From the Pastor (04.30.21)

One of the classics of Christian philosophical thought is Søren Kierkegaard’s “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” Kierkegaard was one of the most important Christian mid-nineteenth century thinkers known as existentialists. The book is an extended sermon on “goodness,” and explores the various human attempts at success, dismisses them all, and concludes that the only path to goodness is to seek to know the will of God.

A particularly pertinent passage for our times (and the only part of the book with which many people are familiar) is his analogy regarding worship. He is referring specifically to the sermon, but what he says applies equally to the other parts of the service as well. Please overlook the male-centric language and listen carefully to what he has to say. Its bearing on worship today should become immediately obvious.

Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as the actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgement upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor – not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if he is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk. The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern – is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers the word to the listeners. But the main concern is earnestness: that of the listeners by themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak to the help of the address. The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed for. If the speaker has that responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fall short in his task. 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.

For the past few decades this analogy was often trotted out as a criticism of “contemporary worship” that focused on the “performances” by the preacher and the musicians, with the worshipers as mere spectators. Whether or not that was a fair criticism (I can’t say since I was pretty busy trying to work within another “style” of worship and didn’t have much chance to observe firsthand), it now has relevance for almost all church people as we gradually emerge from a year in which we all “consumed” worship through a medium that more closely resembles “theatergoing” than participatory worship.

Each one of us has had a unique experience of “virtual” worship, but it certainly lent itself to spectating rather than participation. Now that we at Parkway have been able to gather in the parking lot, that tendency may not be as great, but it still doesn’t offer the chance for full-on participation to which we will return. However, both now and in the future, keeping this analogy in mind will pull us into the worship experience.

Remember, first of all, God is watching. That’s not a threat; that’s a comforting assurance. The Heavenly Parent who loves you is gladly receiving your offering of worship. If you keep that in mind, surely it will focus your efforts in the right direction.

Also recognize that those of us who are leading are simply prompters. We are trying to help you grow as a Christian. We place the spiritual food in front of you, but you have to eat it.

And I don’t think you have to worry about whether you are a good actor or a bad actor. You are a child of God. If you ever watched your children in an elementary school play, did you really critique their performance? You were just proud of them for being up there. Same with God.