For the past nine years, Philip Smith from Main Street Baptist Church in Georgetown has brought the Bible to life through what he calls “performance Scripture”—dramatic recitations of the Apostle Paul’s epistles. Craig Claybrook of Georgetown interviewed Smith. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you land on the idea of memorizing and performing Scripture?
I heard St. Paul speak. Our pastor was preaching from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As he was reading from the text, I followed along in my open Bible. Suddenly, in my mind, I could hear the emotional voice of Paul. I heard his expression of heartfelt love and compassion for his dear friends. In hindsight, I know this experience was a gift from the Holy Spirit.
My wife Jolene and I were unaware that this moment’s experience would entirely change our lives. What we realized months later was that the Holy Spirit was gently leading us to a ministry of performance Scripture, which became “St. Paul Speaks.”
Compelled to memorize Philippians, I dedicated four months to the study and memorization of this Scripture. We became confident the letter would be performed dramatically in front of audiences. I built a set and props, and Jolene served as director and costume designer. Philippians premiered in August 2010. Over the years, St. Paul Speaks has become the most meaningful thing we have ever done.
What caused you to choose professional acting as your career?
Although my degree was in theater, it had been 23 years since I had any interest in acting. When I quit working in theater I said, “If I ever return to the stage, it will be for the Lord.” As our ministry of performance Scripture developed, it became evident that this was what God had planned all along. The 25 years I had worked in theater had been preparing me for this special calling into his service.
How thankful I am that our God is the patient, loving and forgiving God. Like many, I went away to college and strayed from my faith. For 25 years, I traveled the wide and crooked path of the world, ignoring God. It is to my regret that this departure from faith caused such distress to my parents, who were godly servant missionaries to the Cheyenne and Arapaho in Oklahoma.
I understand that you and Jolene have faced severe tragedy in your lives. Can you tell us about it?
Those “theater years” were not spent pursuing God but, rather, ignoring God. As a result, we were totally unprepared for the devastating news of January 6, 1985. We received word that morning that our only child, 16-year old Charise, had been killed in a car accident in Oklahoma City. The following three years were by far the darkest of our lives. We were helpless—mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Jolene remembered her mother telling her that if she ever needed help: “Go to a church and they will help you.” She was in very ill-health and her thinking was, “I am sick, my daughter is dead, and my husband is crazy. I’ve got to have some help.”
So she went to a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church in our neighborhood where we lived in Walla Walla, Wash. She went seeking help for physical needs. We thank God they not only helped her, they prayed for her and led her by word and deed to surrender her life to Christ. Jolene was freed from darkness.
I, however, continued in my suffering. After many months, Jolene lovingly came to me and asked if I would read a book that might help me. That day, we read together from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I thank God for Jolene, I thank God for C.S. Lewis, and I thank God for transforming me that very day as I surrendered my life to him.
Now, we were newborn babes in Christ, no longer ignoring God but pursuing God. Following our transformation, we realized we had entered the best days of our lives. Joyfully, we began to learn what a wonderful Savior we have in Jesus.
You have also been an outspoken advocate for the unborn. How did that come about?
Even as we continue to grow in our understanding and appreciation of God’s grace, mercy and peace, we live with the consequences of a terrible decision we made in 1984. The year before our daughter’s death, she became pregnant. In self-serving ignorance, we bought into the lie that unborn babies are nothing more than “clumps of cells.” We live with the reality that we paid to have our grandchild killed by abortion. Daily, we continue to live with the sad consequences of having neither children nor grandchildren.
Through our St. Paul Speaks Ministry, we have many opportunities to share our testimony. We pray that our life story may encourage others to have faith that God has a plan. As outspoken advocates for the unborn, we bare our souls about the consequences of abortion and pray that others will not make this same terrible decision. We urge people to continue praying for their family and friends who are ignoring or rebelling against God.
Can you give us an overview of what you have accomplished?
Over the past nine years we have developed four of Paul’s letters for performance: Philippians, Colossians, Galatians and “The Gospel of God’s Love” (a compilation from several letters). Each is performed in 30 minutes. I have performed at more than 150 churches of numerous denominations. Venues have included Sunday services, senior adult and youth events, banquets and church camps.
St. Paul Speaks is unique. We have searched the Internet and found no one who is age-appropriate performing Paul’s letters in their entirety with set and costume. Because performance Scripture is such a unique ministry, people often mistakenly think they will be hearing a recitation, a script or skit that we have written. We want people to know that we only perform the words of Scripture with no modification.
During these performances the audience “becomes” the first-century church and experiences a personal encounter with Paul—a real man with real concerns and real passions. Paul’s divinely-inspired words of encouragement, edification and spiritual growth come to life through these dramatic presentations.
How has your audience responded to St. Paul Speaks?
Audience members tell us that experiencing Paul’s letters performed dramatically has changed their way of thinking about them. Having had a personal encounter with Paul, they now appreciate his letters with an enlivened imagination which illuminates the Scripture. Now when they read his letters, they hear Paul’s emotional voice and visualize him imprisoned in chains. A common response is that they will “never again read Paul’s letters in the same light.”
Many ask us for advice about memorizing Scripture. So, we have developed a Scripture memorization handout.
What is your ultimate goal for St. Paul Speaks performance Scripture?
Paul’s message is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. The Good News is ever-new, ever-speaking and ever-living. Our hearts’ desire is to share this truth with as many people as possible for as long as we are able.
Craig Claybrook is a member of Main Street Baptist Church in Georgetown.