Saturday, February 27, 2010

Breaking Through the Pastoral Fourth Wall

Over the last several years, I've been a part of the gradual transition of my worship service. When I started at my church, a-ways back in 2003, we did things in an entirely traditional way. We sang from hymnals. The service followed a stock-standard Presbyterian format. I stood behind the communion table, and preached from a written text whilst wearing my Geneva robes and a stole and some Jesus-bling around my neck.

Things have changed, because they had to change. As our incarnational worship has taken the more contemporary form that our young adult majority church prefers, we no longer sing from the hymnal. We don't have a regular paid accompanist any more, choosing instead to rely on an all-volunteer praise team for a significant part of the liturgy. I ditched my robe and stole a few years back, for all but special occasions. I preach almost exclusively from presentation software.

The basic structure of the worship is the same...but the way we do it and the style in which we approach it is utterly different.

As of this month, as we began the transition to using presentation software to guide the congregation through every element of worship, I no longer even bother sitting behind the table. I am no longer physically separated from the congregation during worship. I'm sitting in the first pew now, next to our lay pastor. He works the sound system. I keep those Keynote slides popping up to lead folks through prayers and praise.

In fact, I think it would be difficult for a new visitor to tell upon entering the sanctuary that I was even the Minister of Word and Sacrament in the house. I'm just another guy in the pews, right up until I pick up the laptop, move to the lectern, and start in on reading the scripture and delivering the message.

I'm not sure how many other pastors do this in my denomination. I'm not sitting up on some throne-like chair coolly surveying those who have gathered to hear the authoritative words I have to deliver from on high. I'm not waiting behind the curtains of the Jesus MegaCenter, ready to come before the adoring throngs as spotlights and fanfares announce my arrival. I'm making myself useful.

I wasn't sure how I'd feel about it when we started doing it this way. But honestly, I kinda like it. It gives my role in worship more of a Mark 9:35 feel.


  1. I often think of worship in terms of something on stage, and of the power of using the fourth wall effectively.

    I think of Bible stories that way too. I think most of what is written in the Bible was at one time performed, not just "passed on" in oral tradition, but literally performed, with audience participation expected.

    So for example, when we read Job and know the real reason he is suffering, we would argue with his friends as they try to convince him of his guilt. And we would yell at God for keeping him in the dark.

    Or in Acts, when Paul tells of his conversion, we might argue with his telling, because as eyewitnesses in the beginning of the story, we know he is changing what happened.

    Or we might respond to the short ending to Mark by injecting our own story, by refusing to let the story teller end where he does, thus becoming ourselves part of the story.

    Somehow African American churches tend to do that well. Perhaps because they recently descend from illiterate cultures where oral traditions stayed alive and well till much more recently.

    When the Author climbs on stage and becomes a character in His own Story, that is another way the fourth wall comes falling down.

    For the pastor to break through the Fourth Wall, he has to truly worship with the congregation, and then take the congregation behind the table or the pulpit when he or she goes there.

    Whole congregations can break through the Fourth Wall when exploring the role of Church in society.

    There is MUCH that can be done by tapping in to the Fourth Wall.

  2. @ Jodie: I think your point is an excellent one...the worship that the congregation is engaged in has to be something that the worship leaders are actively participating in. It ain't a's an entire community gathered in shared celebration.

    Shattering that wall in our reading of the Bible is also really important. We aren't just literally obeying it as an authoritative instructional text, or analyzing it from a dispassionate historical-critical perspective. We are participating in it. It is in that Spirit-led participation that those ancient sacred stories find their power to conform us to the Author's grace.