Movie Goer or Theatre Participant?

We’ve all been to the movie theatre. Most of us have seen dozens if not hundreds of movies in a theatre. Not as many have been to a Broadway production, or to the Straz, for a stage performance, and fewer have been as many times as most of us have been to a movie theatre. The role of an audience at a movie is radically different than in live theatre.

An Impact in the Creation

We are a society accustomed to film. In a film production, the audience is only essential at the level of consumption. They have no impact on the production itself. But that is not true of live theatre.

Peter Brook, considered by many the greatest living theatre director, wrote, “The only thing that all forms of [live] theatre have in common is the need for an audience. This is more than a truism: in the theatre the audience completes the steps of creation.”

In theatre, the audience is a part of the production. You can’t watch a Broadway musical on Netflix in the privacy of your home and have the full experience. It’s not designed for private consumption. It is necessary to be sitting together with others. You laugh together, you cry together, and sometimes you do so, influenced by those around you. Watching a movie is a passive experience; going to a Broadway play is not.

“In the theatre the audience completes the steps of creation.” Peter Brook

Singing with Impact

Our worship together as the church is not like film; it’s like theatre. You are participants in the creation of the event. Neither the singing portion of the service nor the preaching are intended to be consumed like a film. The church completes the creation of the act of worship. However, since we are more accustomed to passive viewing of a film, we may import that film-thinking into our worship.

The Psalms give us great examples of how a worship leader may have called the congregation together.

Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together! (Psa. 34:3 ESV)

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psa. 95:1-2 ESV)

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! 2 Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! (Psa. 100:1-2 ESV)

The worship leader in the psalms understood that he wasn’t performing. The leader understood that such worship could not be complete until the rest of the congregation joined in the worship. This way of thinking about worship is carried over into the New Testament.

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:15 ESV, emphasis added)

“The church completes the creation of the act of worship.”

Impacting the Sermon

This same live theatre paradigm should be applied to the proclamation of God’s word. You can’t just absorb it like a film and gain what is to be gained. Preaching is a congregational event. We discovered that most clearly during the start of the pandemic when we began preaching to a camera with only a few others in the room who were helping to make things happen. That worked under necessity for a season, but that could never replace corporate gathering. Why? Because, to borrow from Peter Brook, the congregation “completes the steps of creation” of the worship being offered in the proclamation of God’s word. It actually changes the event.

About 5 years ago, I was preaching at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church here in St. Petersburg, a largely African American church. I preached a message there which I had preached at Gulf Coast just a short time previously. Afterward, a young couple from our church who had attended with us, told me how different I preached that day. I responded by explaining that the difference is with the audience.

In much of the African American church community, they do not listen to sermons like they are watching a movie, but like they are involved in the completion of the sermon itself. The interaction becomes a part of the preaching itself. The African American church has not turned church going into “film” watching. They have much to teach us and participating in the sermon may be on the short list of things those of us in predominantly white congregations, at least of my own faith tradition, must learn. (There are other faith traditions that engage the audience through responsive reading.)

Creating and completing our corporate worship requires our participation by showing up. What would Broadway be without the participation of the audience? Just another rehearsal. We often ask ourselves whether we want to go to a church service on the Lord’s Day, or whether we need to go. That is a film watching, movie goer thinking. It presupposes that the church’s worship will be the same without us. Maybe we should ask, “What do I have to contribute to our worship today? What part do I play?”

“Movie goer thinking presupposes that the church’s worship will be the same without us.”

Preparing for Impact

Paul envisioned church participation in the worship service. “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26, emph. added). It is unlikely to look exactly the same today as then, but Paul certainly believed that congregational participation aimed at building up the body of Christ was vital to the life of the church. Other examples include prayers of thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:16) or even adding an “Amen” to the proclamation of God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul envisioned the congregation should add to the creation of our gathered worship.

We must prepare and engage. Paul envisions preparation of some kind by the congregation. How do you prepare to gather for worship? How do you engage congregational worship: like you are part of the theatrical community or a cinema buff? Do you passively worship as a movie goer or actively participating in the creation of the worship itself? An audience or a participant?

Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

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