Mission as Improv

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite



Matthew 10:5-25

5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. 19When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!


In the late 1990’s, a show debuted on television called “Whose Line is it Anyway?”  The idea of the show was that four participants would be given themes for skits and they would then act out these skits.  The skits were not only unrehearsed, they were unwritten.  The participants made them up as they went.  This required quick wits and anticipation of where someone else was going with the skit.  The participants needed to know one another and how they would think.  They needed to be up to date on current events, news stories, popular culture, and things of that nature because anything was fair game.  This was an exciting show to watch because of the giftedness of these participants in their ability to improvise, or Improv these spontaneous skits, building off one another.

But I think that it is interesting how we look at Improv differently in different fields.  For instance, think of a pastor that stands up on a Sunday morning without having prepared a sermon for the day, not having read the scripture, and just begins to talk.  We might refer to this kind of Improv as “flying by the seat of your pants” or “winging it”.  Now compare that to the Improv we might hear from a Jazz musician.  If a Jazz musician stands up and starts playing without music, without even having a song in mind, we don’t say that she is winging it or flying by the seat of her pants.  No, we call her a genius.

None of us would accuse a Jazz musician that can stand up and compose music as she plays it of being unprepared.  Just the opposite.  She is very prepared.  She has studied music composition, she has learned her instrument, she has practiced, practiced, and practiced some more.  So Improv doesn’t mean that the improviser isn’t prepared.  Quite the opposite is often true.  Improv takes more preparation than a rehearsed, practiced, refined approach.

This morning I would like to look at the church’s mission as Improv.  And for a missionary to be able to Improv well, we need to know who we are Improv-ing with, we need to know that God will be with us, and we need to know that we will sometimes fail by worldly standards.  We will start by looking at with whom we are Improv-ing

In our scripture for today, Jesus sends out the original twelve disciples on a mission trip.  He gives them specific instructions on who they are to preach to; the Jews, not the Gentiles or the Samaritans.  He gives them instructions on what to do, preach the message that the kingdom of heaven is near while healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those who have leprosy, and driving out demons.

Now many people have criticized Jesus here for limiting this mission to the lost sheep of Israel and not to the Gentiles and the Samaritans.  And there are other times when Jesus seems to only care about the Jews.  Remember the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15, Mark 7) who came to Jesus to ask for healing for her demon possessed daughter?  Again, Jesus says that he came for the lost sheep of Israel.  What is the deal here?  Did Jesus have a problem with people of different races?

No, I think Jesus shows many other times that he was not racist, or sexist, or what ever other –ist people might want to accuse him of being.  He healed the Syrophoencian woman’s daughter, he ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well, he referred to the Good Samaritan as a neighbor, and he gave the great commission to preach the gospel to all nations.  So what Jesus is doing when he tells his disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel, the Jews, he is preparing them to minister to people that the Jewish disciples would be familiar with.  This was not to be a cross-cultural mission trip.  There wasn’t enough time to prepare them for a cross-culture experience.  Jesus has just called these disciples in the previous chapter.  So they had to go to a group of people that they understood and that would understand the message that the disciples would be bringing.  He would send them on their cross-cultural mission later.

What Jesus is saying is These are the kinds of people I think you can reach.  They are the ones that know about the kingdom of God.  They know what to expect; the blind will see, the lame will leap, the dead will rise.  And when you do these things before them, they will know that the kingdom has indeed come near!  Jesus knows that the Jews will hear the words that the disciples say and the Jews will see the deeds that the disciples do and some will follow Jesus.  I think this is why Jesus limits the people that the disciples are to be sent to the Jews.

When we do Improv, it is always best to know something about the person with whom you are Improv-ing with.  For instance, Mr. X, would you please help me with a demonstration?  (I pretend to pitch a baseball to Mr. X.  He will likely act out catching the ball and throw it back.  We didn’t plan this out, but I knew how he would react and respond.)  I asked Mr. X to Improv with me because I knew that he would know what to do when I pretended to pitch a baseball to him.  We didn’t plan this out beforehand.  I know that Mr. X is a baseball fan and that he would receive my invitation to play a fictitious game of catch. 

So when Jesus sends out the disciples on their first mission trip, he sends them to the people that will be able to respond to the offer to participate in the message that they are bringing.  Like Mr. X was able to recognize my invitation to play catch, the Jews would have understood the invitation from the disciples to hear about the coming of the kingdom of heaven.  If I had chosen to Improv with someone else, I would have chosen a different activity that would have been more easily recognized by them.  I would approach them differently than I approached Mr. X because I know they are different from Mr. X.  This is guideline number one for mission as Improv; try to know the person with whom you are going to be Improv-ing with.

Back in our scripture for this morning, we read in verses 9-11, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.  Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.”  It seems to me that Jesus is instructing these missionaries to not take anything extra with them; no extra money, no extra clothing.  He is saying, “Don’t even worry about where you will stay.  Just stay with someone who is worthy of your company.”  I think it should be clear to us that Jesus is saying that God will take care of the missionaries.  God will work through regular people to provide the things that they need.  Therefore, the missionary need not worry about these things.

But we do worry about these things, don’t we?  We worry about what we are going to wear, what we will eat, where we will stay.  I just got back on Thursday from a trip to Maine where we were for eight days.  And we had everything planned out.  We packed clothes for the trip, we got cash from the bank and made sure that there was money in our checking account.  We knew where we would be staying and how we would get there and what we would drive.  It is not normal for us to not plan these things out in advance when we travel.  But here Jesus is saying to the missionaries, “Trust in God and you will be okay.”

Now when Mr. X and I were Improv-ing earlier like we were playing catch, it seemed like he changed up the pitch a little on me.  He seemed to have thrown a curve ball to me.  I could not have anticipated that he would throw the curve ball back to me, but I reacted accordingly.  I improvised and went where he was taking me with the game we were playing.  I didn’t say, “No, now stop.  I am leading this experience and you will only do as I lead you to do.”  I went where he wanted to go, and because I was prepared to do so, I was able to respond accordingly.

When we do Improv in mission, we must be able to stray from our notes in order to have a real conversation with people.  And this is important because people will ask questions, they will want you to explain why Jesus had to die, what about other religions, what about other lifestyles, do Christians hate homosexuals, why can’t we get along with other denominations, let alone other religions.  When we Improv, we must be ready to adjust when the person we are Improv-ing with wants to give some input as well.  And that does take prior preparation.

1 Peter 3:15 teaches us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  And also to do this with gentleness and respect.  Again, this comes back to the Improv-ing of a musician.  To Improv well requires that you know what you are doing well.  Practice may not make perfect, but practice does make better.

But in spite of all of our efforts, when we Improv with others missionally, it is not only us that engage in this experience.  It is the Holy Spirit of God working through us in this Improv-ing.  So while we can prepare, practice, and become more and more ready to engage in Improv with those we come in contact with, it is only through God that we can have meaningful conversations.  Just like the disciples had to learn to trust in God for all of their needs, we too need to learn to trust in God for what we need as well.  Whether it is equipping us for Improv dialogue with a neighbor, or our clothing, food, and housing, we all must learn to trust in God.  And that is the second guideline for mission as Improv.  Practice as much as you can, but you need to trust God to provide you with what you need.

As we look at the rest of our scripture for today, and even beyond what was read for us, we find that Jesus wasn’t expecting everything to be rosy for the 12 disciple missionaries.  The rest of the chapter is made up of Jesus telling the disciples what to expect on their mission trip.  And most of it isn’t good.  Jesus talks about people not listening to the disciples and how they are to shake the dust off their sandals as they leave that place.  But it gets a lot worse than people not listening.  Jesus says that the disciples are like sheep and that he is sending them out to the wolves, that they will be handed over to the governing authorities, flogged, tortured, persecuted.  I would imagine that the disciples are wondering, “What did I get myself into?”  Imagine how much they must have believed in Jesus to be willing to put themselves through such pain and agony!  But they did it!  They spread the good news even though Jesus told them how much it might cost them.

One of the biggest fears any of us have is that of failure.  We don’t want to look foolish in front of others.  So we don’t take chances, we don’t step out of our comfort zones.  We might see an opportunity to do something great, but not take it because of what others might think if we fail.

When we see people doing Improv, like on Whose Line is it Anyway, we often see the participants trying to get the audience involved.  They look for people in the crowd that are willing to jump up on stage and work with them, to create a skit as they go.  And it looks like a lot of fun while the professionals are doing it, but the audience members are usually so reluctant to jump in.  They are afraid of looking foolish, and many people miss out on a lot of fun because they are not willing to give it a try.  They are afraid of failing.

Well guess what.  When you do Improv, you will likely fail by human standards.  There is a good chance that you will be left without the words to say at the appropriate time.  There is a good chance that you might look silly.  But what if you got up there and you didn’t fail?  What if you were able to keep up with the professionals?  What if you turned out to be quite the Improv-er?  You never know until you try it.  And to tell you the truth, I don’t consider anyone a failure who tries something new only to find out that they are not gifted at it.  I only consider someone a failure if they never try.  This is my third guideline for mission as Improv: you don’t fail if you don’t convert someone to Christianity, you don’t fail if you are persecuted and run out of town like the disciples.  You fail when you choose to never try.

Yes, it is difficult to put yourself out there, to let others know that you are a follower of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes it is even difficult to do this with other Christians.  But compared to what these disciples had to deal with, I think we have it pretty easy.  I have maybe been snickered at or ignored because I shared my faith.  But I have never been flogged, arrested, or felt like a lamb thrown to the wolves.  Yes, we may experience some persecution, but not like these disciples did.  So why are we so reluctant to engage in conversations, why are we so reluctant to try to Improv with those we come in contact with?

Mission as Improv means that we must know the people we plan to Improv with so that we can be ready to have an answer for our faith.  Mission as Improv means trusting in God to provide the words to say and the actions to live out when our own ability to do so comes up short.  And Mission as Improv mean being willing to accept persecution, whatever that might be. 

Over forty years ago, Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a changing.”  This is just as true today as it was back then.  We are living in a new day and age, and I believe we need a new way to share the love of Christ with others.  Let us enter into dialogue with others with the ability to Improv as we go.  We can come to a conversation with all of the answers to the questions, but if these aren’t the questions that people are asking, we need to be ready.


*Thanks to Nick Nissley of the Banff Center for his insight on Improv at the Lexington Seminar, June 2008 http://www.banffcentre.ca/about/


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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