10 Random Observations about the Church

A row of Church pewsI travel and perform/speak in a different church almost every weekend and have for the past 40 years—that’s a lot of churches. You do the math. And these are churches of all denominations and sizes and colors. Lunch with the pastor after a morning service is typical. I can almost always count on being asked a question like this:  “Chuck, you are in a lot of churches… what are some observations you’ve made about the church today?”

I know they want an answer with some profundity, but I don’t know if my answers will satisfy. So here are 10 random observations about the church, for what they are worth, and in no specific order.  This is not a scientifically researched treatise… just my observations.

1) The medium-size church is disappearing. I am often in church buildings designed to hold 500-1000 people with less than 100 in the worship service. There seem to be churches of under 100, and the mega church with thousands of people, but not much in between—churches of 200-500 are few. Pastors routinely over-estimate their attendance. They will tell me they have 150 people in worship but when I arrive there are less than 100… this happens a lot!

2) Based on my experience it would seem that the average age in most churches today is over 50. There is plenty of gray hair and there are not very many millennials in the pews.

3) The “Meet and Greet” moment in the worship service needs go. Most churches do it and in most churches it feels forced and awkward. I see plenty of meeting and greeting before the service that seems genuine. If your main goal is to make a visitor feel welcome, I think there is a better way to do it.

4) I have rarely visited a church that matches the negative stereotype portrayed in the media or by Hollywood. (That being the extremes of super fanatical or super boring). I’m not saying they don’t exist… but they are certainly not what I have found under the majority of steeples in the country.

5) People really do “play hooky” from church when the pastor is gone. I often fill in for a pastor who is away at a conference or on vacation. I almost always hear the head deacon say, “I don’t know where everybody is today.”

6) Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the church is filled with people who care about the poor and are involved in ministries that are truly striving to make a difference.

7) At the risk of sounding like my parents… your music is too loud!

8) People still sit in the back (maybe because the music is too loud) or are very spread out in the sanctuary, making those 100 people in a space that hold 500 feel even more empty.

9) There is not much being done to encourage and elevate the arts in most churches. Other than the worship team/band, the opportunities for an artist to be involved in the life of the church are very limited. (I’ve blogged about this one before, but I have to throw it in here.)

10) It can be a challenge today to figure out a church’s denominational affiliation. Oh it still exists, but you won’t find it on church signs and in printed material like you used to. This can be good thing. It can also be embarrassing if, say, you are charismatic and think you are in a Pentecostal church, only to find yourself being stared down after raising your arms and shouting hallelujah in a Baptist church.

Like I said, no science here… just some observations from that “Christian Actor Guy!”

Live vs. Video

From my inbox:

“How do you feel about doing live stage performance, that has been carefully, planned blocked, with sets, entrances costumes, lighting etc, and then have video camera crew shoot the whole thing onto three giant screens floating above your head? Do you feel as I do that this pretty much sucks the life out of the art form and the relationship between the actor and the audience – especially since the audience stops watching the stage and watches the giant screens instead?”

1Can you feel the frustration coming from the question? And did you notice that the writer sort of answered the question—assuming I would agree—before I had a chance to answer? In this case the assumption is correct.  And then there is this:

“I have no control over the camera angles, close ups or long shots. The person in the booth who never sees the rehearsals takes it upon themselves to shoot the action on the stage any way they want to and thereby interprets for the audience what they want them to see.”

No question about it, church is not what it used to be.  Technology, like it or not, is here to stay. As much as some may long for the “good ole days” they aren’t coming back when it comes to technology.  Oh, there are the hold-outs—mostly churches that are more limited by finances and know-how, rather than desire. But it is rare indeed to see a church that doesn’t have a video screen and making use of power-point, video, and even interactive question and answers via texting from the congregation.

Technology is great and I love all the things we can do with it. But just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we should use it in every conceivable situation! The drama department—if you even have one—is one area of the arts that has suffered the most… that and add the printers of hymnbooks. Both, it seems have been replaced by the video screen.
Live theater and video are two very different art forms.  A stage play is directed with the understanding that a live audience is viewing the scene. It is up to the director to control the audience’s attention through the dialog, movement on stage, and the lighting. Video is very different and attention is focused through the camera’s lens.  There is no choice for the viewer on where to look, the camera tells you. I have seen some very professional stage plays shot on video… I am rarely impressed.

I can truly identify with the struggle expressed in the email.  I am often in situations where they want to project my image on the screen while I perform. I usually discourage it. The only exception being in the truly large auditoriums that seat thousands, and it is a legitimate concern for everyone to be able to see.  But that is not the case in most churches and in the scenario expressed in this email.

My advice for those that are caught in the middle of live performance vs. video is to make a choice. Is this script better or more effective as a live play or as a video?  If it is video, then go shoot a video outside the service time where the script is set up and shot properly as a video shoot.  And if it is better live, then turn the camera off during the service!

No question, I have a bias. We are inundated with video today. There is a power in live performance. There is a relationship between audience and performer that you can not achieve with video. So I say again, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Do you have any other helps or advice for the writer of this email? How would you suggest the person handle this issue with those making the decisions to shoot the video? 

Baby Talk

It happened again… in yet another church service…. this time it was just as I was setting up a comedic bit in my newest presentation, Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. One of the funniest lines in the whole presentation, wouldn’t be so funny without the set-up.  The sound came from the back of the room—a baby just discovering her voice decided to try it out with some of the most adorable gibberish I have heard, rivaling anything I have seen on YouTube. The audience heads turn almost in unison to catch a glimpse of the little wonder, and I even heard an audible “awww” from a few in the crowd. (Probably similar to what you feel when you watch this popular YouTube video.)

My inner voice is screaming some not so adorable words at “Her Cuteness.”  I am not a child hater, really I’m not.  But this child just did what is referred to in the acting business as “upstaging”—taking attention away from where it is supposed to be directed. The fact that the noises are adorable makes it even worse than if the baby were crying—at least if she were crying the distraction would irritate everyone, not just me. By adding her unscripted voice to my show, she has taken my audience away from me.  It will be hard to get it back, if the distraction continues without intervention, which is too often the case.

When a child cries out it takes the attention away from the speaker/performer and sometimes at the worst possible times—the punchline of a joke, the most important key line in a scene, or the main point of a sermon. Being on stage you can feel the loss. One minute you have the audience right where you want them and the next minute they’re gone. It is not just babies, it could be someone getting up to go to the bathroom, a cell phone, or a sneeze. Obviously some distractions are inevitable and cannot be avoided—I once had a man have a heart attack in the middle of a performance—but others are easily avoided. I don’t mind children in my audience—in fact I love kids! But when they start to make noise and continue to make noise–then just like a New Year’s resolution… they should be carried out!

In the legitimate theater these distractions are not tolerated. An usher will escort the source of the distraction out of the auditorium. In the church we have to be much more forgiving and gracious. I have no control over those instances in my week to week travels, although I do have a standard intro that includes encouraging  parents to take out noisy babies and to tell the audience to turn off their cell phones (See our video No Call To Worship).

I know the arguments: “this is church and this is for family” and “this is how we train up a child to learn appropriate behavior” and “if I can’t have the child with me then I have to miss the service.” I can agree with those arguments…up to a point. I do wish however that people would, just for a moment, put themselves in the performer’s shoes and see it for what it is and does to them.

I am convinced that most people really don’t want to upstage a speaker—but in a church setting we are often afraid to set an expectation or enforce a standard, for fear of offending. However, if people are informed from the start what the expectations are, it can greatly reduce the instances of disruption. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish this:

  • Nursery Service – Obvious, of course. But in many churches I think it is presented more as an option rather than the expected thing. Promote the nursery as THE place for the very young to hang out!
  • Designated Seating – If parents insist on having babies and young children with them in the program, have a designated area near a door for them to sit.  Post a sign or instruct ushers to explain that crying or noisy children should be removed from the a auditorium. Even a parent who is sensitive to this issue compounds the problem if they are seated in the middle  or front of the room.  Not only do we have the issue of the crying baby but also the visibility of the parent removing the child in front of most of the audience.  And then there is the issue of them returning to the original seat after the child has been dealt with—an additional distraction!
  • Usher Power– A few years ago we produced a video titled Blessed Usherance (out of circulation), designed to train ushers and greeters for service in the church. We discovered that very few churches actually train ushers and tell them what to do in certain situations.  I have seen the look on so many pastors’ faces when there is a distraction and the pastor is desperately wishing and praying that an usher would handle it.  Empower the usher with the authority to go to the source of the distraction and politely offer to help them out of the room.  Believe me—95% of the audience is wishing for the same thing!

To be in front of an audience as a actor, teacher, preacher or singer is a hard enough job. Taking steps to minimize distractions will make a better performance/worship experience for everyone!

Do you have a story to tell about being upstaged?  Have a tip you can share to help prevent these things from happening?

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