let me ask you, do you get pushback on saying it’s age 14 plus? I can imagine some individual saying, “Well, you know, everything should be open to everybody. It should be family friendly.” Do you get the pushback that, in this particular case, you have to be intentional because you’re using professional comedians who have not grown up in a church world, that we’ve got to actually be careful about the age group?

Katie Phillips: Right. You know, post-COVID, I came to this appointment. I’m two-and-a-half years into this particular appointment, so I came to it right at this time we were reopening the church following the COVID shutdown and, like every other pastor/leader, found a new landscape and that most tricks I’ve known in the past are not working in the same kind of way to gather people. So, we started experimenting with a number of different ways to worship in addition to Sunday morning.

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

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

We have a group called Imbiblers — I’m very proud of that name — that meets at a local pub. So, my DS said to me after meeting with me about something, “Oh, I hope you’re going to the Fresh Expressions workshop.” I don’t know what that is. So, I came to learn about what fresh expressions are after starting these things, and I’m on board with it, this notion of having these 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? I think we need some flexibility in this time and place.

For me, in the same way that, you know, youth group is for ages 7 through 12 and the third grade Sunday school class, well, it’s for third graders, I think it’s okay to have different vehicles where we’re trying to appeal to different people. I think we have to have a wideness of our vision in that kind of way. But I will tell you, Doug, this appointment is just different and I’m so thankful for it. I actually did a workshop with a church yesterday. I meet with teams, you know. I’m invited to meet with staff teams and do workshops and 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 just move a little slower. I just think in post-COVID we’ve got to just be a bit more nimble as a church.

So, when I went to our board and pitched this idea, they were, like, yeah, give it a try. In fact, you all published an article two years ago with a thesis that was “just try stuff,” and I wrote it on a chalk wall in our shared office space. It’s huge on our wall. Just try stuff. This is what we have to do. We have to not be so afraid of failure. We have to throw stuff up against the wall. So, I pitch Improv Church to my leadership team and I’m ready. I’m prepared. Details, data, the why. They go, “Yeah. Yeah. Why wouldn’t we? That’s great. Let’s do it.”

Then I thought, okay, I need to push this a little bit because they’re going to be the ones that get the emails saying, “I cannot believe that word was used in a worship space.” I literally sat there and painted the picture for them, and they’re all just 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? Right? I mean, it’s a comedy club. There can be sexual content. There can be 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 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, we haven’t had any of that pushback, but we try to be really plain about it, including in the introductory part of the night. In the advertising, we try to be clear about it, but in the introduction and welcome, we try to be clear about it, too.

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 in this way: Are you happy with the participation in terms of people who are coming to this form of worship?

Katie Phillips: Yeah, I am. And I’ll tell you the numbers, but you know every church looks different. We have run between 40 and 100 people — 40 was our lowest on a holiday weekend. Generally, we’re running 60, 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 like there has been a healthy audience, a healthy space for conversation, and I think a real spirit of fun. They have been really fun nights.

Doug Powe: Let me move in a little different direction. People, I can imagine, will hear 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, you know, where’s the theological grounding, what undergirds all of this, or is this 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: Sure. 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. But I would say I start with the very beginning, this 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, out of nothing, out of something, [I would say] 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. I think 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. I think it’s really powerful, and 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 of it, at the heart of it. Right? 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 all the people who live in the apartments and condos right here, 20-somethings, they’re going to come. You know, 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 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 so far has been what’s happening in the lives of the comedians. I’ve now performed a wedding ceremony for two of them who were going 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.” One comedian — I got a text, probably midnight after one of the shows, and the person 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, man, it just brought me to my knees.

Doug Powe: Yeah, that’s powerful.

Katie Phillips: You know, like what does that look like? Of course, that’s the way God does, right? Like my vision wasn’t to convert comedians. My thought was, let me use some of my friends who just happened to be wicked funny and are willing to perform in this venue. But, lo and behold. I mean God is attractive and appealing and it’s a powerful message of grace that people are longing to hear, so to 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, invitation to share your prayers, invitation to 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? Right? It can all happen here.

Doug Powe: As we get ready to draw to a close, I’m curious. If you could think about the future and think about, we’ll say, three years or five years from now and imagine what you would like to see happen with Improv Church, what would that look like for you?

Katie Phillips: Well, I mean, I’ll confess I’m super excited there are some other churches that are interested in trying it. I’ve been contacted by a number of 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 a number of pastors who are like, “Hey, I do improv, you know. What’s this about?” And 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.”

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

Years ago — and I’m not trying to advocate for Rob Bell in his theology entirely — when I was in my twenties, I read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and it was powerful for me, especially at that time, in my faith formation. And 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. And 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 and push and flex and ask and 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 just 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?’”

Yeah, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it. And we believe, 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: Well, Katie, this has been really fun, not to use a pun, for me to talk with you about improv. And I do 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 more nimble and to open spaces for people who would not normally hear the Word in traditional ways or to be able to hear the Word. Thank you so much for your participation.

Katie Phillips: Thank you. Grateful to be here.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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Learn more about Improv Church at thevineva.org/worship/improv-church. Learn more about Katie Phillips at  bigbadidea.com/about.

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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 thevineva.org/worship/improv-church and Katie at bigbadidea.com/about.

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.