Imagine going to see a show on Broadway for the first time. You’re excited for a new experience, but nothing could prepare you for what’s coming next.
Upon arriving at the theatre, you find yourself suddenly thrust out onto the stage. Without the foggiest idea of what your character is supposed to do or say, you stand there awkwardly, incredibly unsure of whether your hands are meant to be in your pockets or not. Hundreds of people stare at you, and you have no idea what they expect — you just know that the audience is not happy with your performance. Although you’ve heard of this show, you don’t know any of the words to say. You just know that you are going to get harsh reviews in the papers the next day, even though it’s not your fault. No one ever gave you a script. You weren’t even supposed to be onstage in the first place.
I talked recently with a worship leader at a church, and she described to me the stress of having to extend a song longer than expected at the end of a service because so many people were coming to the front to pray. If the song cut out too soon, people would feel like they had to stop praying. But when a two-minute song drags on for ten minutes, accompanied by some spontaneous prayer from the stage to fill time, it is stressful for the leader and probably a little boring and weird for those in the congregation who aren’t being stirred in their spirits.
This conversation got me pretty riled up. Where do these formulas come from for how church should go? Why would it be awkward for the music to stop and people to continue praying at the front of the sanctuary? Why is there enormous pressure on church leaders to make a flawless, flowing presentation? Why do we feel that the Holy Spirit can only work in people’s hearts when music is playing?
I believe that the Church is meant to function like a family. When there is a lull in conversation with my family members, I don’t feel uncomfortable. So why do we treat church services as performances that must go a certain way, and if they do not, the staff get complaints and people walk out talking about the awkward minute of silence instead of meditating on the word of God they just heard?
Imagine how it must feel for someone to come to a church service for the first time. They don’t know how it’s “supposed” to go, but if it goes wrong, the parishioners around them start muttering. The visitor begins to get the sense that everyone is playing a role, that this is a performance that has to go a certain way. And then they begin to wonder, “what is my role?” They’re on Broadway with no script. And they learn all too quickly that they are supposed to pretend they’ve got it all together, because, apparently, everyone around them does. And if they mess up their lines, well, the parishioners around them are going to start to mutter.
“I heard she’s a lesbian.”
“He drinks after work some days – I’ve seen him.”
“Does she think she can dress like that and come to our church?!”
And they never come back, because no one gave them a script, and the church can be a pretty unforgiving space to perform in. And just maybe, that’s because no one was supposed to be performing in the first place.
So next time there is a glitch in the church service, perhaps we can simply remember that we are spending time with our family. Maybe this mindset would help us relax our expectations of flawless and, dare I say it, entertaining church services. When something is a little out of sync, or if someone breaks from the standard Sunday morning script, maybe this mindset would help us remember that the Church is meant to be a safe community for real people with real problems. You don’t have to have it all together to be here, because none of us do. You don’t need a script, because you don’t need to perform.
May God help us regain our focus as the Church. We are His children. We are all desperately in need of help. And we are a family, not a production company.