We've all heard (and maybe generated!) the complaints coming out of Mass. "Lord, if only the guitarists tuned their instruments!" "The sound man must have asleep at his post today. I could hardly hear the homily!" "It was so cold in there I wanted to throw in an extra 5 bucks for the oil bill!" "If Father would just stop telling jokes at Mass, I might feel Jesus in the room!"
As accurate (or catty or snide or "helpful") as these comments might be, they show how much we don't see ourselves as integral to the worship service. Like a meal at a fancy restaurant, worship is provided to us, and we, the recipients, get to judge its quality.
This spectator mentality is one of the by-products of living in an age when we do so little for ourselves. We are fed TV and radio programs and served at drive-throughs and restaurants. Even our education is fed to us by teachers serving curricula we didn't choose or have a voice in designing. We are all output and no input. Sure, we can yell at the TV (my poor wife shoos me out of the room when I groan too loudly at the lovelorn blather of The Bachelorette) but we have next to no say about network programming decisions. Other than deciding which shows to watch, our voices don't matter much to the people who fill the airwaves (and our brainwaves) with tales of love, murder, shock and schlock.
The internet hasn't helped much. True, we now have the opportunity to respond to news stories and TV Shows via comments. But we too often respond with abuse and appalling ugliness. We respond at, rather than to, giving ourselves points for the wittiest or sharpest put-down. We gravitate to websites that promise slapdowns of our enemies. "Watch Jay Z Slap Down Admirer Trying to Flirt With Beyonce" cries
. "Watch a certain president slap down climate change deniers with one simple point" promises
But what happens when that spectator mentality is transferred to our worship lives?
Being a Catholic, I know that being a spectator has a long history. We have been preached at for millennia. And we have been taught at for centuries. You might say that Church has set us up to be passive recipients of information. Catchers mitts of salvation. We certainly have not been taught to be critical of our bishops or theologians or papal teachings. Our role -- to pay, pray and obey -- is deeply ingrained. We may not even be aware that we have bought into it. Even when we no longer have nuns hovering over us to enforce our acquiescence.
As spectators, we expect to be entertained constantly. The church's ministers exist solely to make our lives interesting for the 1 or 2 hours a week we deliver ourselves into our care. Church musicians are critiqued mercilessly for not providing CD quality music -- and only of the variety we personally enjoy. Church decorators are mentally graded on the beauty of the floral displays, banners and the tarnish on the gilded crucifix. Priests are evaluated on the quality, brevity and orthodoxy of their sermons, and on whether they use the microphone well. And on and on.
Not that I'm any better. Believe me, I have been on both sides of the equation. I have railed incessantly about terrible homilies and clueless priests and bishops. And as a musician, I have been regularly skewered and given backhanded compliments by those who didn't think my music, voice or hymn selections were up to snuff. There are times that I think I have been hit by the karma bus when I have a less-than stellar day on my guitar, only to get pointedly complimented for my voice.
People who serve the community are our neighbors and our friends -- co-journeyers in a religion of love for starters. They put the little time they have, and their limited talent, into the work they do. The Bersteins and the Michelangelos can write and paint for the centuries. But we are putting our meager gifts to work for the glory of God and the enjoyment of our friends. It's unkind in the extreme to constantly point our our supposed flaws, especially when our critics have less skill or time to contribute. Save your clever carping for the symphony or Broadway. But cut your local artists a little slack. Don't complain about the weak voices in the choir, join! Don't turn you nose up at a tasteless liturgical banner, volunteer to make one! Don't tsk-tsk your presider's lack of organization, help him organize!
Over time, a church full of spectators will erode the spirit and strength of a community. It demoralizes those giving their time and talent. It drives sensitive people away from service. It is self-indulgent. And it doesn't improve anything.Try to recognize the warning signs in your own community and steer it toward compassion, love and service. Ask the critics what they can bring to the service, aside from their critique. And maybe, slowly, the climate will change. Your presiders, musicians and other ministers will relax a little. And maybe give you the performance you have been looking for!