Saturday, June 13, 2009

Worship As Theater

It was a century and a half ago that Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher-theologian, wrote his "edifying discourse" called Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing. In it he made a critique of Christian worship we'd do well to apply to what goes on in our churches today.

The gist of his criticism is this: Worship is analagous to theater, but we have the various roles and responsibilities confused.

In the theater there are actors, prompters, and an audience. The same functions can be found in the church at worship--conventional church "wisdom" says that the actors are the clergy and other worship leaders, the prompter is God who tells them what to say or sing, and the audience is the congregation sitting passively in the pews watching the performance.

It may be "conventional wisdom," but SK says we've got it all wrong. We need to shift the responsibilities one step around the triangle so that, in church, it comes out like this: the actors are the congregation, the prompters are the clergy and other worship leaders, and God is the audience.

Ah, Søren, where are you now that we need you?

One of the major problems, to my way of thinking, with Christian worship today is the tendency to slip into the worship-as-performance mentality, and busy ourselves with the wrong things.

The platform at the front of the worship space is not a stage. Yet the preacher and singers easily take their places and perform their acts.

Wandering preachers, meandering not only around the worship space but also around their thoughts, tend to become dramatists rather than prophets.

Song leaders who line up across the front, microphones in hand, tapping out the beat of pop-style songs, become players to the congregation instead of encouragers of the congregation.

And the band that clatters and crashes out its music contributes little more than call attention to itself.

Even audio-visual projections on a screen put the congregation into the passive pew-potato mode like they are when watching TV.

Nowhere in the service is this more pernicious than in the proclamation of the Word by preaching. Is the preacher a mere performer, strutting upon the stage? Or is she perhaps a prompter, an encourager of the souls looking up with hope on their faces, hope that they might hear the redeeming word of grace?

There is a diference. A big difference. An effective sermon engages the listeners, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, in order to urge their response to God in renewed commitment to follow Jesus Christ.

SK's point which we should take to heart is that the congregation is doing the worship. "Liturgy," after all, means "the work of the people." Ministers of Word and Sacrament, ministers of music, and all the rest are but hired help, standing helpfully behind the scenes making it possible for the real actors in the drama of worship to do their very best.

If you like a challenge, take this model and hold it up alongside your church's worship service. Is there more performing in front of the congregation than there is praying and praising by it?

You have to remember, that God is the audience of our worship. As SK put it, "God is the critical theatergoer who looks on to see how the lines are spoken...."

1 comment:

  1. OH I wish more churches would "get" this! I WANT to be a part of the service, not be entertained or pandered to. It is certainly harder to produce a service that puts the congregation at the center of the action, but it is too easy to get caught up in the 'production values' what with the multi-media stuff and singers and 'backup' singers, etc.

    I never would have been able to articulate what has been bothering me about our recent church experiences, but this is exactly it. The places where we enjoy worship get it right. Thanks for putting a voice to my discontent!


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