The congregation is not your audience

April 29th, 2015

Get ready to rock!

The pastor welcomed her congregation, gave a few brief announcements and invited those present to enter into a time of worship. She then walked from the center of the chancel to join her fellow backup singers in the praise band. Transition signaled transformation. The space between opening remarks and praise music also marked a shift from pastor to rock goddess (or at least groupie become band-mate). Microphone in one hand, tambourine in the other, cheesy smile plastered on her face, she closed her eyes and let the music move her. She sang with gusto, swayed with a stiff, studied rhythm found most predominantly in white Protestant Midwestern churches. Wait. Did she just blow a kiss to the congregation? Clearly, this was her moment.

Okay, so most of us probably don’t get as drunk on audience love as this particular pastor did. In fact, many pastors experience more anxiety than euphoria when they stand (or sing) before a congregation. I’ll never forget the time a seasoned ordained elder once told me that he suffered from diarrhea almost every Sunday morning. For the record, he’s an excellent preacher.

The rest of us probably fall somewhere between these two extremes, but no preacher I’ve met gets up before a congregation without wondering, How will they react? It’s important to acknowledge this. Every sermon, every prayer, every anything we do in front of a group of people has some element of performance to it. And that’s okay.

In fact, it would be foolish not to take performance into account when one leads worship. Drawing people into a state of openness where they might encounter God should involve some level of craft. Of course God can break into any situation, even the most hardened hearts (that’s what makes God God), but there are techniques we can use to help our congregation become more susceptible to God’s influence.

For example, a good storyteller can sometimes open people up to new ways of thinking much more quickly than the soundest theological argument. And I have seen choir leaders fill people with the Holy Spirit in ways I never could as a preacher. Worship leadership is an art.

But unlike artists, preachers do not have audiences. Instead, we have communities. And they are not our communities, but God’s. For some of us, this truth is hard to learn and all too easy to forget. It’s easy for the members of our congregation to forget as well. They want to be moved, inspired, entertained, and we like to give them what they want. We know that we will be judged by how well we help to engage them in the worship experience. The fact is, if your members yawn too often, your job may be in danger.

Dwell on this for long (especially after a poorly delivered sermon — we all have them), and you’ll make yourself crazy. I’ve experienced the same thing with writing. When I write something that really connects with readers, when they tell me how important a piece was to them, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. But there’s always the other side of that equation, when I pour my heart into something and it just falls flat. Or worse yet, when it doesn’t even get read. Most writers will tell you that rejection is part and parcel of every writer’s career. We all know it, we all prepare for it, but it still hits us harder than we want it to.

This is the cost of putting yourself out there, of taking on the role of interpreter, teacher, spokesperson. The health of your ego is a little too much in the hands of others. That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves often of where we stand in the scheme of things. Ultimately, we are not performers. The congregation is not your audience. They are not even your community. You and the other members of your church are all part of God’s community. And before God, no matter what gifts we possess or what jobs we take on, we are all equal as God’s beloved children. We are all parts of the one body, and no part is more valuable than another.

So yes, try hard. Do your work to the best of your ability. But at the same time, don’t be that one up there who tries too hard. Don’t be the one who makes us all cringe at how desperate you are for approval. If you need an audience, make God your audience. And remember that no one else’s opinion will make you greater or lesser in the eyes of God.

You can see more of Courtney's work at, or sign up to receive his weekly email, “Life and Depth.”

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