The final article in the current issue of Liturgy examines the issue of “performance” from a different point of view that the rest of the articles. Using a more colloquial meaning of performance, Matthew Lawrence Pierce invites readers to examine the oft-repeated complaint that this or that worship service “feels like a performance” to a visitor. Pierce’s contention is that this complaint is most often voiced by those who visit worshipping congregations who utilize a style of worship which is unfamiliar to them, and that it has its genesis in the fact that two of the major styles of worship current in American protestantism are, in fact, derived from various theatrical practices.
The durability of an ethos, the effort required to cultivate it, and its ability to move from one sphere to another poses a perennial problem for those involved in the planning and execution of worship. Charles Finney sought to sidestep the problem by subordinating ethos and order to the question of practical effect: understanding conversion to entail a particular kind of human response, Finney constructed a worship service that helped to nurture and elicit that response. In the process, though, Finney borrowed the rationality and argumentation of the law courts as well as the drama and histrionics of popular theatre...From Finney onward, the Revival/Seeker service pattern will employ within worship an ethos crafted from other areas within the contemporary culture. Similarly, those who advocated for the aestheticizing of worship later in the nineteenth century borrowed the ethos of the ‘‘highbrow’’ theater by employing musical styles suitable for more ‘‘cultivated’’ audiences who, in turn, became an audience participating through their disciplined silence. In both circumstances, Christian worship took on a markedly theatrical character while importing a range of assumptions, behaviors, and habits of heart and mind.
Citing Kierkegaard’s exhortation that God (rather than the congregation) should be viewed as the primary audience for Christian worship, Pierce goes on to discuss the difficulty of helping congregations change their self-understanding from that of spectator and critic to that of actor and participant. He maintains that though changing the Order for the service to one that was deliberately constructed to maximize congregational participation (Word & Table) will not be enough to motivate a change in the congration’s ethos.
Do you think that the congregation with whom you worship think of themselves primarily as participants or primarily as spectators?
Matthew Lawrence Pierce (2013): Redeeming Performance? The Question of Liturgical Audience, Liturgy, 28:1, 60.
Matthew Lawrence Pierce is a doctoral student in the Laney Graduate School of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.