Church Beyond the Fourth Wall
The playwright and director Peter Brook once stated: “The only thing that all forms of theatre have in common is the need for an audience.” When it comes to the role audiences play in theatrical performances, however, there are vast differences. On one end of the spectrum (as illustrated below), audience members are spectators or observers in traditional theatre settings, coming to a performance for a certain kind of personal experience or benefit. This position maintains the immovable and impenetrable “fourth wall”, separating actors and audience. On the other end of the spectrum, various forms of experimental theatre eliminate the distinction and fourth wall between actors and audience members. A mediating approach in which actors and audience interact while remaining distinct is interactive theatre, where the audience reacts, responds and even participates in the theatrical action as a guest. As the diagram below illustrates, each form of theatre has a distinct way of enacting its mission in relation to the audience, whether a mission to the audience on the other side of fourth wall, a mission with the audience where no fourth wall exists, or a mission among the audience were a permeable fourth wall enables interaction while maintaining the distinction between actors and audience.
What happens if we apply this spectrum to the church’s mission? Could this shed some new light on the way in which Christians conceive of our relationship with those outside the church? To explore this further, I invite you to imagine the church as a company of actors who are performing a play for an audience, those who are not a part of the people of God. If we imagine the church and the church’s audience in this way, we can chart different perspectives on the relationship between the church and its world audience similar to the theatrical spectrum.
One the one hand, a traditional view of church posits a strong distinction—a strong fourth wall—between the ecclesial Company and an unbelieving audience. In this view, the church has a mission to outsiders while maintaining a strong distinction from them. On the other hand, many experimental forms of church tear down the fourth wall separating the church and those outside the church, claiming that everyone is an insider and a member of the Company. Consequently, the church has a mission with the rest of humanity, working toward the same goal. A mediating position is the church as interactive theatre, where a distinction exists between the Company and the audience viewed as guests rather than outsiders or insiders, with the church enacting its mission among these guests.
What are the practical implications for thinking of the church’s mission as interaction among unbelieving guests? Here are a few suggestions:
Mission: The mission of the church as interactive theatre is to incorporate unbelieving guests into the theodrama as Christians, to have them adopt the Christian story as their own.
Means: The means of incorporating unbelieving guests is through relational interaction. This interaction is an improvisational process in which Christians respond with Spirit-filled wisdom to the offers of guests.
Method: More specifically, the method for effective relational interaction is by building and enacting believable characters. This involves Christians putting on the character of Christ and playing this role in an authentic, believable way so that guests are drawn into the story.
Mise en scène: The set, or the mise en scène, for this interactive performance is not just church buildings but the stage of everyday life.
Overall, I am suggesting that interactive theatre provides a compelling model by which to re-imagine Christian mission, not as a mission to unbelievers through an impenetrable fourth wall or a mission with others where no fourth wall exists, but a mission among and in interaction with unbelieving guests in the context of our everyday lives. In order to participate in God’s mission, we need to take church beyond the fourth wall.