by Tim Studstill — August 12, 2013
Did you hear the one about the three staff members comparing notes after their meetings with the finance committee? The youth pastor was a little glum about being asked to reduce his budget by ten percent. The education minister was pleased to find he could keep his proposed budget at 100 percent. While hearing the other two discuss the issue, the music minister sat uncharacteristically silent. When asked how his meeting had gone, he tried to change the subject. Finally he reluctantly admitted that the committee had raised his budget proposal by 25 percent! Stunned, the other two asked for an explanation. In response, the music minister jumped to his feet singing, “There’s no business like show business…!”
I know. Not so funny in this day and age! How many current music ministries get their budgets increased, no matter how good the show?
You may cringe at the use of the word “show” in conjunction with worship, but is it really that big a stretch? The Old Testament pulls back the curtain on some pretty impressive and dramatic worship experiences. We see pyrotechnics with Moses and the burning bush, special effects as his rod became a hissing snake, and let’s not forget the smoke on Mt. Sinai or the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke guiding the Children of Israel through the wilderness. The sensory experience established by God for tabernacle and temple worship included elements reflected in many of today’s worship expressions. Modern lighting, costumes, special effects, props, and backdrops are simply echoes of what evoked effectual worship in Old Testament days… candles, priestly robes, smoke and incense, the altar, lampstands, the veil of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant.
God continued to use dramatic elements in the New Testament to reveal Himself and His redemptive plan. The birth of Christ is resplendent with drama: angels (a cast of thousands), music, lighting, pageantry, suspense. The miracles of Jesus are more astonishing than anything on stage today: five thousand men and their families feasting on five loaves and two fish, a blind man healed with a prayer and a spitball, demon-possessed pigs hurtling over the edge of a cliff. The words of the Great Teacher are filled with imagery and artistry: the lilies of the field and the birds of the air in His Sermon on the Mount, the whitewashed tombs in His rebuke of the religious bigwigs, the culturally eyebrow-raising plotlines of “The Good Samaritan” and “The Prodigal Son.” The horrific death of the Savior is the ultimate Hero’s sacrifice: the injustice of the innocent willingly punished for the sake of the guilty. A gory cross and brutalized flesh, a mysterious midday darkness, the eerie splitting of the temple veil … all foreshadowed and foretold hundreds of years before. Suspense. Hope. Faith. Grace. Redemption. The greatest drama ever to unfold.
Can we replicate in today’s worship all these biblical methods of retelling The Story? Some yes, some no. Should we try to share the Good News in as extreme a way as described in scripture? Again, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Whatever creative and dramatic elements we choose to use in worship must be carefully crafted to arrest the attention of today’s congregations, to shift their focus from the mundane to the glorious.
So drama for drama’s sake? Of course not. That would be simply entertainment, and the difference is vast between the theater of entertainment and the theater of corporate worship in which God is our audience, and we are the actors, i.e., the ones performing acts of worship. Entertainment can be a positive thing – it can encourage thought, promote positive shifts in perspective or help us work through weighty issues. But it is not worship. True worship has eternal significance.
The use of theater as a metaphor for worship is not new. Consider Dutch theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of worship:
In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker then is the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener, if I may say so, is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.*
God, the Audience of One. Solely for Him, the show must go on. And on, and on, and on. We are commissioned to worship the Creator and continue reenacting the life of His Son, taking on His characteristics, re-presenting Him to creation.
So here stands the minister of music, the worship leader, the music pastor — whatever title is attached to the “prompter” – cuing the “actors” in the choir, the actors at the instruments, the actors in the pews, the actors running the screens and lights and sound, encouraging them to “stand openly before God” and perform their best for Him. How we prepare, produce and polish our performance to honor and glorify God alone will be the subject of articles in the months to follow.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Acts 20:28 Blessings to you as you faithfully shepherd the flock of actors in your herd! May you be ready to participate in the greatest show on earth!
* Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Trans. Douglas Steere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948) pp.180-181.