November 2, 2005

The Audience

1545 page8 capHE SECURITY GUARD LED ME THROUGH THE GATE and onto the turf of Dairy Farmers Stadium--home of the National Rugby League's North Queensland Toyota Cowboys.
I surveyed the stands encircling the playing field, feeling dwarfed in the center of the huge bowl. The manicured grass bounced beneath my feet, and the light towers seemed to touch the night sky. I was there for a purpose and knew what I had to do. I felt a momentary thrill as I strode toward the center line.

There's something about such a setting that stirs the blood a little--even though the stands were empty and darkened. In the middle of the gloomy stadium, a small group of people were working in preparation for an event that was to take place a couple days later. They had phoned for pizza--and I was the delivery driver. While they were pleased to see the arrival of their pizzas, it was probably not quite the same atmosphere as would have been created by 30,000 screaming fans urging me on.

It must be an incredible--and somewhat daunting--experience to live one's professional life in the packed sporting stadiums of the world. Every decision is questioned, every mistake is magnified, and every triumph is cause for shared jubilation. For most of us, it is probably a strange mix between a dream and a nightmare. But perhaps it is not so far removed from our everyday experiences. Each of us has a number of significant audiences in our lives.

An Audience of One
A couple of hours every week I shut myself in a small room of a building in a back street in suburban Townsville and talk. While in the room alone and facing a blank wall, I talk to a potential audience of up to 200,000 people. It would be somewhat presumptuous to claim that all 200,000 ever tune in to Townsville's Christian radio station Live FM, but even scaling the listener figures back to the thousands who may tune in on any given day, it would be quite a crowd if they tried to fit into the one tiny broadcast studio.

It can at times be almost as difficult and daunting to address oneself to such a potentially wide variety of listeners in the course of the broadcast. According to those who know such things, the trick to avoiding impersonality is to imagine you are speaking with a friend--to conduct a one-sided conversation for an audience of one. In that way, each of the listeners can begin to feel as if you are talking just to them.

1545 page8I was interested recently to discover this was similar to a Puritan belief of how our lives should be lived: "they lived as if they stood before an audience of One. They carried on their lives as if the only one whose opinion mattered were God."1

It is an attitude presented in the Bible in relation to both our sins and our good works. In Psalm 139 David sets out a detailed account of God's watch over every aspect of our lives--from our formation in the womb to our day-by-day lives, God's "thoughts about me . . . are innumerable" (verse 17).* According to David, we live each day with a loving and all-encompassing audience of One.

Against a background of such a faith and relationship with God, it is hardly surprising that when confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba, David immediately confessed, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam. 12:13). This does not discount the others hurt by David's actions--particularly Uriah and Bathsheba--but is an admission by David of the preeminent importance of his relationship with God. The primary pain caused by David's sin was the harming of his relationship with God. He is even more exclusive in his focus in Psalm 51, reflecting on this same sin: "Against you, and you alone, have I sinned" (verse 4).

Jesus taught a similar thing in Matthew 6, but this time in relation to good things we might do. He talked about giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. In each instance Jesus cautions against doing these for public show and applause. Rather they should be done without fanfare, and "your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you" (verses 4, 6, 18). Again, it is not that what we do has no impact on others: the assumption is we are playing for a much more significant Audience.

Such a realization can have a profound impact on how we live our lives. When David says to God "you have examined my heart and know everything about me" (Ps. 139:1), we flinch--and if we don't, we should. But God is not the audience of the harsh critic, rather He is the loving Father. When we accept what God has done for us in Jesus and His death for us, we are restored to the right relationship with God as His children. We can rejoice with David when he writes, "You both precede and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head" (verse 5). It is this God who loves you infinitely, who watches you intently.

In a world in which we are buffeted by countless voices and judged by innumerable measures, we are reminded there is ultimately one Audience and one Judge who counts. Both the good and the evil we do have a different measure from that of the world around us. When we pray with David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart" (verse 23), we are admitting this audience, but we are also praying a prayer that releases us from many of the external pressures on our lives and choices. As Shakespeare suggested, all the world may be a stage--but the preeminent audience is an audience of One.

A Heavenly Audience
But the Bible also talks of other audiences significant to our lives and our faith. Paul suggests that in God's great plan for this world, carried out through Jesus, His purpose was "to show his wisdom in all its variety to all the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 3:10). It is incredible to think that somehow our relationship with God and how we live our lives can matter somehow to God and to His reputation in the universe.

The audience this verse suggests may be similar to that which figures in the prologue to the book of Job. In those first two chapters we are given a glimpse into the courts of heaven in which God and Satan debate the likelihood of Job's faithfulness. It is upon this basis that the story told in the remainder of the book unfolds.

This is a mystery. In a way it is an extension of the concept of God as an audience of one. When He is questioned by other beings in the universe, He points out our little planet--perhaps even our individual lives--and says something such as, "Look, I've been watching them, and I was right. They have chosen to follow me." Somehow we matter--a lot.

An Audience of Thousands
At the beginning of Hebrews 12 we are urged to "run with endurance the race that God has set before us" . . . "since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith" (verse 1). The huge crowd of witnesses referred to are those of whose stories we are reminded in Hebrews 11--the Old Testament heroes of faith. It is another awe-inspiring audience to which we are accountable.

Some would interpret this verse to mean these saints of old are peering down on us from their mansions--or the fluffy clouds--of heaven. But this verse must be read in the context of the end of the preceding chapter. In a way, despite the recounting of grand Old Testament stories, Hebrews 11 ends on a down beat with the statement that despite the faith of these people of God, "none of them received all that God had promised. . . . for they can't receive the prize at the end of the race until we finish the race" (verses 39, 40). For the writer of Hebrews, the awards ceremony has not happened yet, and those who came before us have not yet received all they were promised.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to this other audience: "a huge crowd of witnesses." It is the metaphor of an audience of countless thousands who came before us in the life of faith, from whom we can learn and form a tradition--in the best sense of the word--to which we are responsible. The emphasis is not upon the witnesses themselves but upon their witnesses--their testimonies. This is one reason that the stories in the Bible are there. They give us insight into the grand history of God, both in the grand sweep of history and in the ordinariness of people's lives. But, as Hebrews 11 reminds us, their lives were not just ordinary lives, because they were lives lived with faith, in the presence of God.

There is great value in developing some appreciation of the work of God in the world. It extends beyond the Bible's record to the past 2,000 years of earth's history and the spread of the kingdom of God across the world. In The Screwtape Letters the correspondent devils refer to the "Church as we [the devils] see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners . . . a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy."2 This is the Christian tradition of which we are a part and from which we can learn much.

1545 page8Examples of this heritage are not hard to find. Despite our alleged secularism, our societies are littered with elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some months ago I attended a synagogue for a Friday night Shabbat service--greeting the Sabbath. Their respect for the Sabbath and God's word was profound. Wandering recently in rural Scotland, I visited a number of ruined Cistercian abbeys, dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The devotion and austerity practiced in these places were so strict as to significantly reduce the monks' life expectancies--perhaps misguided but nonetheless an inspiring example of devotion to God.

It is difficult to enter any of the grand cathedrals of the world without gaining some sense of the majesty of God and the need to worship. Similarly, many of the grand old hymns are filled with glimpses of God and His goodness. Then there are the long lines of Christian writing. From the works of Augustine to the works of the Christian mystical writers of the Middle Ages to the writings of the reformers to Pilgrim's Progress to the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century religious poets to C. S. Lewis to Philip Yancey and thousands between, the library of our Christian heritage is vast and rich. We do not necessarily agree with everything there, but there is much wisdom and goodness to be found there.

We can also learn important lessons from other denominations as they--growing from the same Christian heritage--have wrestled with many of the same issues with which we have problems. There is much to appreciate in our own church's history, and this should not be lightly disregarded or ignored as something we have heard vaguely a hundred times. And we can also learn much from one another, sharing our struggles and our triumphs in the Christian experience.

These are components of our Christian tradition--"the great crowd of witnesses"--of which we as fellow followers of God are a part. They are also our audience as we "run with endurance the race that God has set before us."

An Everyday Audience
There is one more audience the Bible points out to us as we stand in center field in what is increasingly appearing to be the stadium that is our lives. This audience is those with whom we come into contact every day: our families, our friends, our neighbors, our workmates, and anyone else who intersects with our lives, even those to whom we go out of our way to connect with. For most of us, our lives are filled with hundreds of people each day. They are our everyday audience.

Peter urges us to "be careful how you live among your unbelieving neighbors" (1 Peter 2:12). The idea is straightforward enough: we live upright and godly lives and those around us will be influenced "when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ" (1 Peter 3:16). The final part of that verse is significant. We do not just decide to be a good example or witness; it happens "because you belong to Christ." It is God working in us.

Paul echoes this idea. He writes of a dark world filled with crooked people--so "let your lives shine brightly before them" (Phil. 2:15). But this follows Paul's assertion that "God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him" (verse 13). Your responsibility to this audience is fulfilled in allowing God to work through you.

Leslie Williams describes ministry as "what we all do when we pitch in to help with the great festival of God on earth."3 As with any major event, the crowd adds to the atmosphere and excitement of the event itself. However, it is the players, actors, or performers who set the tone of the festivities. "This Little Light of Mine" has been sung so many times it has become a cliché, but it is actually something Jesus taught (Matt. 5:14-16). He also said we are to be the salt of the earth (verse 13), gently influencing our communities and the many lives we come into contact with each day. The people around you watch how you live, how you react, how you believe, how you serve, and how you give. They want to know whether your Christianity makes any real difference in your life.

The Audience
These are the audiences of your life. Looking at it like this can sound overwhelming, yet if these audiences are kept in order, it is simple. Your audience of One--the God who loves you, who died for you, and who wants to live with you forever--is your primary audience. Being true to that Audience will keep us true to all the other significant audiences in our lives. The outcome of "God's great festival on earth" is certain: it is simply a matter of your choosing to be at the postvictory party--and you do not want to be on the sidelines for that.

You began reading this as the audience. But you may have noticed you are not just the audience anymore. It is a bit like the circumstances in which Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)--you suddenly find yourself included in the story. Jesus was asked a simple question--"Who is my neighbor?"--to which His eventual answer was "Go and be a neighbor." You began this article as an audience, but by this stage you will have realized you have an important audience yourself. Be true to that audience.

*Bible texts are from the New Living Translation.

1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (London: Fount, 1998), pp. 210, 211.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942) (London: Fount, 1998), p. 5.
3 Seduction of the Lesser Gods: Life, Love, Church, and Other Dangerous Idols (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997), p. 19.

Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.