Breaking out of stage performance culture

Marko Joensuu         No comments
If the medium is the message, then much of our church today is merely a stage production.

"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. It means that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. So for example, our perception of anything that is shown on TV is affected by the fact that, primarily, TV is an entertainment medium.

And the message we are sending today is that our church services are stage productions. And that is the main reason for the consumerist mindset of the people in the pews.

The prevailing stage performance culture of our society is so deeply rooted in us that we hardly notice it.



Nearly everything we see on TV is carefully stage-managed. Nearly every still image we see is carefully stage-managed. In our culture even toddlers know how to pose.

According to media theorists we live in a media-saturated world where media shapes the way we perceive reality. This complex intertwining of an event and its mediated representation is called ‘hyperreality’, and often it blurs the line between fact and fiction.

What is dangerous is that many Christians confuse their experience of religious hyperreality with genuine spiritual life.

We experience a transition from hyperreality into reality when we walk out of a cinema into bright daylight. We have been immersed in a manufactured emotional experience. As that emotional world is not real, it fades quickly, leaving behind a sense of emptiness.

We experience a transition from hyperreality into reality on Monday morning when the great church experience we had on Sunday has faded, and we feel we have no faith left.

These are both signs of a hangover from manufactured emotional experiences.

Megachurch model affects every church

We can perceive megachurches as the only churches with stage productions, but in fact the prevailing stage performance culture affects all churches: large and small, contemporary and traditional. The only differences are the differences between a Broadway, regional or a village theater experience.

For nearly hundred years, megachurches have affected the church experience of us all.

Aimee McPherson opened the first megachurch modeled after a theater in Los Angeles in 1923. 

Since then, the architecture of most new churches has mimicked the architecture of theaters.

Until the late 19th century, the pulpit in most churches was elevated high above the pews for acoustic reasons. The pulpit restricted movement and it was the invention of loudspeakers and the microphone that “liberated” the ministers to perform on stage.

Today, in many churches, a low stage gives an appearance of informality and intimacy, but this is the carefully stage-managed “intimacy” of a chat show on TV.

Some churches have a rock band, others a medieval choir. But in both cases, the church operates like a stage production.

The theatre setup with a stage is a setup for entertainment.

The medium is the message.

When it comes to speaking style, we have charismatic illusionists and standup comedians producing carefully rehearsed appearances of spontaneity. Then we have academic intellectuals with their presentations. Some love entertainment, others derive their pleasure through their intellect, but what matters is the performance.

Led by stage performers

Our setup favors good performers. It is nearly impossible to become a popular Christian leader, unless you have good performance skills.

The stage belongs to actors. And no one wants to watch a bad actor.

What matters is perceived authenticity. Fake or real, it doesn't really matter. Hyperreality doesn't differentiate between them.

Our stage performance culture is one of the main reasons for the churches' reputation of hypocrisy.

When it comes to stage performance, what matters is appearance, no matter how it is achieved. In media production, many a strong-looking set has been kept together by rather feeble tape.

Uri Geller, an Israeli illusionist, says, "In entertainment there is a kind of acceptability to deceive. It is like there are two Picasso paintings on the wall. One of them is real. One of them is fake. But it doesn’t really matter. There is no harm in that." ("Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, Storyville, 2014-2015")

Hiring the stage crew 

When we look for volunteers, we look for stagehands that can help us off stage and performers that can help us on stage. Who is important in church is determined by their position in our production management system. So, our volunteer programs are driven by the demands of event management rather than by the demands of Jesus.

We are self-satisfied if our church achieves the friendliness of our corner cafe where a barista has been trained to get our name right on the cup. Our churches are superficially friendly, but that friendliness derives from delivering high levels of customer service—not from love.

This works well, as long as our congregation members don’t have any real problems.

Stage performance driven churches are dysfunctional communities that look good as long as everyone, including the audience, plays their part.

Stage performance driven churches are genetically unable to produce disciples. That is not their purpose.

Why do we tolerate that? The reason is simple.

Our business model is busking in a meeting. We gather audiences to a meeting, and they give us a tip. It’s called an offering.

Much has been written and said in recent years about discipleship and church reformation. But until we begin to break out of this stage performance culture, there can’t be any true discipleship movement.

True discipleship has always been firmly rooted in real community.

Breaking out of the media culture’s operating system is hard, and there is not just one way to do it. Certainly, it is not achieved through yet another church program, as programs are the product of the same media logic. But if we want our churches to be real transforming forces in people’s lives and society, breaking out of the stage performance culture is necessary.

Marko Joensuu is an author and journalist who has worked for the last sixteen years in the media and publishing ministries of Kensington Temple, a large multiethnic congregation in London, UK.


You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at facebook.com/marko.joensuu or by visiting markojoensuu.com.
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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