We use lights, microphones, seating, and position to focus attention towards the platform during a worship service. People who are attending the service may come with a million words to say, a lot of things on their hearts, and a lot of individual motives… but those putting on the service easily gain control and retain control of the room tactically.
- Lighting – By illuminating the platform and darkening the seating area, this draws your attention to the light, humans are built that way. The darker you make the seating area, the more you focus attention on the platform and visa versa.
- Seating – By point all of the pews/chairs towards the platform, it is more comfortable to put your back against the pew/chair and your feet facing towards the platform than it is for any other seated position. With seating pointed towards the platform, eyes naturally go there.
- Sound – By amplifying the human voice you can communicate to the ears of everyone else in the room that you are more powerful than they are. Music, voice, video… all of that done at 80-105 decibels will typically focus all of the audience attention.
- Height – By positioning people on a platform or a stage, especially while you are in the seated position, you are forced to “look up” to whomever is up front. This tells your brain, “that person is in control.“
- Position – As people of faith, we already have an assumption that the people on the platform have some level of authority over us. This is right and good. We ought to give that person our attention.
- Schedule – By controlling all of those factors, you control the schedule. People will stand when you say so, sit, be quiet, and be dismissed. These are cultural cues, defined by mores. We all know, intuitively, that it’s rude to stand and talk to the person behind us when someone with a microphone is speaking in front of us.
From a moral perspective all of these are neutral. Nothing about having or even creating that tactical advantage is either good nor bad. But it is a tactical advantage that most churches utilize on a week-to-week basis. It’s what they know how to do as they’ve copied and refined it over the years.
This has inherent advantages and disadvantages, like all tactics.
- ADVANTAGE: This allows you to start/end services according to a prescribed time.
- DISADVANTAGE: That only works if people show up on time and are willing to stay.
- ADVANTAGE: The person on the platform is rarely interrupted.
- DISADVANTAGE: That only works if the person on the platform doesn’t need to be interrupted.
- ADVANTAGE: As a worship service planner, you can set the theme and manage the content of the service.
- DISADVANTAGE: The service is limited to the planning teams creativity and listening to the Holy Spirit.
- ADVANTAGE: You can build the whole service towards a theme, anticipate a response, and even manipulate the audience psychologically to respond the way you want them to. (Yes, I went there.)
- DISADVANTAGE: There is an opportunity for abuse of power, position, and the temptation to sin is great.
- ADVANTAGE: You can make a worship service clean, orderly, and (for the service planning group) predictable.
- DISADVANTAGE: It’s easy to forget that the Spirit is wild, untamed, living and active in the hearts of the audience.
- ADVANTAGE: The audience knows what to expect from the worship experience.
- DISADVANTAGE: That predictability makes it easy to tune out.
I’d encourage you to continue with this list of advantages and disadvantages in the comment section.
So what’s the point?
The point is that we need to think about these things, be reminded of them, and ask hard questions about our motives. As leaders we know it’s relatively easy to gain a tactical advantage over our audience. But, in doing so, we are also intentionally limiting the input and community aspects of our congregations.
Again, these are morally neutral. But what happens in our heart as we utilize these advantages must be regularly checked.
Historically, the Bible was not meant to be studied in private. At the time of its writing no one had private access to scripture. The New Testement authors couldn’t have even envisioned that one day people would study the Bible privately, it was outside of the realm of possibilities. They would argue “Why would you even want to do that?” The notion of privately owning sacred texts is a 16th century innovation. (Gutenberg, Wycliffe)
It was never meant that the speaker would prepare in isolation and reveal his teaching at a service with such a physical tactical advantage. Even the notion of a personal application and an individual dividing Scripture and then sharing it publicly is not a historical position, but a remnant of the Reformation and Enlightenment. (Evangelicalism is really the perpetuator of this today, most mainline denominations and our Catholic brethren lean on a common lectionary.) Likewise, from a historical perspective few messages could/would ever be shared outside of a small context. In today’s technological age it’s very easy to hear messages that were never intended for your context, and a lack of specific local contextualization is a general assumption for those preparing messages/sermons today.
Again, So What?
For me, as I personally struggle with focus and distraction during worship services, I’m left with this thought about the impact of the modern worship service:
Are attempts to control and limit focus in worship services killing creatively looking at the potential impact of the Gospel message on a community? Research shows that distraction leads to creativity while focused attention leads to mere productivity. And in many churches we are very productive at some things while largely ignoring the major problems our communities face.