By: Nathan Hill
I was counting down the days until I would get to experience the thrill of this gathering again. Finally, the day had arrived! With much anticipation, I awoke early and ate, dressed in the clothes I had picked out the night before, took one last look at my appearance in the vanity mirror, and then anxiously (this time in a good sense!) stepped out of the house and into my car.
When I arrived there was scarcely a place to park and, I imagined, even fewer seats to be found. As I walked through the doors of this vast architecture I marveled at the friendliness of the staff and the well-thought-out design choices. I managed to squeeze myself into a seat near the middle (by luck alone?) and sat as the angelic prelude played over the surround sound speakers and the musicians fine-tuned their instruments, tightening and loosening the strings to just the right pitch. I could not wait for the show to begin!
My question to you, the reader, is this: where am I? Let me narrow it down for you. Although this scenario is fiction, the emotions conveyed and the experiences described could fit one of two experiences I have had. The first (and only) time that I went to see Handel’s Messiah in mid-December was one of these moments. It was a great winter evening, and my wife and I had tickets to see Symphony Nova Scotia perform this great seasonal classic at the Dalhousie Arts Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can still remember the vocal acuity of the soprano as she sang “And the Glory of the Lord”, and the reverence with which everyone stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus”. I took it all in with great interest. My wife Mandy, on the other hand, remembers how terribly hard the seats were and how terribly dull it was to watch someone sing for three hours. Despite her love of music and the arts, she had hoped for some acting and dancing perhaps?
The other place that the emotions and experiences described here ring true is when I arrive at my local church for our Sunday gathering. Granted, not every week is met with such exuberant expectation, because life does have its ebbs and flows. However, I think that the culture of our church gatherings can be analogous to attending a theatre production or listening to a great symphony perform.
My intent here is not to suggest that this is a bad thing. I think that humanity has many diverse ways to worship God that reflect the cultural, personality, and family preferences and backgrounds of many people. That being said, we need to be cognizant of our role as we attend theatre productions, listen to a symphony perform, and attend our local church. Although the atmosphere and emotions might be analogous, our role is quite different.
Søren Kierkegaard was a 19th century philosopher, theologian, poet, and just all-round great thinker. Let me paraphrase his thoughts on this matter. Kierkegaard suggested that when we attend a theatre production there are several roles that must be filled: the prompter (i.e., the hidden one who feeds the lines that will be delivered), the listener/actor (i.e., the visible one who listens to the prompter and delivers the lines), and the audience (i.e., those who gather, seated, and take in the show).
Applying these thoughts to the way church operates we might be inclined to think that the Holy Spirit is the prompter, for he is invisible and gave inspiration to the Word of God, and if we are lucky, to the pastor’s sermon. We might also be inclined to think that the listener/actor is the pastor, for he/she is on the stage and delivers what has been heard from the Holy Spirit, the prompter. Finally, we might think that the congregation is the audience, gathered to witness such a miraculous transfer of knowledge and wisdom from the invisible prompter (i.e., the Holy Spirit) through the visible, charismatic, charming, well-educated, kind, and eternally benevolent pastor. (I hope my sarcasm here has not given away the point.)
Does this seem right to you? As tidy as this metaphor might be, Kierkegaard and I both disagree with this view of church in the most fundamental way. I am not saying that we have not operated this way with great motives. What I am saying, however, is that this idea falls short of what ought to take place when the people of God gather.
What is our role, then, when we gather as the congregation of a church? What is my role as a pastor? What is the role of God in our gathering? Who is the real prompter when the church gathers? Who is the real listener/actor? Who is the real audience?
I actually have some really great answers to these questions. However, I have reached my maximum word count for the week, and so I will have to continue this discussion next Tuesday. In the meantime, think hard on this and send me your best guess for prompter, listener/actor, and audience. I just might give a shout-out to the first person who reaches the best conclusion!
If you are really keen you could scour the works of Kierkagaard, because he describes this whole situation more eloquently than I ever could.
See you next Tuesday!