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.