I walked into the massive building, gleaming with steel and glass and bustling with people. From the brightly-lit entrance room, I walked into the dim auditorium. Neon lights illuminated the stage; fog machines generated a hazy aura. Stage workers scurried across the vast platform, hurriedly prepping for the big event. Suddenly, the house lights dimmed to darkness, the stage lights surged in brightness, and then it started…

Worship: Should We Be Participants or Spectators?

It began with a whoosh of percussion and the twang of an electric guitar. The show was on! Most of the crowd stood to their feet in eager expectation. The music crescendoed as the band on the platform rushed into action. Triple screens at the front of the auditorium displayed a closeup of the vocalist’s hands gripping a mic. She started singing, with eyes closed and one hand lifted high.

I was in a megachurch on a Sunday morning. It was my first time to attend this church, so I was not totally sure of what to expect. When the music started, I stood up, since that’s what most of the people around me did. I wasn’t sure whether I should sing or not. The lyrics were displayed on the screen, but I didn’t hear anyone around me singing. I cast some sidelong glances at people’s faces to see if they were singing or not.

Couple to my left: no.

Girl in front of me:  no.

Guy behind me and to the right:  no.

Girl behind me and to the left:  barely singing…or was it just mouthing the words?

So, was this more of a concert than a worship service? I decided that I probably shouldn’t sing. No need to draw attention to myself. So I just stood there trying to feel reverent and look worshipful (even though I felt pretty awkward). The song transitioned into a more well-known worship song, and a few more people started mouthing the words…or singing. (I’m not sure.) It was hard to tell, because the volume on the music was turned up so loud.

I am still not sure whether I was supposed to sing or not in that worship service. Maybe it’s different in each worship service or concerts…or whatever they’re called. I guess it just depends on the church…or venue. But my quandary brings up a question that goes deeper than just whether or not I was supposed to sing or not.

Are We Worship Participants or Spectators?

It brings up a question of worship. In “worship,” are we supposed to be participants or spectators?

The concern addressed in this article is that many churches, regardless of their traditional or contemporary bent, cater towards a spectator mentality in the worship service. If it’s called a worship service, should there not be more worship going on? Sure, the spectator mentality may not be created intentionally, but it is happening, nonetheless.

How Does Spectator Worship Happen?

  • In Contemporary Churches. Often, contemporary churches create a concert atmosphere. From the style of the music to the construction of the building, there is a feel that is remarkably similar to a concert or a theater experience. In theaters and concerts, the audience is not required to participate in any integral way beyond swaying, laughing, or staying awake. Often, it’s the same way in these worship services. The band exhibits their talent and prowess. The people sitting in the theater seats listen.
  • In Traditional Churches. Many traditional services have hymn-singing by the “audience.” Often, however, the experience is one of reading the words or notation on the page, but not engaging in worship. Many traditional services have a choir that sings a song while the attendees listen. Other times, there is “special music” by a soloist or ensemble. The best part, of course, is the “offertory” where a talented musician plays his or her instrument during the passing of the plate and everyone listens to the performance.

Both models have advantages and disadvantages depending on the context. Yet both run the risk of catering to a spectator mentality in worship. And what’s the real problem with spectator worship? I submit that spectator worship is not true worship at all.

Three Problems with Spectator Worship

  1. Spectators tend to be disengaged. Disengaged worship is not true worship at all. When we become disengaged from the very focus of our gathering, and disengaged from the very Person whom we are coming to honor, we might as well not even be present. Showing up physically in worship is no substitute for being mentally absent.
  2. Spectators are prone to a consumerism. It’s pretty common to bemoan the “consumer mindset” in American Christian culture, so I’m not going to belabor that point. It is important, however, to recognize the fact that spectator worship is probably a symptom of the consumer mindset which has crept into our churches, and sadly our “worship.” Think about it. Is worship a consumer commodity? Yikes.
  3. Spectators tend toward an entertainment mentality. Worship is not the same thing entertainment. Unfortunately, the whole approach of much of our “worship services” is nothing more than entertainment with a Christian sheen. Does more fog, brighter spotlights, Bose speakers, and a better distorter mean better worship? Does the finesse of the choir director’s flourishing movements, the skill of the soloist, or the rapidity of the pianist’s arpeggios really constitute a better worship experience? Does it truly bringing more honor and glory to God if you play your violin or bass guitar with more skill than the next guy?

All three of these problems undermine true worship. In effect, then, it seems our whole culturally-constructed modes of worship actually distract from true worship. Can it be that our “worship services” are failing to meet the whole objective for their existence? Can it be that this is happening in your church?

This Sunday in a church near you…

Contemporary:  The worship leader calls for the audience to worship:  “C’mon now! Lift your hands up everybody! Can I hear you shout to the Lord now? Alright, put your hands together on this one! Let me hear it!”

Traditional:  The song leader calls for the audience to worship:  “Let us worship the Lord together. Please turn in your hymnals to hymn number 438. Let’s all stand as we sing. Standing, please, number 438.” 

Perhaps the best first-step to recalibrating our “worship”—becoming participants rather than spectators—is to define what worship really is.

So, what is true worship? Does it really consist of music? Does it really require a band playing worship songs? Does it mean that we raise our hands? Does it mean that we sing? Does worship even require a “worship service?”

  • If you are a leader in your church, you would serve your church well by discovering what worship is. Search the Scriptures for answers, not what other churches are doing. Try to pry your cultural fixations away from biblical truth about worship. Then, boldly and gently make the necessary corrections in your local church.
  • If you are not a leader, and have slipped into spectator mode in your church, you can still worship God regardless of what’s going on around you. Rather than react in frustration to the perceived lack of worship, you can engage in worship personally. You are free to worship God.

About The Author

Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more than 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.

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