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3 Lessons Shakespeare Has for the Church

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My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary a few weeks ago by attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.
The experience reminded me of a few things that might be applied to the church. Here are three.

1. When insight into human nature is combined with humor, the impact can be profound.

Some say Shakespeare is inaccessible because the language is unfamiliar to modern ears, complaining that it’s hard to understand and boring.

I’ll be the first to admit that until we get familiar with Shakespeare’s vocabulary and rhythms of language, it can be difficult to read the words on the page.

But when those words are skillfully acted out on stage, it’s a completely different story.

Even then, the unfamiliar language could leave the stories inaccessible if the stories and characters didn’t connect with us on a fundamental level, but they do.

Shakespeare had a genius gift for portraying characters with depth and true-to-life emotions, fears, temptations, jealousies and hopes.

While watching “As You Like It,” I was struck by how closely the humanity of the characters on the stage resembled my own. Equally intriguing was the sharp wit of the characters.

Humor and a keen insight into what makes us tick can make a lasting impression on an audience.

At church, we tell stories that many people argue are inaccessible, saying they don’t read the Bible because it’s hard to understand or boring.

That might be true if the stories and characters didn’t connect with us on a fundamental level, but they do.

In the Bible, we have characters with depth and true-to-life emotions with which to work.

And we have the chance every Sunday, through skillful storytelling, humor and insight to connect the humanity of the Scriptures with our own humanity—the chance to leave a lasting impression for Christ.

As Christians that is both our obligation and our privilege.

2. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A lot has changed in the last 400 years, but Shakespeare’s play reminded me that what was funny in 1600 is funny now.

What was true, beautiful, gallant and charming then is so now. What was evil, duplicitous and wrong then is still wrong now.

Technology, language, customs, clothing, professions, economies, governments change and family systems change. But Shakespeare’s stories remind us that right and wrong don’t change.

Love and lust, pride and greed, valor and selfishness, sin, forgiveness and redemption all continue to rule our affairs in more or less consistent measures.

The outer identifiers of life change all the time, but the human heart remains the same.

Jesus’ words continue to be as relevant and challenging today as they were when he first spoke them because we continue to be as torn between selfishness and selflessness, justice and grace, as we’ve always been.

3. Excellence and artistry need not be inaccessible to the masses.

In fact, when creative work can’t be widely understood and isn’t widely appreciated, it usually signals a shortcoming in excellence, artistry or both.

What does it take to connect with the wider world? Shakespeare reminds us that we don’t need to dumb down our message or appeal to the lowest common denominator to reach the masses.

Shakespeare wrote for princes and paupers, for servants and kings. One way to find broad appeal is to aim for popularity. But there’s another way—aiming for excellence.

Excellence is a language common to us all, universally recognized and appreciated. Excellence has a lasting appeal that the purely popular does not.

At church, we have the most excellent message to share. In Christ, we are given the key to a most excellent adventure.

That message—and our savior—deserve excellence in worship, Bible study, fellowship, community, preparation and prayer.

When we are excellent, people will see God in us. And God revealed in and through us still has broad appeal. Excellence will always be popular.

Matt Sapp is the minister of congregational life at Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared on Wieuca Road’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @MattPSapp.