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Church Beyond the Fourth Wall

October 8, 2010

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    October 8, 2010 8:29 am

    Wes, I really enjoyed your post, and was particularly impressed that you managed to condense such a large amount of material into relatively few words! I’ll pose the question i’ve posed before as a way of kickstarting some hopefully incisive discussion about your thoughts – what do you mean by church?

    I thought your capitalization (Church) and non-capitalization (church) was potentially fruitful.

    Also, how do we think about what it means to be part of a missional focused “interactive” church? is it just a different way of thinking about sunday services, weekly activities, or are you proposing something far more radical in terms of a re-imagining (as i suspect you are) when you say “everyday life” – how do we equip ourselves or “train” as it were for this newly imagined vision? or can you?

    • October 8, 2010 10:12 am

      Thanks for the questions, Anna. By church, I mean the people of God. I am glad you mentioned this, because I not referring to a church building or just what happens when Christians gather for worship on Sunday. I am referring to the people of God who participate in God’s mission among the world.

      As a result, I think what it means to be a part of this interactive church is very relational and hospitable toward outsiders, organising every aspect of our lives so that those outside the church are welcomed as guests. This would include our worship services but every other area of life as well. I think “training” or preparation for this way of life begins with a vision for our mission as Christians, and that mission is not an optional extra tacked on to the Christian life but is at its very core. In addition, I think we need to develop an attentiveness and awareness to the needs of those around us, mostly by building relationships. And Christians need to be encouraging and admonishing one another to move outside our comfort zones for the sake of God’s mission. All of this and much more is what I think is involved in performing interactive church.

      • Anna permalink
        October 14, 2010 9:43 am

        Thanks Wes. I wonder whether this training is purely try and fail or whether we need to be thinking about it as some kind of apprenticeship (but not indenture…). I’m just searching for some more concrete ways to think about the training aspect of this.

  2. ccematson permalink
    October 8, 2010 2:51 pm

    I think you’ve got something here. No comments at the moment, just want to ponder.

  3. October 10, 2010 7:30 pm

    This feels oddly apt in relation to today’s lectionary reading: Jer 29.1, 4-7. Taking down the forth wall is a way of learning to dwell in exile in a community you may not fully understand, and certainly cannot control, but in which our good is bound to the good of others.

    • October 10, 2010 8:42 pm

      Thanks for the connection to the lectionary, and a wonderful example of interaction with others reimagined as guests.

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