Who's the Host? We may be getting carried away with Kierkegaard's analogy

I don't know who first "discovered" Kierkegaard's contribution to the nature of worship, but a lot of people have been referring to it. Here's how it goes: Imagine a worship service as a drama. Who is the audience? Who are the actors? At first glance, most would say that the congregation is the audience, and the minister is the actor. But no—Kierkegaard supposedly claims that God is the audience, the worshipers are the actors, and the minister is the prompter.

That insight comes to the church at a teachable moment. For all kinds of reasons, we are ready to turn tables on a pattern that for too long has turned congregations into audiences. Going to church was going "to sermon." What we "got out" of the service was our measure of a good worship service. But "getting something out of" church is no longer enough. We want to be part of the action. We are no longer content to be passive receptors. Our hunger is growing for the type of service that encourages us to actively offer our worship to the Lord.

The shift is evident in many ways— greater congregational participation, a variety of worship leaders, longer times of praise singing, more contemporary music, a higher level of emotion, and new church buildings with smaller pulpits and circular seating arrangements.

But something is askew. Is God properly relegated to audience? Most definitely not. The Reformed tradition has long talked of worship as a meeting between God and the people of God. We may have been one-sided on the proclamation side, letting the minister act for both God and the people and limiting the congregation to the role of hearers of the Word. But we should not now go to the other extreme and consider God a guest in our midst. I am actually beginning to hear that language—talk of inviting God to come to our worship. The Call to Worship becomes our call to each other, at a human level, and the Invocation a request for God to join us.

Who is host? We or God? Here the psalms help us remember that it is we who enter God's presence. We don't need to invite God; we need to know how to come before him. God calls us to worship "Let us come before him" (Ps. 95), "come before him with joyful songs...Enter his gates with thanksgiving" (Ps. 100). God dwells with his people. We come in response to God's call to us. The simple children's song has it right: "Come into his presence singing Alleluia."

So let's not be so eager to relegate God to a passive role. We do need to become active in bringing our worship to the Lord. Worship leaders do need to learn more about their prompting role. But weVe carried Kieregaard's analogy too far if God becomes our audience. In Scripture, sermon, and sacrament, God is active. Let's come before God ready for that action, and plan our own action asking this question from Micah 6:6: "With what shall I come before the LORD?"

Excerpt

WORD-FOR-WORD FROM KIERKEGAARD

What goes on between the speaker and the hearer in a genuine edifying discourse? It is so on the stage, as you know well enough, that someone sits and prompts by whispers; [he is hidden;] 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.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, pp. 180-81 (SV XI114-15); reprinted in Parables of Kierkegaard, Thomas C. Oden, ed.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.