Disavowing the Notion of Audience

It is widely attributed to Charles Spurgeon as saying, “A time will come when instead of shepherds feeding the sheep, the church will have clowns entertaining the goats.”

Walk into many mega-churches (and would-be mega-churches) on any given Sunday and you’ll likely find just that: entertainment rather than the faithful preaching of God’s Word; elaborate stage props as the focal point in place of the simple teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ; a top-notch rock band with a fog and light show that rivals an Arcade Fire show instead of a group of believers from all ages and ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses lifting their voices (some skilled, some hard to listen to) in glad adoration of our great God who saves.

Pardon my diatribe.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is a topic I am somewhat passionate about. If you don’t know me, you may think this is coming from a stodgy, old-fashioned, fundamentalist, KJV-only preacher. But I’m not. I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life as a vocational worship leader. Some of that time in a large church, and some in a medium-sized church. I currently serve in a volunteer capacity at a small church. It’s been a journey, and some of the values that I hold today, I didn’t hold ten years ago.

But here’s something I know for certain: the LORD will not share his glory with anyone or anything (Isaiah 42:8). Stealing God’s glory isn’t something most worship leaders do intentionally. Unfortunately, it’s not something many of them are intentional about guarding against either. My younger self included.

It’s a product of our culture, sure. But it’s also the inevitability of us fallen creatures.

Part of the problem, I think, is the notion of “audience.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard myself and fellow worship leaders refer to the congregation as “the audience.” But that’s not why they’re there. They didn’t come to be an audience. They’ve gathered to worship God. And God doesn’t need you or me in order for that to happen. If we don’t worship, Jesus said “the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40)! That’s a sobering reminder as we “take the stage” on Sundays.

We even see this idea reflected in the aphorism, “Audience of One.” Don’t get offended. I get the idea behind it. However, I think when we borrow language from the world of performing arts in worship, we start to get the wrong idea about what we’re actually doing.

Let me say it this way: when someone performs (a musician, an actor, etc.), his intended purpose is to convey a message to the audience. In some cases, the purpose is simply to amuse or entertain the audience. I would posit the notion that when we worship, we are doing none of the above.

Someone may object, “Ah! But we are conveying a message to God. A message of his worth.” But do we not think that he knows that he is worthy of our praise? Surely he does. And surely he knows that we recognize it to whatever level our feeble minds can grasp. And even the crassest person purporting to be a Christian wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that we worship to amuse or entertain God.

Whatever argument one may make in support of the notion of audience in worship, I would strongly recommend that we delete it from our minds in regards to worship, whether musical or otherwise. God is not impressed with you. When we gather on the Lord’s Day to sing songs about and to him, he does not look down from his throne and say, “Hey, that band sounds pretty awesome! I sure am lucky they’re playing music for me instead of the devil.”

Instead, when we meet with God’s people, and we encourage one another through preaching and singing (Colossians 3:16), God is honored; he is pleased; he is glorified; but do not be deceived, he is not impressed. He is not an audience. He is so much greater than an audience. He not only receives praise, but he also enables us to praise. He not only listens to our songs, but he also sings along with us. Jesus is truly the leader of worship in our churches, not the guy holding the guitar.

So, be encouraged. While this may read more like a rebuke than an encouragement, a great burden has been lifted from your shoulders. No more should you try to put together an impressive performance because you think that’s what will keep bringing people back the next Sunday. What will bring Christ’s sheep back is the Holy Spirit.

We have a responsibility as those who have been entrusted with some level of the spiritual care of Christ’s sheep. We should, therefore, value them because of who they belong to. And if anything we do as worship ministers hinders them from being able to genuinely participate in the singing, to be blunt, we’re being selfish.

2 thoughts on “Disavowing the Notion of Audience

  1. Dan, I so agree with what you’re saying about so much of today’s contemporary music in churches.The poverty of many songs aimed at me, me .me. The idea of the audience in church. There are so many ways in which we
    mindlessly conduct worship services and mindlessly follow whatever is fed to us by leaders.
    We need to rethink what we’re doing, before we pass it all off as worship.
    You give voice to what so many of us who are concerned, have thought and talked with a few who would listen.
    Thanks, Ed

  2. Thank you! You have put into words exactly what I feel while being worship leader. I am convicted but encouraged by your words.

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