Years ago when we were in the middle of the “worship wars” I was talking to someone about the trend towards entertainment. I expressed concerns about a congregation becoming just an audience watching a performance on the stage. This person replied, “That’s wrong! The congregation should never be an audience. It’s really the other way around: God is an audience of one, and we’re putting on some worship for Him.” In the context of our discussion that made sense.
Last week I visited the Synod of The Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) in Buderim on behalf of the CRCA. At the opening service the preacher gave that view of church a bit of a drubbing too. He said: “Church is not something we do for God. Church is something God puts on for us.” He went on to compare the church to a service station. Church is the place where God equips us to serve 24/7.
So who’s right? Is God the audience… or are we, after all, the audience?
The problem is really with the word ‘audience’. It’s a word that pictures passivity. In one view, you just sit back and enjoy what is happening. In the other view, God just sits back and enjoys the praises we bring. It’s better not to use the word audience when it comes to worship. In church we believers are never just an audience – we are the believing community expressing praise and thanks to God. In church God is never just a one-person audience – He blesses His people as they gather.
The fact is that both ‘parties’ are active and both are at times passive – because worship is first of all a dialogue – a two-way conversation between God and His people. Sometimes God speaks and we are the ‘audience’, at other times we speak and God is the ‘audience’.
I must confess that I appreciated the take on church as I hear it last week – and the speaker was not just limiting what he said to only worship services. If church is not something we do for God, but something that God puts on for us, that is going to change our perspective hugely. In the former case church becomes a duty and sometimes a burden. In the latter case it becomes a blessing – or what in Reformed theology 101 is called ‘a means of grace’.
I am guessing that for many Christians worship and all we do as church is seen as an obligation that is laid on us. So we feel a solemn duty to get out of bed on time on a Sunday morning and drag ourselves off to church. And we feel the weight of responsibility to skip gym and attend that congregational meeting that was scheduled. Or that we reluctantly forgo that game of golf so as to participate in a church working bee. But if church is something that God puts on for us to help us live the Christian life then we’ll be eager to do those things, knowing that through them, not only is God honoured, but we are built up in our faith.
I suspect that the preacher at WPC Synod got it right because in the Bible there is very little emphasis on our duty to meet with God’s people. In fact I can think of only one such exhortation in Hebrews 10 – that we are not to neglect meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. Church is not first of all about what we do for God but about what He does for us. If we kept that in mind it would prevent more people drifting off as soon as they find some reason for unhappiness in their church.
My mother got it right too. In my early teens I once asked (and probably in a pained tone of voice!), “Why do we have to go to church twice on a Sunday?” My mother replied, “Oh, we don’t have to! We are allowed to, isn’t that wonderful?” I never asked that question again. I’m now probably more inclined to say (tongue in cheek), “I go to church twice every Sunday because our church doesn’t have three worship services.” If church is a means of grace then why should we not want more of that grace?