The Church as Theater – Kiowa County Signal
By Reverend Billie Blair
UM Clergy (retired) Pratt
Imagine that you are going to the theater.
Not a movie, but live theater.
There are seats available in rows.
The actors are on stage. The musicians are in the orchestra pit. Here you are ready to have fun.
Then you can read the show’s reviews or, perhaps, go out for dessert to talk about what was seen and experienced.
Now imagine Sunday morning worship.
There are seats available in rows.
Worship leaders are on the “stage.”
The musicians are in place. Are you ready to be “entertained?”
After the service, some parishioners will evaluate the “performance” of the pastor. Often, the favorite dish at Sunday lunch is the “roast pastor”.
The theologian Søren Kierkegaard suggests in his Metaphor of Theater a different way of thinking about what happens in church on Sunday mornings. He wrote: “Alas, in matters spiritual, the folly of many is this, that in the secular sense they look upon the speaker as the doer, and the hearers as theater-goers who must pass judgment on the artist. But the speaker is not the actor – not in the most remote sense.
Kierkegaard goes on to explain that tinto who spoke, prayed here, no spectators are present in the seats, as each listener will look into their own heart, as they stand before God during the discourse (sermon). The preacher (or the prompter, holder of the “cue cards”) will “whisper” meaningful words to the listeners who have an equally great responsibility to listen well and speak the words indicated to them from their own hearts.
For Kiekegaard, the conventional roles in the theater are reversed. The preacher is not the center of attention. Instead, she or he is the person who inspires listeners, parishioners, to talk to God. The intent of the sermon, music, and prayers is to give listeners something to work with when talking to God. The listener, as an individual in the congregation, is the one who is “on stage” (the actor). God is the audience (the viewer). God is the one who evaluates what is done in worship.
God is present with us. Here. Now. Watch, enjoy, participate as an audience, the same way we participate when we watch theatre!
Kierkegaard is interested in the inner participation of the individual. He asks if the individual hears and engages in the question, “What kind of life am I living?” His concern is the inner conviction and direction of each individual. Is the person actively engaged during the week through the faith that is professed in Sunday morning worship?
It is important to realize that the individual response of parishioners does not depend on the quality of the sermon presentation. Quality and eloquence in a preacher are good and beautiful bonuses. They are not essential. A person can choose to participate in worship and that choice is more important than the delivery of the message. When a person hears something in worship, they can choose to personally and individually enter into what is spoken, prayed or sung word.
Romans 12:1 of the Message says it best: “So this is what I want you to do, God helping you: take your daily and ordinary life – your life of sleeping, eating, going to work and walking – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God is doing for you is the best thing you can do for [God].”
Placing our lives before God as an offering – it is an action on our part. This makes us participants in worship. Worship is an important part of a Christian’s life. We come before God on Sundays in this place that we call church, hopefully, so as not to be entertained. Hopefully be engaged – fully and sincerely.
People ask, “How can I participate in worship?” One way is to pray for all worship leaders (pastors, musicians, choir, ushers) even before worship begins. Then look around when people enter the sanctuary and pray for them. Maybe we know something about what’s going on in another person’s life – a death, a divorce, an illness, an upcoming move – so pray. Look at people’s faces to see if anyone looks sad or anxious or happy – and pray. Be in prayer throughout the service for those around you.
Also, intentionally listen to the words of all prayers spoken and decide if you can honestly pray the words you hear. Perhaps you could write down the prayers or at least write down key words or phrases. Also pay attention to the written words you are asked to pray during worship. Are these words you can pray easily, with some discomfort, with concern. Ask yourself about your answer. Where is he from ? What should be done to change it? Also listen to the lyrics of the hymns sung and ask if the lyrics and intentions ring true for you. Consider how your life might be lived differently based on the words you sing. This kind of activity will deepen your worship experience. You will be involved; you will be a participant and not a spectator.
There’s a meme on Facebook that says, “I don’t want to be entertained when I go to church. I want an encounter with God. We can each make this encounter possible as “actors” in worship, rather than as “theatre-goers”. God loves to watch you in action.