Audience or actor?

A few years back I was invited to the opening of a new mega-church in the community where I served. The building looked like a warehouse to which was added a small porch with a steeple so people would recognize it as a church. The worship space struck me immediately as different. It had theatre seats, large projection screens, several stages (one for the band, one for the drama another for the choir) and the setting for the pastor to pray, preach and read scripture. I finally realized that what bothered me the most is that I was there primarily as the audience – observing worship. While I was invited to sing a couple of hymns and say “Amen”, most of the time I was expected to observe and enjoy. I was an audience member.

As I think about it our technology has added to this sense of us as audience. As a teen many of my friends repaired and tinkered with their cars. (You now need specialized tools and a computer hook-up just to know what a check engine light means.) Back then we were used to singing in church, singing in school, and even singing when family and friends got together at home. Music education has often been reduced or eliminated in elementary grades. The complexity of electronics to back up and to play instruments has reduced the number of people who learn to play and fewer and fewer people sing as a normal part of their life. We listen to the radio, to CD’s. to MP3s. We have become fans of the groups we listen to– again an audience.

Even in worship we seem to have become consumers. With the advent of the I-pod and other similar players we are now used to having an array of music all of which we like. We don’t have to hear anything we do not want to hear, especially something that someone else likes (unless we choose it.) What happens is we lose the context of a concert or radio listening where we are part of a community and have to allow for others who have differing tastes and likes. I can now program multiple hours or days in which I listen only to what I want and like. Instead of learning to sing your hymn/song with gusto because I know you will sing mine with gusto when it comes up many churches are increasingly dividing up the faith community on the basis of preference, age and taste. (The church is almost the last inter-generational community left.)

Numbers of people nationally have stopped attending church because it is not entertaining. The problem is that worship is not a spectator event. It does not call for an audience. It calls for participants. We come to worship to GIVE not to GET. And sometimes it is in the giving we receive – that is good, that is wonderful, but that is a bonus. Worship is the giving of worth, the giving of thanks and praise, the giving of our time and commitment to God. It is a response of gratitude for all that we have received.

It is an action in which we fully participate not an event that we watch. In gratitude we choose to act – to participate – to do. Not just on Sunday but throughout the week.  God has called us to be people who act (actors) not people who observe (audience). And in acting we change the world around us; we witness to God’s love alive and active within us – we become the Good News we have received.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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