Has church become a “show”?

In another place I have written about two churches I have visited that gave a broad weekly invitation for all members to participate in leading worship. I have also written on the related theme of the Priesthood of all Believers.

As we hear so often, “The church is not the building, but the congregation.” That is not just some abstract truth, but one which God expects us to honor and celebrate, especially in our worship services. It might even affect our spiritual grammar: the sentence, “On the Lord’s Day we worship God” is the proper way to express it – worship is a first-person plural verb, and the referent of “we” is, all of us who are present, who jointly perform the verb “worship.”[i] As someone has put it, on Sunday morning, we all are the worshipers and God is an audience of One.

But that raises a question: what of those churches which use another mode of thought and speech? In their case, the spiritual grammar has switched from the first person to the third: “On the Lord’s Day, THEY (the few, perhaps the very few, on the platform) worship, and WE (the many in the audience) watch and show our appreciation for how THEY worship.” What’s more, it might result in the situation of someone on the platform scolding us, saying that WE (the many) are not showing enough enthusiasm for what THEY (the few) are doing; and maybe even hinting that, WE, unlike THEM, do not have the spirit of worship!

Are there other events in life that use the modality of, “On X day, they, the relatively few will [do the verb], and we in a large number will watch and appreciate how they [do the verb]?”

Let’s go to a show!

I had bought a pair of tickets for a concert of the Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica. It was to be a presentation of some favorite Brahms pieces, and so on Friday night we went to the Teatro Nacional.

I knew what was expected of me: I paid my money; I arrived punctually, because I wanted to get settled in my seat before the show began and to look at the printed program; I tried to not disturb the people seated around me; I watched musicians who are professionals in their field; I listened quietly and did not converse with my wife or use my phone; I applauded each piece.

I also knew what I did not have the liberty to do: I did not have the freedom to interrupt the orchestra. The piano was near our side of the auditorium, but I had no right to go up on the stage and say, “Move over, friend, I would like to play a song!” I had no liberty to sing along with the music, or even to hum along. When the host for the event used the microphone before the concert to make some announcements, neither the musicians nor the audience would appreciate it if I stood up to say, “I wish to share a few words about why I like Brahms so much!”

There is a “social contract” involved at the concert, that is: in order to ensure the right of each person to enjoy the show, I voluntarily modify my behavior, surrendering a part of my individual rights; I do this, on the assumption that everyone else in the audience will follow the same rules. The orchestra agrees to entertain me with good music. I agree to pay money to hear it. The “message” flows only in one direction, from the stage to the audience.

But now I hear some Christians remark, people who have attended churches for more than a few years, that church meetings of today resemble this second model, a “show”; and that they look less and less like something in which the whole congregation fully performs.

Are they right? Let’s see if you have experienced anything like this:

I arrive at church on time, at least that is what I am supposed to do! I surrender money, not for a ticket, but as a gift or a percentage of my income. I am asked to worship, but I am not free to say to the keyboard player, “I would like to share a piece!” I am not at liberty to walk to the platform and take the microphone to say, “I would like to share a few words about a Bible passage that blessed me this week.” The acts of worship seems to be a presentation by a relatively few people who – and this is key – are the ones who have access to the sound system; in some churches, the worship done by those few is amplified so loudly that I cannot hear my neighbor worshipping, even though as fellow priests we are supposed to “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” (Eph 5:19). I might not even be able to hear myself, that is, if I even try to sing. In North America at least, many adult men have stopped singing during the worship service; they stand there awkwardly and watch the musicians play. In part this is because in that culture, people have grown less comfortable singing in front of others; I suspect another reason is that they have figured out that, they are there to witness a presentation put on by others.[ii]

As with an orchestra concert, there is an implicit social contract here as well, one that has close parallels to the “show” model. And yes, I do believe that worship leaders ought to have a level of professionalism, that is, that they practice hard and strive for excellence in all they do. But their professionalism must be professionalism in leading worship, rather than in performing. Otherwise our new and revised social contract stipulates that if the Spirit is present, it is in the “anointed” leader or leaders on the platform, from whom and through whom the Spirit’s blessing is channeled to the onlookers.

The “talking stick”

In the northwest coast of the United States, some indigenous people used the tradition of a “talking stick.” It was between a half-meter and 2 meters in length. Some were plain; others, ornate, with feathers and decorations.

the talking stick

The talking stick could be used in one of two ways, depending on one’s tribal structure. In a more democratic system, it could be passed from man to man. Only one would speak at a time, and only when he had been handed the talking stick; when he was finished, he would pass it to the next man. Everyone would be quiet while the man with the stick shared what was on his mind; he could be heard, and all others were attentive.

The other system of the talking stick, in more authoritarian structures, was that the one leader of the tribe held the stick at all times, as a symbol of his authority; it was not passed around.

Today there is a talking stick of a higher technology. It is usually about 25 cm (10 inches) in length, but it can also be very small and clipped directly to one person, and one person only. Overall, it is not freely shared from person to person in the “tribe.” And this talking stick has great magic! Because not only does it give one individual the right to speak; it also boosts the volume and reach of his voice, so that he can talk to hundreds or thousands. They listen and affirm what the leader says; but they have no opportunity to respond or share.

and another talking stick

We will gain some insight from two “restorationist” movements, traditional Pentecostalism and those who are commonly called Plymouth Brethren.

A century ago, the Pentecostal movement sought to revive an emphasis on the priesthood of the believer. This meant that if participation, whether in day to day life or in a worship service, could be pictured as a pyramid, then that pyramid was broad and squat, not completely flat, but notably flattened, with an easy angle of incline. An ancient cairn or tumulus is that sort of monument.

a cairn in Caithness, Scotland

Some newer versions of Pentecostalism have abandoned those values, to the great damage of what Christ intends for the church. Today in many circles it is assumed that a Super Anointed Leader is the divinely chosen instrument to mediate between God and man. In this model, the pyramid becomes narrow at the base and tall; it reminds one the Pyramids of Meroe in Sudan, which are literally impossible to climb;

or even a nearly vertical obelisk such as Cleopatra’s Needle in New York!
It is no wonder, then, that the leader, along with a small circle he appoints, is the one with access to the electronic talking stick! After all, who wants to hear the other warriors of the tribal circle speak one after another, when it is the “chief” through whom the Spirit will speak?

History has a way of surprising us with coincidences. In 1906 – the same year that Pentecostalism had its birth at Azusa Street – the new invention of sound amplification made possible a pyramid steeper than had ever been conceived of in human history. Whether the Lord Jesus on the mount; or Peter on Pentecost; or John Wesley; or Charles Spurgeon, every herald of the gospel had to rely on his own lungs, and this limitation meant that no human individual could drown out thousands of other voices.[iii] In the 20th century, with the introduction of sound systems in churches, it became possible for one person to speak or sing or play music and be heard clearly by the multitude.

The flip side of the new technology is that, by turning up the volume, one person can ensure that everyone else has little to no voice. For some in the audience, the only logical conclusion is that, the one anointed speaker is the only one who should be heard. Thus the “talking stick,” not the Holy Spirit, is what gives the church the signal as to where God is, ostensibly, working: the sound system, not the Spirit, directs the flow of the worship service.

How should it work?

We deduce a picture of New Testament church life from remarks that are circumstantial, that is, meant to address specific contexts; no New Testament writer ever wrote a description of what a first-century meeting looked like or in what order it was carried out.[iv] Even the fullest description available, 1 Corinthians 11, 14, gives us such a fragmented picture, since it was to correct disorder in the meeting, not to give an order of a meeting. However one of its essentials is contained in 1 Cor 14:26 – “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

From another part of the church, our friends in the (popularly-called) Plymouth Brethren place much emphasis on our key text of 1 Cor 14:26; when I have visited their assemblies I have been pleased to see broad participation of this sort, sometimes in a meeting prior to the main worship service. Yet they restrict the text to adult male worshipers (based on 14:34-35), despite the fact that Paul allows women to pray or prophesy – and as I understand those acts, he means pray aloud and prophesy aloud – in the meeting, according to 1 Cor 11:5.[v]

According to the apostole in 1 Cor 14, a meeting directed by the Spirit is a meeting with broad participation by his gifted people. “Each of you” here is hekastos/ἕκαστος, which is grammatically masculine, not because it is limited to men, but because it is the generic use: it can be rendered “each of you” or “each person of you.” “Each of you” is the parallel to the metaphor, that “every part has its function in the body.” Paul will go on to qualify 14:26 – he puts limits on tongues and prophecy – still, in principle, anyone could prophesy or contribute in other ways on any given Sunday. His main concern is that “everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (14:26), and his implied meaning is that “each of you” is equipped by the Spirit to do that kind of spiritual ministry. And in this chapter, he speaks only of visible, oral leadership of worship, leaving to one side the greater amount of service that takes place outside of those few hours per week.

If we were to take the measure of the average church meeting of today, its error is not that “each” member has an excess of opportunity!

So let us translate Paul’s rule into our earlier metaphor: “Everyone has the Spirit: thus when you come together as a church, all have the right to hold out their hand for the ‘talking stick’; and when he or she is talking, the others must pay attention in order to obtain the fullest blessing from that contribution.”

Addendum: Given that everyone is concerned about how young adults are falling away from the church, might one ask whether they have stumbled upon the open secret, advertised every Sunday, that they are in practical terms unnecessary to the body of Christ? My experience was not like that: even as a young teen, long before I was allowed to occupy the pulpit, they put me to work: teaching children, ushering, doing bulletins, cleaning, working the sound system, running the movie projector, occasionally teaching the youth group. By deeds – not mere words – I was weekly shown that I was part of “each of you” from my first days in Christ.


[i] The phrase “worship is a verb” has become popular in English and is the title of a book by Robert E. Webber.

[ii] If you Google “men not singing in church” a bunch of articles will pop up, it is a concern of many. One useful article comes from Scott Connell is “Ten Things I Did Not Do that Improved my Congregation’s Singing.” His tips include: “I did not try to sound like YouTube”; “I Did Not Turn Down the Lights”; “I Did not Turn Up the Sound.” Kenny Lamm likewise writes about “Nine Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship.” Among other points he says: “4. The congregation can’t hear people around them singing. 5. We have created worship services which are spectator events, building a performance environment. 6. The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.” Another fine article is “Finding the Right Key for Small Church Worship“: “many of the contemporary worship songs we struggle with are written by men…who sing professionally. These tend to be tenors rather than basses so have a naturally high range anyway. Coupled with their regular singing practice, it’s no wonder they are writing songs that are so high” and are thus not singable.

[iii] There is a fascinating presentation on how sound systems have revolutionized human culture, in Steven Johnson’s, How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world (New York: Riverhead Books, 2014), chap. 3 – “Sound.” For example, the technology allowed Adolf Hitler to speak to 700,000 supporters at the Nuremberg Rally of 1934; the same technology made it possible for Billy Graham to speak live to 1.1 million people simultaneously, in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973.

[iv] This is why, by the way, I accept only a relativized interpretation of the so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship,” the rule that, if it does not appear in Scripture we have no permission to include it in our worship services. I do not share an absolutist interpretation, since the New Testament leaves the whole picture unseen and our services would reflect only the fragments of their meetings.

[v] In fact, I know of no church today which interprets “women should remain silent in the church” in an absolutist fashion, although in some periods of church history that may have been the case, for example: “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office.” Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 9. Those today who claim to take 1 Cor 14 “literally” immediately go on to relativize it. All should agree that Paul could not have meant this as an absolute, unless we believe that men only sang, prayed, prophesied, spoke in tongues, etc., in all of his churches in all of their meetings. From that point, we can reasonably exegete the passage in its context, to define to what extent and in what way women were to remain silent. The reader may find more information in my commentary on First Corinthians from Logos, in Spanish from CLIE (pending), and in English (pending) from Publicaciones Kerigma. I side with the interpretation that in 1 Cor 14, Paul was instructing women not to participate in the discerning of prophecies given by other people, in order to avoid “shaming” the men, perhaps their own husbands.

“The church of the ‘talking stick,'” by Gary S. Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica; author of First Corinthians: an exegetical-pastoral commentary, from Logos

2 thoughts on “Has church become a “show”?

  1. Well said. I have a friend who made a comparison similar to yours. Instead of going to hear an orchestra, his comparison was going to see a movie. One additional aspect he made to the “seeing a movie social contract” was that he was entitled to become a movie critic!

    From hearing your stories of when you were a pastor in New England (was it in NH?) I know that you are not just conjuring ideas up from an ivory tower, but you actually practiced then what you now preach and that you put a lot of effort and intentionality into it so that visitors even sometimes wondered “just who is THE Pastor here?” I love it!

    When I was a pastor I tried to do the same as much as possible and frankly it made a much better “show” when I wasn’t the only one with the “talking stick.”

    One final thought: How in the world will we fulfill all the “one another” commands of the NT when we put almost all of our eggs in the big Sunday AM production and then run things the way we do?

    Okay, one more thought: I presently attend a big church (don’t know how many thousands actually). While I love the large celebrations, I usually find our Adult Bible Fellowship (ABF) time much more spiritually valuable to me. If I have to miss one of the two on a given Sunday, I will forgo the large group every time. Thankfully during Covid, our ABF meets on zoom – while not ideal, it is still good because anyone is allowed to “unmute” and grab the virtual talking stick.

    Thanks Again!!!


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