From Script to Improv

Lessons for leaders from the Bible's best-known entrepreneur.

This article originally appeared in The Praxis Journal, 16 October 2018.

At Praxis we’re committed to the idea that redemptive entrepreneurship comes from rethinking three fundamental dimensions of every enterprise: its strategic intent (the goods or services the enterprise produces), its operating model (its internal culture and way of treating all the people in its sphere of influence, from vendors to customers), and perhaps most fundamentally, its leader’s script, a phrase we’ve come to use to identify the history, motivations, and aims of the founders of a venture. The stories of influential companies are almost always deeply tied up with the personal stories of their founders — for better and for worse.

For that reason, we’re always looking for models, both in the present and in the Christian tradition, of entrepreneurs who clearly lived out a redemptive story.

And if you’re looking for a model of a redemptive entrepreneur from the New Testament itself — maybe the whole Bible — it’s hard to beat the Apostle Paul.

Paul has a goal. But what Paul does not have, in these and other passages, is a well-defined script.

Saul of Tarsus had spent his early career totally devoted to the existing institutions of first-century Palestinian Judaism. Then he became a leader of the movement to violently suppress the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But after a blinding encounter with Jesus himself, his entire life mission changed — including, apparently, his name. Along with his cofounders — figures like Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Priscilla, and Aquila — he began to build a new kind of religious community around the cities of the Mediterranean rim, one anchored deeply in the tradition of his own Jewish people but also radically different from anything that had come before. If anyone in the Bible is a model for entrepreneurs, it is Paul.

So what was Paul’s script for his own life?

The striking but inescapable answer is that he did not have one.

Saul — the devoted Pharisee — had a script.

But Paul — the converted, entrepreneurial apostle — did not have a script in mind at all.

What do I mean, in this context, by a “script”? Think of it as a set of well-defined steps, rooted in the past, that promises to guide you to a successful outcome. (Take this series of classes and exams and you’ll be able to get to medical school — then go through a sequence of training like first-year classes, rotations, internship, and residency, and you’ll be credentialed as a doctor.) Richard Rohr refers to this master plan for our lives as the “winner script,” the steps that have worked for others to achieve mastery and recognition. Such a script is, well, prescriptive: follow its steps, the script promises, and it will work for you, too.

Saul of Tarsus certainly had such a script. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul describes it. It was based on what Paul has come to recognize as “confidence in the flesh”:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:4b-6)

Saul’s confidence came from his past — his secure position as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews,” with parents who were religiously observant (circumcising him on the eighth day), followed by his own devoted accomplishments. As a young man he had been a student of Gamaliel, one of the most celebrated rabbis of the first century. All this added up to what we would call a clear “track record” (not so different from the pedigree of many entrepreneurs who gain access to venture capital today). It gave Saul reason for confidence, not just about success among his peers, but about something even more important to a first-century Jew: blamelessness before God at the final judgment. According to Saul’s script, he was ideally positioned to live a life of faithful service and receive God’s “well done” at the final resurrection, the end of history that every Pharisee expected. Saul had a crystal-clear script, and by its terms he was succeeding.

But Saul had been knocked off his horse by the blinding vision of a Messiah (in Greek, Christos) who violated all of his expectations. And this had caused him to repudiate his script:

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil. 3:7–9)

Paul abandoned Saul’s script, but that does not mean his life became aimless. He still had a clear purpose, indeed a clearer and more powerful purpose than Saul the Pharisee had:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:10–14)

Paul has a goal. But what Paul does not have, in these and other passages, is a well-defined script. He has abandoned the characteristic “confidence” of those who follow scripts, with clear directions for behavior, belief, and outcomes. He hopes that somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. He has no illusions that he has already obtained this — instead he hopes that because Christ Jesus has made me his own he will be caught up in the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. The story of Paul’s life has radically shifted from his past and from matters he can control — his life “in the flesh” — to his future which is held entirely by God in Christ.

We clearly see Paul’s abandonment of the script as he reassures the Philippians about what would have seemed to them like a major disaster: his imprisonment by the government for criminal charges that could (and, in his case, ultimately did) carry the death penalty. The Philippians were not just Paul’s dear friends, but also financial investors in his mission. Imagine calling your largest funder to tell them you had just been arrested for a capital offense — one that would derail your mission and call into question your own moral character and social worth. This is certainly not the script anyone would write for their missionary efforts or include in a pitch deck.

But Paul writes the Philippians to break them free of their scripts as well — to assure them that God is just as powerful as ever, and working both death and resurrection in Paul’s life and theirs. His very first topic in the letter is the way that the various disruptions to his ministry are actually opportunities for rejoicing rather than anxiety:

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. . . . What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. (Phil. 1:12–19)

And then Paul goes on to ponder the ultimate outcome — either life or death — and realizes that he has no script that steers him in one direction or another. Instead he has hope — a confidence not in his past (the “flesh”) but in his relationship with Christ, which allows him to view all potential outcomes of his current situation with confidence:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith. . . . (Phil. 1:20–25)

From script to improv

One of the great turning points in American theater was the 1959 founding in Chicago of The Second City — the first theater troupe dedicated to improvisation. Unlike traditional theater and comedy, Second City created shows that evolved unpredictably — and hilariously — based on audience suggestions and the interaction of performers. Previous generations of comedians had honed their jokes and routines in rehearsal, but Second City’s actors simply rehearsed improvisation itself and trusted that lines, characters, even the entire plot would emerge in the performance. Rather than memorizing lines, they mastered the art of listening and responding in real time — “improv” techniques that have become essential parts of almost every actor’s training.

If you have to pick a metaphor for the work of entrepreneurs, improv is obviously far closer than traditional acting. The essence of entrepreneurship is exploration, risk, and responsiveness to the environment, trying new directions and quickly pivoting rather than playing out a fixed plan. Entrepreneurs, almost by definition, do not follow a script.

And yet, in another sense, scripts are dangled before entrepreneurs all the time. Think about the funding script that has become so well-known in the era of venture capital — “friends and family,” followed by “seed” and “angel” rounds, followed by “Series A,” “Series B,” and so forth until the “exit.” No matter that countless successful and influential enterprises — let alone redemptive ones — have deviated from this pattern. The script is ingrained and becomes, very much like the training of an ambitious first-century rabbi, a clear guide to obtaining the goal.

Maybe the goal of the Christian entrepreneur’s life is to move from all of our scripts — our business scripts, our relational scripts, our personal vocational scripts — to a life of improv, one where we can honestly say that we do not prefer one outcome or another, as long as our life in Christ remains alive and fruitful. As anachronistic as it could seem to apply a twentieth-century American comedy genre to a first-century Jew, something like this is clearly what had happened to Paul.

The life of an improv apostle

How does Paul see his highly entrepreneurial, improvisational life? Over and over in his writings (as well as the account of his missionary journeys in Acts) several themes emerge — themes that are strikingly parallel to the art of improv:

1/ Paul’s life is relational. He is driven most deeply by his love for individuals and communities — both the ones with whom he has great affection, like the Philippians, and the ones with whom he has great conflict, like the Corinthians. Most of all, he has an unshakeable sense of relationship with God, one sustained by prayer and responsiveness to God’s direct guidance. Paul does not need a script for his life because love — of God and neighbor — guides his daily choices.

This relational approach is very close to the heart of improv. Trust and communication between actors is essential to successfully “tossing” a scene back and forth. Second-City-style improv also introduces a level of communication and interdependence between actors and audience that is not found in traditional theater. There is really no such thing as an improv monologue, because the very essence of improv is discovering possibilities together with other people.

2/ Paul’s life is a matter not of achievement — the successful performance of a script — but of grace the daily, astonished discovery of the fruitful life that God is opening up for him. The most characteristic way Paul refers to his own vocation is “the grace of God given to me.” It’s a phrase that appears about a dozen times in Paul’s letters, never referring primarily, as we might expect, to his salvation, but instead always clearly referring to his mission — a vocation he has received rather than achieved.

Likewise, the cornerstone practice of improv is summed up in the phrase, “Yes, and — ” : the commitment to treat every line and action of a fellow performer, no matter how implausible, as a gift that will open up new possibilities.

3/ Paul’s life is surrendered and committed. He has nothing of his own to cling to or control — instead, every day he has to offer his whole life to God’s mission. And this, too, is like improv, which requires the complete presence and trust of the performer. Of course all acting, at its best, requires that kind of presence and trust — but it is possible to end up just going through the motions, or reciting lines by rote, when you have a script. When there is no script? Your only option is to show up and trust the process in each moment, with total commitment.

To put it another way: truly great traditional actors, the ones at the height of their powers, show up with surrender and commitment in each moment of a performance (partly, these days, because they train with improv techniques). But even the most inexperienced, amateur improv actor has to show up with that level of surrender and commitment.

So we see Paul, in his various letters to different churches, discarding one script after another.

In the letter to the Galatians, he discards the circumcision script — the idea that ritual membership in Israel is the key to being justified before God. Instead everything hinges on faith and grace.

In 1 Corinthians 7, he discards the marriage script, saying that it is of little consequence whether people marry or remain unmarried: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind” (1 Cor. 7:7). In view of Christ’s return, we could paraphrase his advice in that letter, each person should improvise based on their particular circumstances (and temptation — “it’s better to marry than to burn with passion” — hardly a ringing endorsement of a single script for human flourishing!).

In 2 Corinthians he discards the “peripatetic philosopher” script of the Greco-Roman world, the all too familiar pattern of would-be sages traveling from town to town and fleecing their residents through charming rhetoric.

And why was Paul so willing to discard all these scripts? Because, of course, he had become a servant of Jesus Christ, who overturned all of Israel’s scripts for their Messiah. Indeed, if there is one consistent principle of Jesus’ life, from his twelve-year-old visit to the Temple to his dying words to his post-Resurrection appearances, it is his uncanny ability to fail to conform to people’s narrative of what a good son, teacher, prophet, or Messiah would be, even while fulfilling every part of the law and the prophets.

This is part of what makes Jesus’ encounters with people in the Gospels so fascinating — he literally never answers or acts in the way that he would be expected to do. And this applies above all to his decision to set his face to Jerusalem, resisted so strenuously by his own followers once they understood he was not setting out to take power but to die. Jesus’ willing embrace of the Cross literally put to death the entire script that human beings had written for what it would be like if God (or the gods) came down to earth.

So an essential part of Christian conversion, for entrepreneurs but also (as Paul’s instructions on marriage and so many other topics suggest) for all sorts and conditions of people, is to allow God to set us free from our scripts. We will no longer be playing a part — we will be relationally, gracefully committed to a constantly evolving, constantly creative interaction with God and others in which unforeseen possibilities will emerge over and over again.

This does not mean that the Christian leader’s life is some kind of freeform anarchy. To the contrary, it has more clarity of purpose and values than ever before. It is very possible to play out a script in a shallow way without really understanding (or caring about) the reason behind the lines. But improv requires cultivating deep confidence in your calling, and paying keen attention to the values that should guide your response in each moment.

So instead of being about a fixed pathway to success, the Christ-shaped life of entrepreneurship and leadership is built on:

relationship with God, cultivated through continual prayer;

a compelling vision of creation and new creation that gives us insight into what is missing in the world around us and confidence to bring something new into being;

a holy ambition uprooted from “confidence in the flesh” and re-rooted in trust that God actually wills and seeks to use us in powerful ways to transform the world;

And above all hope that whatever happens — whether we live or die, whether our ventures are wildly successful or seeming fiascos, whether we are celebrated, mocked, or worst of all ignored — we belong to God, the Author of our story.