In corporate worship God is the audience, opined Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) many years ago.1 It still influences our thinking and our discussion about the core of public worship. Kierkegaard’s statement suggests that people are the performers of worship, and that worship leaders are the prompters of worship. Others have used different ways of communicating similar concepts,2 striving to describe greater participation by believers in their God-centered worship.
Although Kierkegaard’s suggestion is usually relegated to corporate worship, and has also been critiqued for considering God as passive, Scripture seems to offer some support for Kierkegaard’s notion in 1 Corinthians 4:9: “We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.”
Believers should consider their whole life—not just corporate worship—as a spectacle with both horizontal (i.e., regarding our life in this world) and vertical (i.e., in the heavenly realm, including angels) dimensions, suggests Paul. This analogy, drawn from the Greek theater by metonymy,3 shows us the reality of God and the angels’ interest in the believer’s daily activities—including corporate worship—yet not limited to it.
God as an Audience in Scripture
The earliest reference in the Old Testament that shows God’s attentive interest in our lives as a spectacle can be found in the book of Job. Starting in chapters 1 and 2, the dialogues between God and Satan regarding Job’s faithfulness clearly indicate that God was watching over Job and that his life was a spectacle for the heavenly court. The same thought is reiterated in Job’s final conversation with God, who knows every thought and lets nothing escape from His sight (Job 42:2). Job’s final statement is actually an expression of worship of God. We can see here the connection between the worshipper before a God who is surely watching, even if not a passive audience.
A second reference can be found in Deuteronomy 11:11-17 as part of the final admonitions Moses gave to the children of Israel before the conquest of the Promised Land. In these short verses Moses invites the Israelites to obey God’s commandments and to serve Him. This invitation suggests that God, the watcher, is ready to cheer or rebuke. This passage highlights the important notion that worship needs to be translated into acts of obedience.
Maybe the clearest suggestion in the Old Testament of God as an audience can be found in texts describing the Temple activities (see, for example, 1 Kings 8:23-53). During the prayer of dedication Solomon describes God as watching over His people. Solomon asks Him to (actively) answer from heaven when the people in the Temple pray for forgiveness, justice, victory, rain, food, or any other requests. Also, in the daily service in the Temple, the Levites stood with their instruments on the eastern side of the altar (2 Chron. 5:12), while the priests, with their trumpets, would face them on the other side of the altar. At the moment the sacrifices were made, both Levites and priests sounded their music toward the offering, thus giving glory and honor exclusively to God.4 These activities highlight God’s attentive presence at the drama that was presented in the Temple ritual.
The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple in Israelite worship is an important aspect of this model or worship system. This can be seen in Solomon’s prayer in his reference that God will hear from heaven when the stranger comes and prays “toward this house.” However, following the destruction of the Temple and the mission shift initiated in the early Christian community,5 the idea of praying and God watching over a specific place is expanded to any place where “two or three” gather in His name (Matt. 18:20). Thus, God as an audience is not exclusively confined to the Temple, but to any place worship takes place.
Another reference to God as an audience can be inferred from Psalm 33:18: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His mercy” (NKJV).6 The psalmist highlights the idea of God watching over those who fear Him—the believers. The idea of a constant audience (God) is underlined here by the reference to a “single-eyed” God, emphasizing God’s focus. Verse 19, however, ascribes an even more active role to the God who watches: “To deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine” (NKJV). God is watching, yes, but He is an active audience who is involved in the action on the stage of this world.
Psalm 34:7 provides another idea of a God living among His creation and actively supervising His people. The implication of the verse is that God is concerned for His people, watching over them, judging them (that is why He knows they fear Him), as would an evaluating audience in a theater. And again, God delivers His people in an active response to their decisions and cries.
God as an audience also includes the “least” important of the actors on stage. In Matthew 18:10 Jesus expressed this particular facet of God’s concern.7 No one can escape from God; everyone stands before Him.
Beyond the Audience
If we continue to follow Kierkegaard’s concept of God as an audience and the world as a moral theater (including here Paul’s imagery found in 1 Corinthians 4:9), we need to consider carefully the implications of the concept. As part of the cast we continually stand in the limelight on the stage of the great controversy. The idea that God and the angels watch us as if we were a spectacle should make us tremble, because we realize that their holy nature will make our sinful one more evident.
It is unfortunate that many Christian congregations, in theory or practice, have the role of the audience reversed and applied to them, leaving God as the prompter and sometimes as the performer. The “worship experience” that the believer is constantly looking for actually represents a pagan understanding of worship.8
Going to church once a week will not do. The attitude of “getting something out of” church cannot be enough. The actors need to be part of the action. They should no longer be content to be passive recipients but to actively offer worship to the Lord.9 In line with the imagery: performers (or actors) need to prepare and plan for worship (lifestyle) and also need to rehearse (fellowship) with other actors (neighbors) on stage (the world).
Ronald Allen suggests that a God-centered worship initiates an endless cycle: worship-edification-evangelism.10 This cycle stops only when one of the links in the chain is interrupted or ignored. Acts 2:41 and 42 establish this three-phase cycle as follows: Proclamation of the Word (“gladly received his word” [NKJV]), fellowship, and worship (“doctrine . . . breaking of bread . . . and prayers” [NKJV]). Ellen White expresses the same concept using different language: “He who loves God supremely and his neighbor as himself will work with the constant realization that he is a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. Making God’s will his will, he will reveal in his life the transforming power of the grace of Christ. In all the circumstances of life, he will take Christ’s example as his guide.”11 Elsewhere she states: “All who have received the engrafted word will be faithful in giving that word to others. They will speak the words of Christ. In conversation and in deportment they will give evidence of a daily conversion to the principles of truth. Such believers will be a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men, and God will be glorified in them.”12
This cycle, as suggested by Allen, should make worship (either corporate or individual) active rather than passive. The application of this concept suggests that worship will not be confined to a specific date, moment, hour, or occasion: Worship should be accompanied by fellowship and the proclamation of the Word constantly in the life of the believer—rather than an event, it is a lifestyle. If we would just realize that an entire universe is watching us, revival would be a natural outgrowth.
Kierkegaard’s concept of God as an audience is a great point of departure for a biblical reflection on worship. The main issue is that in considering God as an audience, we shouldn’t relegate God to a passive role. Instead, every time we respond to His call to worship, we should come before Him ready for action. Long ago the prophet Micah asked this crucial question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” (Micah 6:6, NKJV).
We bring ourselves completely, the best we have to offer. We continually discover and rediscover Him in His Word, and we are ready to reach out to a world that needs to know the Savior. After all, we are in the presence of the One who long ago left behind the courts of heaven and decided to give it all and become one with us. That truly calls for our utmost for His highest.
1 Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), pp. 180, 181.
2 Take, for example, the comparison that Liesch uses when he links corporate worship to a football game in a stadium, where the worship leaders are the coaches (prompters), the people are the players (performers of worship), and God is the audience in the stands. Cf. Barry Liesch, The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), p. 123.
3 Note the standard lexica on the meaning of the Greek noun theatron, “theater, spectacle.”
4 Lilianne Doukhan, “Music in the Bible,” Shabbat Shalom 49, no. 2 (Autumn 2002): 23.
5 Note Matthew 28:19, where the emphasis is on “go” and not on “come.”
6 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
7 Like Paul, this verse also expresses the idea of angels being spectators.
8 At times the way we pray or express our requests to God sounds like pagan worship. For more on this topic see Roberto Badenas, Encuentros (Madrid: Editorial Safeliz, 1991), pp. 110-113.
9 Emily R. Brink, “Who’s the Host? We May Be Getting Carried Away With Kierkegaard’s Analogy,” Reformed Worship, September 1994. www.reformedworship.org/article/september-1994/whos-host-we-may-be-getting-carried-away-kierkegaards-analogy.
10 Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 57.
11 Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1973), p. 237.
12 Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1967), p. 67.
Abner L. Perales, a native of Mexico, is an active musician and lay minister. At the time of writing this article he was pursuing a Master of Music degree from Andrews University. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona. This article was published July 19, 2012.