Disclaimer: this is going to be a less polished post because my family and I are getting ready to move back to Texas next week, so I’m in the throes of organizing and packing. Nevertheless, today I managed to read and listen to various perspectives on pastor David Platt’s public prayer for President Trump this past Sunday at McLean Bible Church, including Platt’s own explanation, and I thought I’d put in my two cents’ worth (probably to escape more necessary but tedious tasks).
I certainly appreciate the points of tension. I think people with concerns about the prayer being delivered in this particular way (i.e., on a stage) for this particular president at this particular time and people expressing appreciation for the content of the prayer are both worth listening to. But undergirding the debate is perhaps a more fundamental question about the importance of the stage in so many evangelical worship spaces.
The stage has become such an accepted structure in churches that we forget it originated in the world of theater. (It certainly didn’t originate from the early believers, who met in various places like temple courts [Acts 2:46], private homes [Acts 12:12], and catacombs.) When we’re inside a church building, we automatically associate the stage with worship music and the preaching of the Word; but we don’t often stop to process the reality that theater is inherent to the stage’s function and design.
The stage, whether it’s a thrust stage or an arena, is a structure that centers performers. And where there’s a stage, there’s stagecraft–that is, all the technical aspects of managing a production. This is true even if the people who occupy it are committed to glorifying God in all they say and do while on the stage. That’s because a stage is not just an architectural structure; it’s a medium. And every medium shapes and controls meaning and human interaction in particular ways that are inescapable.
It’s arguable that the degree to which a church has allowed the stage to occupy a central role in its worship experience is the degree to which it’s vulnerable to having the medium usurped for worldly purposes, regardless of the intentions of those who think they own or control the medium. We have to be conscious of the fact that the stage is a natural occurrence in a culture that values mass communication, entertainment, and the ecstasy of crowds. Take a look at the following images.
While there are visual cues that help us determine what the different contexts are, at first glance, they look more similar than different. According to author and former pastor Eugene Peterson (1932-2018), there’s a reason for that:
Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence… apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.
But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me. We can escape upward or downward. Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward. A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.Peterson E. (2011). The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper One. p.157.
About a year and a half ago, the leaders at my church decided to do an experiment. They eliminated the stage as an element in our worship services. Our pastor wanted to encourage the church to function more as a living body in which all members actively participate in worship (as they identify and exercise their spiritual gifts) and less as an audience coming to see a weekly show in which one person preaches and a band of a few play music on a stage. The communion table came to occupy the center of the room, and people in the congregation now sit at tables arranged around the communion table. The sermon is delivered from the ground level, and musicians lead singing at the ground level as well, sometimes at the table where they’re sitting with their families. A sound system helps everyone in the room hear the sermon and helps us sing in unison, but doing away with the stage has helped to create an intimate setting where everyone has the opportunity to feel the weight of being an active and equal participant in worship (versus feeling like a part of a crowd).
I’m not saying that everyone should do things this way. There are many ways to “do” church, and there is freedom in the Spirit. Plus, it would be a logistical impossibility for a megachurch to convert to this format. Megachurches are stuck with the arena theater arrangement by virtue of what they are and what they determined to be when there was a fork in the road way back when. But we at Open Table Community are a small church that had the opportunity to make the changes we did, and we’ve learned a lot from them. Personally, I’ve become very sensitive to the dynamics created by the presence and centrality of a stage whenever I visit other churches. While I don’t have a prescriptive, I think more of us should be asking the question, “Should there be a separation between church and stage?”
 In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman dedicated his first chapter to exploring the idea that “the medium is the metaphor.” And if the medium is a stage, it’s no wonder there’s so much emphasis on theatrics in western churches.