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?