Church as Theater—Why Are We Doing This?
Somewhere back in the 1970s or 1980s evangelical churches made the decision that the church auditorium should reflect the architecture of a theater, with theater type seating and a windowless auditorium, which for the most part makes the decor of the room invisible.
This reality struck me forcefully from the contrary perspective when I had occasion to visit a mainline denomination church. As I took a seat in a pew, the light streaming through the windows gave a warm ambiance to the sanctuary and illuminated the artful design of the decor that surrounded me. As I was smitten with the stark contrast between these surroundings and those of almost every contemporary evangelical church, it dawned on me that a half-century ago virtually every church exhibited a similar design. Consequently, the dramatic shift from this traditional motif to the contemporary one must have been intentional.
What, then, was the intent? It seems that contemporary evangelicals adopted the architecture of the theater because that motif best reflected and served contemporary evangelical culture.
This preference for a theater environment manifests itself in how attendees dress and act. Parishioners have transitioned from traditional church dress to clothing that might be worn to the movies. And as with the theater, coffee and water bottles have become accepted accouterments of the worship service. In keeping with the theater environment, applause, absent from traditional worship, now comprises a major element of the contemporary evangelical service. In the church where I attend, which seems to be typical, we clap for everything: baptisms, dynamic sermon points, when someone makes a profession of faith or joins the church, praise group numbers, etc.
The purpose of a theater is entertainment. I do not say that in a pejorative way. It is just a statement of fact. Whether one goes to a theater to hear an opera or rock group or to see a movie or play, the goal is entertainment, to give attendees a positive emotional experience, i.e. to enable them to enjoy themselves.
In the contemporary evangelical service almost everything is packaged to be entertaining. Again, that is not meant to be critical but just a statement of fact. Most praise bands and worship teams provide good entertainment. The sermons of most successful pastors are entertaining. Even announcements are packaged in a video designed to entertain.
The ultimate entertainer, however, seems to be Jesus. In many churches the congregation is called to give Jesus a round of applause. Though some may seek to argue, the reality is that in our culture applause is for performers.
More significantly, Jesus as performer is rooted in contemporary evangelical theology. We are told that it is okay to be angry with God, that is, if he does not perform according to our desires. On the other hand, we are assured that “we do not have to perform to please God.” That mantra comprises a standard in contemporary evangelical discourse. Therefore, Jesus needs to perform in order to please us, but we do not need to perform to please Him. As in the theater, the audience is not there to please the performer. The performer is tasked with pleasing the audience.
This arrangement of Jesus as performer manifests itself in the allowable topics for preaching. Contemporary evangelical sermons are designed to be “needs oriented.” This makes the focus what God can do for you—how He can meet your needs. The “needs oriented” approach to preaching sells. Attendance grows when pastors preach on how Jesus will meet their needs—will perform for them. It fits the theater ambiance.
Viewing Jesus as performer excludes preaching on sin and obligation. The assurance that we need not perform to please God eliminates both. This arrangement fits with church as theater since neither preaching on sin or obligation is entertaining. Likewise, contemporary evangelicals have eliminated genuine fear of God, which also fails the entertainment criterion.
So we enter into a sanctuary designed as a theater, dressed comfortably and carrying a water bottle, are well entertained by every dimension of the service, and are taught how God will perform for us while being assured that we do not need to perform to please Him.
The good news has been that church as theater has attracted multitudes to mega-churches, which possess the resources to entertain best. The bad news is that smaller churches, unable to compete, are shrinking and closing their doors, and overall numbers are declining, with major losses among young people. This is because church as theater with Jesus as performer offers no substantive message. Worse yet, church as theater lacks the power to function as salt and light in our society, which is resulting in America’s current precipitous cultural decline.
Of special interest is the contemporary evangelical adoption of the term “worship” to describe the music portion of the service. This term camouflages the reality that church as theater and Jesus as performer exclude genuine worship of Jesus, leaving only room for worship of ourselves. Could that be our ultimate motive for adopting church as theater?
The road back begins with a renewed focus on genuine worship. Instead of clapping for Jesus we might revert to the traditional practice of kneeling before Him. Instead of selecting themes from Scripture that entertain, we need to allow Him to address us with all His counsel. Instead of expecting Him to perform for us, we must respond to the command of Jesus to the church of Ephesus: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
One last note of personal preference. Since we are worshiping the God of light, the light of the world, in whom is no darkness at all, would it really be a problem to allow in a little daylight while we worship Him?