Is the Church an Audience?

A blog for preachers explained how to write sermon introductions. No less than 28 times the author called the congregation an “audience.” Another blogger wrote, “There are some things you can do in advance, when preparing your sermon, to ensure you’ll keep your audience hooked.”

But is the church an audience? The New Testament speaks of it as a body. A family. A temple. Never as an audience. Even so, these days we often use that term to describe the church. Does it really matter if we think of church as an audience?


Think it Through

An audience, like your TV set, is a receiver. It takes signals in but does not transmit them. An audience watches and listens. It has well-developed eyes and ears but hardly any mouth. By contrast, in addition to its ability to see and hear, a body can also speak in ways that make a difference. Members of a body and of a family interact with each other. They engage in give-and-take.  Calling it an audience can lead us to deal with the church in ways we would not if we were relating to a body or family.

I enjoy being part of an audience. For example, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a Seattle audience as we watched and listened to ten gifted pianists make music on ten grand pianos. Audiences can and should gather for sports events, political rallies, and stage plays. But for most of its regular meetings, the church should assemble not in audience mode but as a body and family—in the one-anothering mode. We might compare the contrast between being a member of an audience or a member of a body to the difference between watching a play and appearing in it. We Christians are not to be hearers only.

The Playhouse Model

Church architecture helps squeeze the church into audience mode. In the nineteenth century, churches in the U.S. shifted to the playhouse model for church meeting places. That is the point made by Jeanne Halgren Kilde in her book, When Church Became Theatre. By the twentieth century, she says, megachurch buildings offered “a space, time, and place in which one might get away from it all. Attending a service is an activity akin to going to a movie: One need not dress up, worry about the kids misbehaving, or be upset by a depressing message.”

But, she continues, “The use of religious auditoriums . . . is not isolated within the nondenominational megachurch movement. . . . Hundreds of congregations, building new churches in the newest ring of suburbs . . . now choose the amphitheatre form. . . . The amphitheatre space can accommodate a large audience in a way that allows everyone gathered to hear and see the performances taking place upon the stage.”

Theaters Have Consequences

They Invite Performance. An elevated stage or platform provides the ideal place for star-making. The performers who regularly appear up there get magnified larger than life. In a theater, only a tiny fraction of those present enjoy platform privileges. This entitlement makes them seem more momentous than those in the audience. In the Church, any perception of insignificance flies directly in the face of what the New Testament teaches about the vital importance of every member of the body.

They Induce Applause. Today, church audiences clap approval when they relate strongly to the message or music. But human adulation easily stimulates an appetite for more, and repeated exposure to such ovations can play havoc with the ego of those on stage. (I write this as one who served for two decades as a pastor.) Too often we have witnessed the elevation of Christian celebrities—whether pastors or musicians—and watched in sorrow as they fell from their lofty heights. Superstars share the weaknesses common to us all. Hero worship edifies neither hero nor worshiper.

They Inhibit Participation. Think back to the last movie you saw in a cinema. Or to those occasions when you have attended a concert in an auditorium. Or listened to a lecture in a hall. Other than clapping (and perhaps laughing or crying), how much did you participate? Almost all the action that mattered took place up front. A good audience knows how to be reactive, mostly silent, and passive. Everyone but those on the platform or stage are expected to play the observer role. Hardly the New Testament picture of the Church.

They Isolate People. Even in a crowd of 300 or 1,000, you can feel all alone. As I note in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, although it can provide some sense of being together, an audience allows you to assemble with your individualism unchallenged. It lets you come and go with little or no perception of any responsibility for the other spectators. An audience provides slight if any opportunity to lay down your life for others or to risk using your Spirit-given gifts for their benefit. In spite of some surface socializing in an audience, you are free to leave just as detached and self-absorbed as when you arrived.

By contrast, the member of a body serves and is served by fellow members. Each part of a body works not on the basis of individuality but of mutuality. Equipped with something to share, it interacts with and contributes to the other members. Your presence or absence makes no difference to an audience. But an absent body member is sorely missed.

Practicing church as theater, with a crowd of spectators watching a few performers, began centuries ago. The road back to shared church--church as body/family life—will be neither short nor easy. Traveling it will require courage and patience. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I include more than two dozen accounts from churches that are finding ways to incorporate participation in their congregational meetings.

Only as the Body of Christ, not as the audience of Christ, can we serve as the world’s light—which he calls us to be and to do.