When I wrote The Drama of Ephesians, I employed the notions of narrative and drama to describe the shape of the gospel and I used the concept of improvisation to talk about community embodiment of Christian identity.  Improvisation is so wonderfully rich and ought to be exploited more fully in speaking of ecclesial practice.

Improvisation calls for ad-libbed performances in light of new or unexpected situations.  It demands creativity, an ability to react and adjust “on the fly,” the ability to sort of “make it up as we go along.”

But don’t get the wrong impression.  This is nothing like merely throwing a bunch of things together sloppily or doing whatever comes to mind.  It doesn’t take an educated theater critic to be put off by ad-libs that don’t “work.”  We may not have the critic’s skill to describe precisely what went wrong, but we all know a bad performance when we see one.

Successful improvisations—ad-lib performances that “work”—are made possible by a thorough familiarity with the technical skills and conventions of performance, a highly trained and intuitive grasp of the craft of acting.

Improvisation, then, calls for both rootedness and training and the ability to adjust to new situations, settings, and conditions. 

This is why I think improvisation is such a wonderful way to describe Christian identity and practice.  Being Christian demands an intense familiarity with tradition.  Christians are diligent students of the faith of Israel, the stories of the first Christian generations, and the varieties of Christian tradition that unfold over the ensuing centuries.

At the same time, however, Christian faith demands that communities of Jesus-followers cultivate a nimble readiness to respond to new situations—both opportunities and challenges—with ad-lib performances that rise to the occasion.  These will be faithful embodiments of Christian identity that are unforeseen and unexpected in the same way that the new situations could not have been anticipated.

The way of Jesus is both radically new and in complete continuity with the way of the God of Israel.  The way of Jesus is rooted in the appearance, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and it is always adjusting and reconfiguring in order to meet and redeem new situations.

11 thoughts on “Improvisation

  1. John Mortensen


    I am glad you are blogging. For years I have listened to good and thoughtful words from you.

    Jazz improv fits exactly with your post. Despite its apparent freedom, it is only possible because of a deep harmonic and stylistic knowledge of the music in general and ones instrument in particular. Improv requires far more rigorous knowledge of the music than does note-perfect rote performance, actually. It is also very threatening and intimidating to musicians who do not have the skill.

    When musicians do not cultivate this kind of knowledge, they look for security and certainty in a rigidly-dictated score, where every note is nailed down and the performance will come off exactly as planned. Not only must the notes be treated as immutable writ, but other aspects of music like tempo and dynamics become predictable as well.

    Spontaneity, new ideas, happy accidents, and freedom itself all become enemies of the music.

  2. timgombis

    Thanks, John B.!

    Exactly, John M.!

    Think of the risk involved in improvisation! This is a major reason why so many consider variation and experimentation dangerous and simply wrong. It’s just so threatening, but when you don’t embrace the risk, you don’t experience the countless payoffs.

  3. greekUnorthodox


    A great post as I’m sure all your future posts will be!

    While I agree that improvisation in the Christian tradition is to be embraced, I’m wondering if there isn’t one more piece of the puzzle that could be thrown into your description.

    Namely that, while deviating from a predetermined story line does make it more interesting, there is something to be said for bringing it all back into resolution with the original plotline. In other words, making things up on the fly (even when rooted deeply in the traditional story) certainly does add to the complexity and enjoyment of the story, but wrapping up loose ends and coming to a resolution for each character is also quite satisfying. Otherwise, you’ll have secondary plot twists and subplots that go on ad infinitum and it seems to me to leave one…well, I guess the best word would be – unsatisfied.

    I look forward to hearing more from you!

  4. timgombis

    Hey Jon,

    I think the pattern of Scripture actually demands improvisation, and I hope to elaborate on this claim in future posts.

    Improvisation is not really deviating, and I’m not really sure that there’s a predetermined story line. Improvisation is necessary because there are always challenges and opportunities that the people of God simply cannot anticipate. There are elements of Christian identity that remain stable (love one another, etc.), but the shape of those behaviors is always changing and must adapt. If they don’t — talk about unsatisfying!!

    I hope to demonstrate that improvisation isn’t merely creativity for creativity’s sake, nor that it’s simply enjoyable and interesting, but that the only way the people of God can enjoy the life and presence of God is by embodying Christian identity in always-shifting contexts.

    One super-brief and simplistic example is in Acts 6. A need arises because of the exponential growth of the church, so the church gets together, thinks through things, and comes up with a creative solution.
    And I’d say that all the sub-plots and new plot-lines are what make stories fascinating, don’t you think? Isn’t that why movie sequels usually fail, because they’re just rehearsals of the same old story. No stretching of the characters, revelations of depth, etc.

  5. Craig Benno

    I think improvisational faith is true faith. For if God is working through, over and within a world that is constantly changing, then our walk of faith likewise needs to be fluid also.

    Hence we can drop what we are doing or planned to do at a moments notice to meet the sudden demands and needs of an emergency – yet we also need to the stability of consistency to provide a sense of solidarity within the appearance of constant change.,

    How we manage both is the tricky answer.

  6. greekUNorthodox

    No, I don’t think I’m making myself clear.

    I agree with what you are saying about being creative and having subplots and all of that. I’m saying though, that in the end, it’s more satisfying to see the subplots resolved. So, to illustrate with a mundane example, you might have a situation in which a man walks into a grocery store to buy a can of tuna fish. Then, using the improvisational model, a whole new story emerges where somebody robs the store, that robber sees their lover kissing somebody else in the frozen food aisle, the man with whom the robber’s lover is shopping happens to be a candidate for president of the local chapter of the Republicans Imagining Greater Historical Tithing (RIGHT for short), and so on and so on. With each ensuing subplot and improvisational twist the story gets more and more intriguing.

    But what really becomes satisfying is when, at the end of all the drama within the drama, things work themselves out and we see the man walking out of the store with his can of tuna fish…or better yet, a candy bar, and while opening it, he realizes that he forgot the tuna fish and has to go back into the store.

    Anyway, my point is, the improvisation is great, but resolving the plot(s) is also important.

    In the church this means, be creative, realize the organic storyline of God at work in the lives of his people…but also look for the overarching plot to come to an end. Without that goal in mind, the story becomes meaningless (or at least less meaningful).

    It seems like you’re saying the traditional model wants to go from A to B and you are suggesting that going from A to R to 3 to & to $ to yellow is much more interesting…and I would agree. But ultimately, it would more satisfying, for me, to end up at “B” than to not…if that makes sense. Improv takes a different route to get there than the traditional method, but it still has the same destination.

    I feel like I’m blathering on, but I hope you take my meaning.

    greekUNorthodox (not jon ;o) )

    1. timgombis

      We may indeed be missing each other a bit here, but I’m only trying to get at how it is that the church in every place must embody Christian faithfulness appropriate to its context. So, a suffering church will draw upon certain resources that Christian identity supplies while being thoroughly conversant with all that it means to be Christian. But they will embody a faithfulness as a community that is creative and redemptive, but which looks different from the faithfulness of a church in a radically different context.

      There will certainly be things held in common, but a church in rural New England will have different challenges and opportunities and their embodied faithfulness will just look different from the previous church.

      It would be wrong for people within either church to look at the other and say, “hey, what’s wrong with them? They’re not doing it the way we are.”

      If I were contrasting this conception of things with anything, it would be the thought that the church’s practice must be the same everywhere in every place in every time. The suffering church and the rural American church must look exactly like the church in … (pick your favorite time period in church history).

      I’m not sure that these various strands and traditions ever get resolved except at the final day when we hear about how our faithfulness was regarded by the faithful one. We live in hope that we’ll hear a glad affirmation on our faithfulness rendered by the power of the Spirit, soaked in the grace of God, and swallowed up the by redemption wrought in Christ Jesus.

  7. greekUNorthodox

    It’s probably my fault for bringing in a tangential line of thinking.

    Yep, I agree wholeheartedly with what your saying. Preach on, brutha!

  8. Wes Vander Lugt

    Great stuff, Tim, and as you know, I wholeheartedly agree that improvisation is a fitting model for the Christian life.

    A few practices from improvisational theatre might help to clarify the discussion about continuity versus discontinuity. First, improvisation is nothing about being original, and everything about being obvious. Improviser who try to be original all the time only become paralyzed by their pining after good ideas, but skillful improvisers who trust those with whom they are improvising relax into the situation, trust their troupe and their training, and let their imagination loose to do the next thing. For Christians, this means trusting God, Scripture, tradition, and each other to do what is obvious rather than what is original.

    Another helpful practice is reincorporation, which is the skill of bringing previous elements of the story back into play. As Keith Johnstone says in Impro, improvisers are like men walking backwards, always bringing the past to bear on the present. In my own work in applying this to Christian living, I also like to talk about preincorporation, because Christians not only reincorporate the past, but bring our promised future to bear on present situations.

    I think these improvisational practices and many more show how improvisation is a beautiful model that integration continuity and discontinuity, faithfulness and creativity. Thanks for blogging about it, Tim!

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