Improvisation as a Core Leadership Skill

This Is Spinal Tap is the first of four films created by an improvisational acting company led by Christopher Guest. It’s a mock-documentary about a supposedly “iconic” hard-rock band that reunites for a one-time blowout performance. The film put Guest and his improv troupe (Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, and Harry Shearer) on the map—sparking a cult following that fueled the release of three more unscripted “mockumentaries” driven by actors who excel at the comedy equivalent of cliff-diving.

In each film, the actors follow a script outline but improvise their lines in the moment. In the fourth film of the series, Best In Show, a disparate lineup of dysfunctional characters enter their pets into a top dog show. Here’s a snippet of improvisation from the film, spoken by a character named Harlan Pepper, a bloodhound-owner from the South:

“I used to be able to name every nut that there was. And it used to drive my mother crazy, because she used to say, ‘Harlan Pepper, if you don’t stop naming nuts…’ And the joke was that we lived in Pine Nut, and I think that’s what put it in my mind at that point. So she would hear me in the other room and she’d just start yelling. I’d say, ‘Peanut. Hazelnut. Cashew nut. Macadamia nut.’ That was the one that would send her into going crazy.”

Because Christopher Guest “finds” the humor in this monologue in the moment, the laughs are magnified. That’s because cliff-diving delights us—it’s the risk in the moment, the courageous trust these improv actors (or musicians, or athletes, or poets, or chefs) offer in the moment, that fuels our response. It’s the same thing that delighted Jesus more than anything else—we call it faith. Faith is the fruit of a kind of courageous trust that delights and astonishes Jesus. For example:

  • The Centurian in Matthew 8 who tells Jesus he’s also “a man under authority,” so there’s no need for Jesus to travel to his “unworthy” home to heal his servant—He can just “say the word.” This is improvisational faith—responding in the moment with surprising creativity that’s born out of a cliff-diving kind of trust. And Jesus is bowled over by it…
  • The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 who begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, only to be rebuffed by Him with this blunt comeback: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In return, this sly woman improvises the sort of response that makes Jesus jump out of His sandals with delight: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus bubbles over with this: “O woman, your faith is great…”
  • The “sinner” woman of Luke 7 who crashes a high-society party and improvises her own remarkable act of worship when she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. And Jesus proclaims: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven…”

The common thread among these now-too-familiar encounters with Jesus is His response—He relishes each person’s in-the-moment act of improvisational trust. Improvisation motivates us to move into the void with a risky certainty that we will find something solid to stand on when we step out. It’s these acts of risk, not any sort of guaranteed result from them, that are the meat-and-potatoes of the Kingdom of God.

For all of our planning and preparation in ministry, it’s our moments of improvisational trust that flash like lightning against a dark sky. Today, if your heart is engaged with both Jesus and the people around you, you’ll feel the nudge of the Spirit—an invitation to improvise a creative response in the moment. And when you respond, whether or not your response produces immediate fruit, you can be sure Jesus will be jumping out of His sandals with delight.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bibleand author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution,The Jesus-Centered Lifeand Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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