Audience of One: How We Kicked God off the Stage in Worship

What would happen if we were to subtly change the way the church goes about worshiping God? What if we were to remove an emphasis on the objective truth of the Bible and place a subtle emphasis on personal experience? What if we did this in a way that on the surface seemed like we were worshiping God, but in the end actually removed God from worship and put us on the stage instead?

I am afraid that is exactly what is going on in many congregations across America. We are seeing popular pastors abandon Biblical authority in honor of individual subjective experience (Rob Bell and more recently and to a different degree, Andy Stanley). What bothers me the most, is that I think there are many pastors and worship leaders with good intentions, who are taking us down the path of looking for subjective experience instead of objective truth in weekly congregational worship.

For me, this can most clearly be seen in the rhetoric of “Audience of One” on the lips of pastors and worship leaders. Typically the “Audience of One” illustration is described this way: We gather for worship and it seems like the audience is the congregation and the actors or entertainers are the musicians, worship leader and pastor. But in this illustration, the roles are redesigned to account for God in the room. The congregation becomes the actors in worship, God is the audience, and the musicians, worship leader, and pastor are all prompters whose function is to provide the script by which the congregation performs worship.

Cool concept right?  It sounds cool to say that “God is the only audience we seek.” But is it right? More importantly is it Biblical? Before you assume I’m crazy, hear me out. I’ll explain to you that when we say, “Audience of One” that the whole illustration is a complete misunderstanding of worship that ultimately moves us away from an emphasis on truth from God (God’s Word) to our own subjective experience of “worship” and personal interpretation of that experience. My real concern is that we may have just kicked God off the stage and replaced Him with pathetic individual experiences of worship that are more about us than they are about the God of the Bible. Like I said hear me out.

 

I want to level a serious contention: What if the illustration of God as the “audience of One” in our services was originally a thought experiment designed to introduce a philosophy that would eventually  come to be known as existentialism to Christianity? Think I’m off the mark? Let’s look at where the illustration originated.

Audience of ONE_ How WE Kicked GOD off the Stage of Worship(1)

The History behind the Phrase. The concept behind the phrase “Audience of One” first appears in Soren Kierkegaard’s book, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  Kierkegaard in his own words:

 It is so on the stage, as you know well enough, that someone sits and prompts by whispers; he is the inconspicuous one; he is, and wishes to be overlooked. But then there is another, he strides out prominently, he draws every eye to himself. For that reason he has been given his name, that is: actor. He impersonates a distinct individual. In the skillful sense of this illusionary art, each word becomes true when embodied in him, true through him—and yet he is told what he shall say by the hidden one that sits and whispers. No one is so foolish as to regard the prompter as more important than the actor.

Now forget this light talk about art. Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolishness of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment 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 the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of this 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 at. If the speaker has the responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fail 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 is then the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener … is the actor, who in all truth acts before God. (Kierkegaard, Søren, trans. Douglas V. Steere. Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 180-189.) * bold print and underline added for emphasis

Existentialism: A Shift to the Subjective Human Experience Over Objective Truth.
Soren Kierkegaard is regarded by many as one of the first existentialist philosophers. Though, the word “existentialism” never appears in any of his works, the concepts of existentialism are core to many of his writings. In a nutshell, existentialism emphasizes the right of the individual to discover truth for themselves. Truth doesn’t come from an objective outside source (Like the Bible, institutional religion, society, etc.) but through individual experience and our subjective interpretation of that experience. Because of this, there is actually a broad spectrum of philosophers who can be classified existentialist, but would hold a different understanding of life (Nietzsche was another early existentialist philosopher).

Kierkegaard was really one of the first to press this idea into many different areas of society, including Christianity and religious practice.  You may have noted in the quote above, that it is said of the actor, who is pretending to be someone else, that “each word becomes true when embodied by him.”  At it’s core, Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy focuses on the individual to give the world meaning. In other words, an individual’s experience, and subsequent interpretation of that experience is more “authentic” and “meaningful” than objective truth. (Where have I heard those buzz words before?) To say it in terms of the illustration, the prompt (the sermon? the scriptures? he doesn’t tell us) isn’t true until acted out by the actor. Indeed, the prompt line become true “through” the actor. The actor’s experience is what defines truth for Kierkegaard. There is no truth in the prompt itself, only in the experience of the actor.

In Kierkegaard’s illustration the church goer is transitioned from a passive audience member to the main actor in the worship service.  The actor’s experience is where truth is produced and God now fills the role of the audience… an audience of One.

HOW DID THIS GET INTRODUCED TO THE CHURCH? I think that through ignorance that the “audience of one” terminology became common language to talk about how worship leaders are to lead in worshiping God.  What sounds cool often gets repeated. I’ve heard musicians such as Matt Redman, Big Daddy Weave, and others use the illustration. I am also aware that there are several books on “worship leadership” by authors that I very much respect that use the “audience of one” illustration as a description for worship leadership.

What effect has this had on the worship service? We have elevated to congregation to the stage to perform “for God.” So now, your experience of worship determines it’s worth, not God’s worthiness.  Now each individual is an actor for the sake of God who is our “true” audience… We have moved the emphasis of worship from objective truth of God’s Word in the pulpit to subjective experience in the pew.  In Kierkegaard’s view, the Bible isn’t true, unless it is acted upon by an individual, and thus experienced subjectively. While many of our pastor’s and music leaders wouldn’t say this out loud, we have used the metric of personal engagement and experience to determine the “quality of worship” (despite supposedly having an “audience of one”).

The flawed analogy: Why does God have to be the audience? Intentional or not, I believe Kierkegaard’s analogy is flawed. In the illustration that Kierkegaard gives, we have only two ways of seeing the room and all the participants. 1. Either God is the audience, the worshipers are actors, and the pastor is the prompter or 2. The audience is the congregation and the pastor is the actor and God is not present. (A not so subtle point of  Kierkegaard illustration: God is present as the audience or not at all).

WHAT IF THE ILLUSTRATION IS WRONG? Is there another way to see the room on Sunday morning? If you will notice the one thing really missing from Kierkegaard’s illustration is the Word of God.  It would be missing because Kierkegaard’s writing was trying to supplant the idea of “objective truth” and replace it with “subjective experiential truth.”  The Bible has long been understood to be objective truth (it is true weather you believe it or not).

What if we correct Kierkegaard’s view of the devotional service with the scripture as central? Has God not been present all along? Was he not always on center stage? Was the role of the pastor to ever entertain at all or was it to declare the word, work, and majesty of God through the Word of God? Was the role of pastor not to provoke our hearts to worship all along, not because God is in the audience but because God has commanded and invited us to worship Him?

Now let’s get down to the Scripture. Isn’t God the one who has invited (even commanded) us to worship Him (Exodus 20:3-5)? If we’d just read the Bible we’d see a divine plan of redemption unfolding where we who were separated from God, have no right or ability to reach up to God, but God reached down to us through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, making payment for sin, rising from the dead, so that those who come to Him in genuine faith and repentance are reconciled to God (Romans 5:8). The very heart of worship is who God is (Revelation 4:11) and what He has done to reconcile us to Himself (Isaiah 61:10).  Even those who have rejected Jesus and will find themselves acknowledging that he is worthy of all glory and honor (Philippians 2:9-11).

Isn’t God at the very center of the stage of worship in Heaven? (Revelation 4:11, 5:12-14, 7:9-12, 19:1-10, Isaiah 6, etc.)  You won’t and can’t have an “audience of one” in Heaven because God is the only act! You will fall on your face and you will worship because He is worthy! If anything we will be part of the audience applauding Him. His glory demands an audience of worshipers (Luke 18:40)! 

What if we meant something other than worship by “audience of one?” If you mean to say that, “Gods opinion of you is the only one you care about,” do you not recognize the emphasis on a subjective individual experience in that statement as well? Would you not recognize that God has given us each other to be the voice of reason, accountability, and reminder of who He is (1 Timothy 4:12, Matthew 18:15-20)? I care about God’s opinion of me, but I also recognize that He judges my heart better than me and this attitude might be more about resisting accountability than it is about truly seeking the Lord.

If you mean to say, “Only God can Judge you perfectly,” then I think you are right (Romans 14:4). But there is a huge difference between God as a just judge and God as your audience. Judges render verdicts, audiences by nature observe and applaud (or heckle)… either way the verdict of a judge is more serious than applause of an audience.

I pray that we would all be aware that God is a just judge and we would strive to have pure hearts, but not in the way that Kierkegaard suggests. I would that we had them in the way that Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount. I would love to have a pure heart that doesn’t do deeds so as to be seen by others, but to be seen by God (Matthew 6:1-6) and simultaneously loves to do good works that are seen by everyone and point to God (Matthew 5:13-16).  Only God can judge a heart like that and to be clear only God can create a heart like that in me (Ezekiel 36:26, Psalm 51:10, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Jeremiah 24:7) . I reject the “Audience of One” illustration for worship because it is a dangerous philosophy that removes God from the act of worship and puts us center stage.

For more on the topic of an undue emphasis on the individual subjective experience in American Christianity check out this previous blog post: Who are you really worshiping?

Do Our Songs Matter? (Songs for Teaching, Fellowship, Suffering)

Worship Music

Up to this point we have talked about music in general, but now I kind of want to zero in on certain benefits of worshiping God together in song. Why sing together?

TEACHING

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual sons, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. – Collossians 3:16 ESV

Here the apostle calls for believers to let the word of God dwell in them richly and part of the way to do that is through spiritual songs. Hymns, choruses and special music that are written in response to Gods’ character or actions all teach us something about God or how we should respond to God. They remind us of his characteristics like faithfulness. They remind us that God desires that we would trust him. They remind us that we come to him just as we are. They remind us that God is interested in our hearts, not just our words. They remind us that God is a refuge and a fortress in a time of trouble. They remind us that though we may face financial trouble, marital discord, a prodigal child, depression, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, disease, or even the consequences of our own sin, that God transcends all of that. We can come to him in worship while living in a world that is being destroyed by sin and he gives us a taste of heaven. He shows us just a glimpse of what is to come. Songs give rise to what words alone can not express and in doing so we learn our God and know our God deeper.

We use songs to teach our children. We teach them “Jesus Loves Me,” and in doing so we teach them:

  • God’s heart for children
  • the Bible is our standard for knowing God
  • God is a strong God able to take care of the weak and needy.

Some of my favorite songs are children’s songs.

FELLOWSHIP

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives 

– Matthew 26:30, ESV

Part of singing together is to remind ourselves that we are not the only ones following hard after God. The disciples had just celebrated the Passover Meal and Lord’s Supper with Jesus and note that before they left,  they sang a hymn. The hymn that they probably sung was one that was made up of six Psalms that when put together were called the Hillel. This hymn was chosen for the occasion because the selected Psalms all represented the salvation of Israel. Think of the disciples gathered around Christ. They were worshiping together, because he called them together. They had fellowship with one another, because Christ was their Lord.  Gathered around him singing praise to God was a former tax collector, a zealot, a few fisherman, and others all gathered in fellowship.

There is something about singing with other believers that elevates into not just fellowship but worship.  I love going to student camp where I am surrounded by our students and we all sing songs of praise to God. I can not help but smile and think how wonderful it will be, to be in the presence of God in heaven with these precious ones singing praise.

SUFFERING

About Midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God , and the prisoners were listening to them – Acts 16:25, ESV

Do not be confused about this verse. Paul and Silas did not have a prison ministry where they simply came and sang a good gospel song to the inmates. They were in prison themselves for preaching the gospel. They were in chains  and still they found the strength to praise their God! The height of music in worship is music born out of suffering. It is the music that is born out of a heart that has suffered yet still finds strength to praise the Lord.

In North Korea during the 1950’s there was a group of Christians who were meeting in tunnels dug underground. As the Communist were building a road through the area they discovered the tunnels and the Christians.  They were brought to be tried and executed in the middle of the town with  30,000 people gathered around to watch.  First the communist officer ordered four of the children to be hanged, if they would not recant their faith. The parents looked at their children and encouraged them, “be strong, we will see you in Heaven!” The children died quietly. Then the officer had a steamroller brought in and lined the congregation up on the ground. As the steam roller crushed the believers they were singing in unison:

More Love to the, O Christ, More love to Thee
Thee Alone I Seek, More Love to Thee
Let sorrow do its work, more love to Thee
Then shall my latest breath whisper thy praise
This be the parting cry my heart shall raise;
More love, O Christ, to Thee.

(I found this story in D.C. Talk’s first Volume of “Jesus Freaks” page 124-125.)

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Does God Like Our Music? (The Object, Quality, & Background)

Worship Music

God is the Object of Music Offered as Worship

There is something distinctively different about the music in the Bible and the music in our culture and the difference is mainly the content of the songs. In order for a song to be a Biblical or Christian song is should come from the scriptures or be a response to God. Every song in the scriptures teaches us who God is, pleads for him to act, or celebrates what He has done. Even in the Song of Solomon you have the celebration of marriage which is an institution created by God.

The primary issue about songs in worship isn’t the style (hymns or Choruses) or even the type of instruments used or not used, at it’s foundation a song suitable for worship must have God as it’s object. Churches that divide between  contemporary and traditional miss authentic worship because they choose style over substance and divide the body over a non-essential. When we insert preference into the mix we have to ask, are we concerned with God’s preference or our own? The issue about what music should be sung for the purpose of worship is simply this… is it a response to God? does it teach truth about God? does it ask God to move? … in essence is it Godward?

The essence of worship places the value on the one being worshiped not the worshiper. When it comes to using songs in worship, the emotional benefits of a song are secondary to the truth of the song. Is should be noted that your emotions can be wrong and misleading. Not that emotion in worship is bad, but that songs must be evaluated for more than how they make you feel. Worship in song in often very emotional, but it should be emotional because of who God is, not because of how much you like the song.

Music Offered as Worship Should be Quality

Those who lead our churches in corporate worship should be quality driven folks. Everyone from the music minister down to the smallest child in the congregation should do their best to understand the music that they are singing in worship.

Take a look at some of the introductions to the Psalms (Psalm 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, 8:1, 9:1, 51:1).  There is a note to the choirmaster about the tune of the song. He should know the song and be familiar with how it is to be played. On some occasions there are notes as to which type of instruments are to be used. Then we also see that the songs have an author and sometimes even a background. The message is clear, “here is a song to be employed for worship. Play it in a specific way, with a specific instrument, according to the design of the author… don’t mess it up.

Today we have songs that were written to be played in arena’s full of people and those written for more intimate settings. It can be quite unsettling when a praise band sets up to play an arena song to a smaller coffee house type gathering. The band may love the song, but it’s not a fit for the size of the community they are leading. It would be helpful if modern worship leaders would include some suggestions on their songs to help others who want to use them.

It is a difficult job to lead a congregation in singing praise to God. Whoever leads looks for the right songs for the moment for the community they are leading. Musicians and vocalists take music home to practice (How do you offer your best to God without practice?). Then they get together to practice, work out any issues, harmonize, etc. Don’t be fooled, they don’t do all of this in order to pull of a flawless production, they do it to exercise their God given gifts and lead you and I in songs of worship so that we can worship God TOGETHER. They do it so that when we have an awesome encounter with a holy and righteous God we have a method and a mode to offer expressions of praise back to Him. They don’t do it just to show off their talents and gifts… They do it so YOU can JOIN THE SONG! It is not about who is on stage and who isn’t. It is about God, who has gifted and called individuals to lead his people in a response to him of authentic worship through song.

Music Offered as Worship has a Background

You can’t help but notice that when you read some of the Psalms that there is a historical background to the song (see Psalm 51:1 for an example). This provides a great template for worship leaders to share relevant background information about the songs we sing in corporate worship. Some great resources for this are the three volumes “Then My Soul Sings” by Robert Morgan.

Even more contemporary songs have background stories. A simple search of the song title, author and the words “background story” will often yield results. Bellow is a video of an interview with Matt Redman who shares the background on his song, “Heart of Worship.” Though it’s not as popular as it once was, it reveals that these songs don’t arise out or mechanical song writing studios, but often arise out of real life responses to God in current situations.

A worship leader doesn’t need to share the background to every song or even share a background every time they lead, but the background does go a long way toward helping the congregation know how this song is a response to God and the appropriate emotions and sentiments that the song carries. Knowing that Martin Luther wrote A Mighty Fortress is Our God in the midst of depression, illness and persecution can help the people in the congregation see how this song can be their response to God as well.

We’ll look more into music and song as an avenue for worshiping God as well as the benefits of singing to God together in the next post. Until then feel free to like this post, share it, comment below, and be sure to sign up to get new posts sent to you via e-mail (on the top right of this page).

 

Does God Like Our Music? (Intro)

Several years ago I heard a story about believers in Asia who met in a cave in order to be able to sing praise to God. It was illegal to assemble as the church in their country and so if they wanted to sing praise songs together in community they had to rise early and travel a great distance to this cave and sing. To be honest when I heard the story (I have every reason to believe it was true) I couldn’t help but be a little bit curious as to why these believers would risk so much just to sing? What was it about singing that would draw them to that cave? The more I thought about it, the more I questioned myself, Why do I sing? What is it in the life of a believer that calls not just for prayer, or bible study, but song… And not just a solo, but the need to join a chorus of other believers in offering praise to God?

So I’m going to take a few blog posts here to chase that thought. I won’t be chasing it though my mind… I don’t have the answers. I’ll be chasing it through the scriptures. We will examine song in the scriptures and the compulsion for believers to offer God worship through song.

Worship Music

To be clear, music or singing isn’t worship. Music is an avenue of worship, but song alone does not exalt God. There are many songs that honor God and many that dishonor God. Music just like sex, food, and all the rest of God’s pleasures were designed to be good and for His glory, but can also be perverted. Sex is perverted when you look for sex for sex sake. Food is perverted when you look at food for food’s sake and music/ singing can be perverted when you look at music for music’s sake.

Music touches our emotions like nothing else can. When used legitimately there is nothing that can compare to the rise that music gives. The Bible is saturated with music! The book of Psalms is the songbook for the nation of Israel and it contains 150 songs for most any occasion. Stack on top of that all the times that people burst into song in the Scripture and you will quite soon realize that if we were to dramatize the scripture it would be a musical. People in the Bible sang! There was something in them that called for a response to the acts of God that couldn’t be expressed with normal words spoken in a normal way.  Their voices had to elevate to put words to meter and music! Moses led the entire nation of Israel in a song when  God wiped out an Egyptian army by way of the Red Sea (Exodus 15). Mary sang upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth and receiving confirmation that she was carrying the messiah in her womb (Luke 1)! The angels sang to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 2) The Song of Solomon is a wedding song written by or for Solomon. And there is more than I have time to write here.

Music expresses our emotions and it can help change our emotions. How about all those love songs that make you want to grab someone, hold them tight, and not let go. Then there are the songs that make you want to cry. Then there are songs that put a little pep in your step (great for a workout play list). I know that a little classical music on the drive home goes a long way towards curbing my anger issues at other drivers.  When the Lord sent an evil spirit  upon Saul, it was only the harp music of David that could calm him (I Samuel 16). Music does something for us! Even those people like me who can’t carry a tune or play an instrument. The writer of James tells us to sing when we are joyful (James 5:13).

We’ll look more into music and song as an avenue for worshiping God as well as the compulsion to sing corporately in the next post. Until then feel free to like this post, share it, comment below, and be sure to sign up to get new posts sent to you via e-mail (on the top right of this page).

 

Who Are You Really Worshiping?

Dear Christian Brother or Sister,

We live in an highly individualistic and consumer culture. As Americans we celebrate ourselves to a fault. The perceived upside is we tend to get our way and even when we don’t, we vent about it on social media like toddlers who were just told they had to share their toys.

who

That’s the culture… it shouldn’t be you. Your first allegiance isn’t to yourself, it’s to the one who created you, sought you, and paid for your sins… You belong to Jesus (I Corinthians 6:19-20). If you pray as Jesus taught his disciples in the Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), you don’t ask for “My” will to be done, you ask God for HIS will to be done. That includes being willing for God’s will to be done in every aspect of your life. It’s a submission phrase. You are submitting yourself to God. It’s not about YOU, it’s about HIM.

What disturbs me is that there is talk going around  these days that says, “I can worship God anywhere, I don’t need the church.On the surface it sounds good. Our culture of individuality and consumerism would confirm this… But would JESUS

Like all heresy there is a hint of truth to it. You CAN worship God anywhere. Jesus implied as much when talking to the Samaritan Woman (John 4:25). Paul and Silas sang songs and worshiped from prison (Acts 16:25). So there is plenty of precedent to say that the place of worship doesn’t matter as much as WHO you worship and maybe HOW you worship. Though to be clear in these instances it is not the consumer driven preference of the worshiper that determines the place of worship…  It is the ability of the object of worship, GOD Himself, to transcend space  (theologians call this omnipresence).

But would Jesus say, “YOU don’t need the church”? That is totally different than saying “GOD can be worshiped any where.” You see the real question is has he given you the freedom to choose to worship in isolation when there is a church available?

To be sure the church is the people, not the building. Perhaps that is where the hangup is for most people. If you were just saying you don’t need a building to worship, I totally agree. However, If you mean to say that you don’t need an accountable community of other believers to worship God the way He intends… I disagree. We were designed to come together in an accountable community known as the church.

I’m having a hard time finding an example of where we called to separate ourselves completely from the church according to our personal preference in the scripture. Christianity was never meant to be practiced in isolation. Even the early church sent missionaries out TWO at a time to establish churches. It is really difficult to honor the great commission in isolation (Matthew 28: 19-20). How do you exercise your spiritual gifts or function as part of the body of Christ without other believers present (Romans 12, I Corinthians 12)? Finally if you are a true believer, why would you not want to be part of something that Christ loves so deeply (Ephesians 5:25-31)?

This talk about worshiping God apart from the church really has me confused as to who you are actually worshiping? You might actually be worshiping nature instead of God, or travel ball, or TV, or Family, or a host of other things. I get it. I like those things too, but not enough to separate me from worshiping God with my local church. I need those people and according to 1 Corinthians 12 they need me too.

So if you’ve been using the excuse that “I can worship God from anywhere” as an opportunity to hit up the golf-course, the tree stand, or just sit in your undies and watch football on TV,  you might want to ask yourself,  “what god am I worshiping?”