It was a beautiful morning. The kind of morning that warrants a remark.
“Hello Matt, what a sunny morning!”
“Yes it is — lovely”, Matt replied agreeably.
It was a Sunday morning and we had both turned up for church.
Not our church mind you, but one that we had decided to visit on the basis of a friend’s suggestion. The church met in a school, (incidentally like my own church) so there were two smiling greeters standing outside to wave us in.
Enthusiastically shaking our hands, they directed us to two further friendly faces waiting deeper within. Like a spelunking tour guide, one member of the second pair of welcomers led us down a corridor and opened the door into the cavernous auditorium for the service. Meekly, since we were a little bit late, we found some seats near the back.
Now I don’t begrudge the labyrinthine location, I am in favour of churches meeting in schools, community halls, movie theatres, wherever! However, I do take issue with the fact that as soon as the service commenced with their upbeat worship music, they turned off the lights and kept us in the dark until the service ended.
My church companion, Matt, was turned into an inky outline barely distinguishable from the other attendees. In contrast to the darkness cloaking the congregation, the stage was blazingly illuminated with lights that surely cost more than my year’s salary.
Our other sense of hearing was similarly directed towards the front. The music bounced along — vivace — the surround-sound speakers were pumping beefy amounts of treble and bass while the lyrics were projected onto a psychedelic swirl of colours.
In the moment it definitely felt good. But afterwards, I felt like I had been deprived of something. Something I could almost put a finger on but was worried about coming across as hyper-critical or just picking on a church that is “not my type”...
However, I came to the conclusion that there was something being taken away by the lights and the sounds. That, as my senses were being concentrated in one place, they were taken away from other places that they needed to be.
Where they needed to be was with those sitting next to me. Gathering for church is communal which necessitates an awareness of those around me; if our senses are manipulated so that we are isolated from each other, then we lose an essential element of what it truly means to “gather”.
Am I out of touch? No, it’s the kids that are wrong
Now, I want to approach this with a modicum of self-awareness. As my generation is eclipsed by the up and coming generation ‘Zers’ and no longer has a sound claim to be the arbiter of ‘cool’, maybe I have come to a point in my life where I simply appreciate a more ‘boring’ style of church. Maybe, I should simply accept that different styles of church are good for different people.
No, while I have attempted to couch this point in self-effacing meme-humour, in this instance the kids really are wrong. I believe that this issue touches on the purpose of church and for this reason I willingly risk coming across as a crotchety old man.
Ultimately, the reason I take such issue with the congregation being kept in the dark while the stage is lit up is that it turns the congregation into a mere collection of spectators. Being in the dark means that your focus is solely fixed upon the brightly lit stage, you become a spectator — nay it’s worse, you become a consumer.
In our consumerist society, we must combat any tendency which would transform church into merely another item on our shopping list where we evaluate based on “what it does for us” and “how it makes us feel”. Instead of participating in the gathering of believers, your church experience — limited by your senses of sight and sound — merely becomes you and the stage.
Going to church isn’t simply about how well you focus on the message and the singing. If it was merely about being able to focus, then perhaps there is an argument for the elimination of sight and sound distractions. However, our sense of being in community is part of what it means to go to church too.
We go to church to give and receive from other believers.
We are instructed to not give up meeting together but instead to encourage one another (Hebrews chapter 10, verse 25). We encourage one another by the way we react to the sermon. Paul tells us to admonish each other with spiritual songs (Colossians chapter 3, verse 16; Ephesians chapter 5, verse 19). We obey this by seeing and hearing those around us sing during the service — something we cannot do in the dark.
If it comes that I am trying to be critical or look down on the church I visited, please note that’s not my intention. I write because this matters. Our senses of sight and sound are important, they affect us deeply, even perhaps, spiritually. They allow us to be together; gathered as a church on a Sunday.
So, can we leave the lights on please?
Based in Christchurch, Joshua is married to Jacinda and enjoys writing as a way of keeping his thoughts in order. He also freelances. You can contact him via the bird site (Twitter) @I_do_words