As a seminary professor I’m very adept at judging church performance: I’m at home formulating detailed critiques of the exegetical and homiletical quality of a preacher’s sermon and the relevance of the service’s liturgical form; I’m even happy to opine on the quality of the music … an area rather distant from my formal education.
And it isn’t just me. These days, it is easy to be the critic. As a case in point, some years ago when I asked a friend why he had stopped going to his church he replied, “I didn’t get anything out of the worship.”
The idea, presumably, is that church is about getting something. We folks in the pew are there to take in a performance. If we like the performance we stick around. Perhaps we bestow a tithe. Maybe we even volunteer to teach Sunday school. But if we don’t like the performance, we move on.
After all, if I find Starbucks’ coffee bitter and the baristas rude, I’ll find a new coffee shop. So why should it be any different for church?
The problem is that church is less about getting than it is about giving. (Yes, by giving you also get, but that’s another story.) And that giving begins by recognizing that when we sit in the pew, we are not simply taking in a performance. Rather, we are part of the performance. As Philip Yancey observes,
“I used to approach church with the spirit of a discriminating consumer. I viewed the worship service as a performance. Give me something I like. Entertain me. Speaking of folks like me, Soren Kierkegaard said that we tend to think of church as a kind of theater: we sit in the audience, attentively watching the actor on stage, who draws every eye to himself. If sufficiently entertained, we show our gratitude with applause and cheers. Church, though, should be the opposite of the theater. In church God is the audience for our worship. Far from playing the role of the leading actor, the minister should function as something like a prompter, the inconspicuous helper who sits beside the stage and prompts by whispering. What matters most takes place within the hearts of the congregation, not among the actors on stage. We should leave a worship service asking ourselves not ‘What did I get out of it?’ but rather ‘Was God pleased with what happened?’” (Church: Why Bother?, 24-25)
I think Yancey’s exactly right. So when I go to church I always begin my critical reflections by asking, how was my performance?
For further discussion see my articles “Why you shouldn’t clap in church?” and “Is the church supposed to be ‘a place for you’?“