An Audience of None


In the 1980’s sci-fi comedy, Short Circuit, a charming military robot character, “Number 5,” is awakened into consciousness by a lightning strike. He fears going back to his military keepers where he will be re-programmed. And so, with help from human friends, he begins his touching effort to stay free. His famous line, repeated often, echoes his drive to understand, “Need input!” He is an example of our modern imagination. We understand ourselves to be like Number 5. We need information and on the basis of that information we make choices. It is not uncommon these days for us to use the language of computer systems to describe our own inner workings. Many liken our brains to sophisticated computers.

Research scientist, Robert Epstein, notes:

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

Likening a human being to a computer works for many people. It does so because we have a distorted sense of how human beings live and function. This distortion, strangely, has its roots in theology.

The Reformation rejected many of the ideas of Medieval Christianity and set in place new models that would become the foundation of the modern world. One of those was to redefine how human beings were to be understood. Essentially, their simplified model was to see us as intellect and will. There were various shades of agreement and disagreement about whether intellect or will was the more important, but no one doubted that human beings were to be approached on the ground of information and decision-making. Church architecture in short measure began to reflect this new understanding. Altars were de-emphasized, often replaced by a simple table. The pulpit became a primary focus, sometimes being moved to the center of attention. Though sacraments remained important (at first), they were deeply suppressed in favor of “the word.” The Scriptures were emphasized but in a new manner. They were the treasure-trove of all information. Believers were to be instructed constantly and urged towards right choices. Christianity quickly morphed into a society of religious morality. This arrangement and understanding are so commonplace today that many readers will wonder that it has ever been anything else.

However, liturgy itself was never meant to convey information in such a manner. It has a very different understanding of what it is to be human, what it means to worship, and what it means to liturgize in the Church. Human beings learn in a variety of ways. Young human beings do almost nothing but learn every waking moment of the day. But they primarily learn by doing (kinesthetic memory) and mimicry (play). It is possible to acquire some information in a lecture format but this remains perhaps the least effective human activity when it comes to learning. It has almost nothing to do with liturgy.

Christianity, prior to the Reformation, was largely acquired as a set of practices. Things that seem rather innocuous (or even superstitious) to the intellectualized/choosing practices of modernity are actually the stuff that constituted, formed and shaped the Christian life. The pattern of feasts and fasts, the rituals of prayer, the preparation for and receiving of communion, all of these, far too complex and layered to be described in a short article, formed a web of nurture that linked the whole of culture into a way of life that produced Christian discipleship. Those who argue that it did not do a good enough job, have nothing to which they can point as an improvement.[1] Instruction and choice have not made better Christians – indeed, they have been a primary element in the progressive secularization of Western civilization.

These two cultures, the classical and the modern, often clash in the context of an Orthodox Church. Having been formed in popular Protestant culture, people frequently conceive of themselves as audience. They arrive. They want to be seated (and there are not always pews in an Orthodox Church). They want a direct line of sight to “what’s going on,” and they would like the service to not exceed their attention span. The same culture forces will urge that children be either removed from the service as soon as possible or carefully controlled so as not to disturb or distract. I have seen more than a few such “Westernized” Churches (or simply “modernized”). The same forces that produced the modernist liturgical reforms among Protestants and Catholics offer the same arguments. It is difficult to resist the demands of highly insistent consumers.

But all of this is a false mindset, a misunderstanding of what we are as human beings and the nature of our life with God. Living as a consumer is a covenant with death. God is not information to be judged and purchased. The complaint about “cafeteria Catholics” raised a few years back by one of the Popes, is simply an accurate description of Church members who have been nurtured in the modern mindset. They “shop” for their religious beliefs, because they were taught to. It has become their mode of spirituality.

Worship, at its heart, is communion with God, a participation in the life of God through offering, thanksgiving, and grateful reception. The Elder Zacharias describes this as “exchange.” It is utterly natural to human existence, and is as available to a child as it is to an adult. It is, at its root, a mode of existence. The Divine Liturgy at its heart, is an exercise in this mode of being. It is not a performance to be watched, but an action in which to be present.

It is worth noting that in the Orthodox Church children receive communion from the very day of their Baptism – thus, their full participation in the life of the Church is taken for granted. This is expressed in different ways depending on the culture, but it is not unusual to see a child, sitting on the floor, quietly playing with a toy during the service. It is a childlike manner of “being present.”

We are not an audience in the Liturgy. We are not gathering information in order to make a decision. We are in the Liturgy to live, breathe, and give thanks, in the presence of God. There is often a quiet movement within an Orthodox congregation. Candles are lit and tended. Icons are venerated. Members cross themselves at certain words, but are just as likely to be seen doing so for some reason known only to them and God. It is a place of prayer, and not just the prayers sung by the priest and choir.

The struggle for a Christian in the modern world is to renounce the life of the audience. Within the audience we experience a deep estrangement from God. We are always “watching” from somewhere else, always engaging the false self with its criteria of judging, weighing, deciding. The world becomes a beauty contest but never a wedding. Modernity creates false distinctions. We are anxious that if we are not “part of the show,” then we are somehow being excluded. “Where are the women?” a visitor asked, commenting on the group within the altar. Ironically, they were spread throughout the Church, participants in the marriage of heaven and earth that is the Divine Liturgy. “Watching” one of their gender “perform” would make none of them more present, only somehow satisfied in the judgment of the audience that some abstract sense of inclusion had been satisfied.

The false consciousness of the modern world can never be happy nor satisfied, for the heart longs for participation and communion, not for the perfect performance. The voice of the choir swells early in the service, not with the sound of “watch this!” but with the voice of the Church, “Come let us worship and fall down before Christ!”


[1] Worth noting is this quote from Eamon Duffy’s article, “The End of Christendom“: … medieval Christianity had been fundamentally concerned with the creation and maintenance of peace in a violent world. “Christianity” in medieval Europe denoted neither an ideology nor an institution, but a community of believers whose religious ideal—constantly aspired to if seldom attained—was peace and mutual love. The sacraments and sacramentals of the medieval Church were not half-pagan magic, but instruments of the “social miracle,” rituals designed to defuse hostility and create extended networks of fraternity, spiritual “kith and kin,” by reconciling enemies and consolidating the community in charity.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


28 responses to “An Audience of None”

  1. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    ‘The world becomes a beauty contest but never a wedding.’

    Perfectly put.

    And so we ‘short circuit’ ourselves each day.

  2. Tom Avatar

    We’re Catholic, not Orthodox, but have been to Orthodox divine services a number of times. In our Latin rite, every Sunday, we almost always attend Masses that are considered to be quite “traditional,” and are really quite beautiful – often the best of the Western liturgical tradition (think, Ordinariate Divine Worship with 16th-century polyphony, Gregorian and Anglican chant). No complaints.

    And yet, despite their far less pervasive exposure to Eastern worship, what my 2-year-old will randomly begin chanting is not Thomas Tallis, but an endless series of Kyrie Eleisons, or “Rejoice O Bethany,” which he calls “my favorite.” He, and my older son, age 4, will practically beg me to let them kiss the few icons I have managed to acquire for our home (in addition to our more standard Western statuary and devotional art). They imitate metanoias with a natural flow that almost makes me envious. It is both amazing, awe-inspiring, and frankly, scary sometimes.

    Thanks for another great post, Father.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I love to watch the “cradle” (literally) Orthodox in my parish. It has been a consistent witness to God’s wisdom revealed in the Tradition. Children “get it” quite naturally. It’s the false consciousness of adults that needs correction.

  4. Byron Avatar

    Truly wonderful, Father!

  5. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I believe that any of us who have been Orthodox for some time have seen this natural flow (thanks Tom) of children in liturgy. I often see little boys, not much more with toddlers, walking around and “censing” people with their prayer rope, and as often, people reciprocating this blessing of the innocents with a bow. It must bring a smile to Christ. It touches my heart.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course, if we are nothing more than intellect and will free to choose there is no need of God, an incarnate Savior or even salvation itself.

    The Cartesian blasphemy “I think, therefore I am” despite its internal logical falsehood becomes the norm and man the measure of all things.

    Secular utopias promise infinite improvement while delivering destruction, death and destitution except to those more equal. All the while, like parasites, drawing what energy they have from the Christian life the creators of utopias despise until their project falls to pieces as the weight of the rotting corpses of those they have led to destruction become too much to bear.

    We tend to think we are immune, but we are discovering we are not. “All our yesterday’s have lighted fools the way to dusty death”. I am the greatest of fools.

    Only in Christ Incarnate and His Cross is real life and hope.

    Lord have mercy on me and forgive my sins of ommission and of participation in the way of death.

  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Excellent post Father. The very best days of worship are for me the times that everything falls into place without having to concentrate on the actions of worship and time becomes irrelevant. It is an experience of just being present and wrapped in the beauty of the liturgy and the joy of communion with the Lord.

  8. Lenore Wilkison Avatar
    Lenore Wilkison

    Eye-opening. This explains some of the trouble I have with attending in church or even in my own prayers.

  9. Jacob Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Great post! While I found the entire post profound I must also say that I kept coming back to your words at the beginning: “The Reformation rejected many of the ideas of Medieval Christianity and set in place new models that would become the foundation of the modern world. One of those was to redefine how human beings were to be understood.”

    A couple thoughts:
    1) I think this redefinition you propose is true and it shows up officially in the Augsburg Confession with it’s rejection of the worship or invocation of the saints. Not only a redefinition of humanity while living, but what death means for the person who is united to Christ. While the invocation of the saints was apparently seen as normal and natural, something changed to make that communication seem doubtful at best and harmful at worst.

    “Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession – Of the Worship of Saints they teach that the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling, as the Emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. 2] For both are kings. But the Scripture teaches not the invocation of saints or to ask help of saints, since it sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Propitiation, High Priest, and Intercessor. 3] He is to be prayed to, and has promised that He will hear our prayer; and this worship He approves above all, to wit, that in all afflictions He be called upon, 1 John 2:1: 4] If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, etc.”

    2. I suppose it makes sense to pick the Reformation as the starting point for the redefinition of humanity that you suggest. I’m wondering though where the seeds of the change were first sown. The Enlightenment? Kind of like the redefinition of marriage in the US didn’t just happen, the seeds were sown long before with other changes to the institution of marriage and they bore their fruit. So, what are the roots that lead to such a profound change in the understanding of humanity at the Reformation?

    That’s the question your post has left me pondering.

  10. John Timothy Avatar
    John Timothy


    Thank you for your comment. When I read it the these words of the Lord popped into my mind, “Except you become as one of these little ones….”

    John Timothy

  11. robhall Avatar

    “It is not a performance to be watched, but an action in which to be present.”

    Boy howdy, isn’t that a tough one. One of my greatest struggles in life generally – to just be present NOW – translates all too easily to the experience of Church. Silly questions like: “How am I supposed to get anything out of it when it’s the same every week?” have been a common refrain in my family. All the while, we receive the greatest gift ever given. Funny how our modern minds just can’t comprehend it. I’m grateful, however, to be in a parish where I have the space to let go of some of this nonsense. I don’t have to sing the best, my kids don’t have to be perfect altar boys; heck, our attendance doesn’t have to be perfect either. We can just be.

  12. Jonathan Avatar

    When I first started attending Orthodox services with my parents (who converted and were baptized 5-6 years ago), it felt different in more ways than can be put into words. I have done some research on Orthodox beliefs on my own and don’t feel right returning to the Catholic church I attended because the last few times I went something felt… missing. But I still feel out of place at an Orthodox service. Perhaps next time I go, I’ll try to keep this article in mind and see if things change.

    Excellent (and much appreciated) post, Father! 🙂

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Enlightenment post dates the Reformation. The book I recently referenced, The Unintended Reformation, by Brad Gregory, does a good job of gathering up the various strands that contributed to the Reformation. While an Orthodox Christian would have many debates with the Western culture synthesis that preceded the Reformation, he would agree with many aspects of its worldview, for it shared many aspects of the Classical world before it.

    It’s worth noting here that though the Reformation introduced new ideas, it did not sweep away the ideas that came before. There are still plenty of sacramental Christians, and Christians who invoke the saints, etc. The material success of Protestant countries, particularly the US, has, however, been a tremendous engine promoting the ideas that came into existence at the birth of Modernity. It’s good for business. And it’s tragic to say that…but it’s pretty much that simple.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s strange who existing just isn’t enough. I remember some years ago being at the bed of a dying man (I was serving as a hospice chaplain). He had, at best, three weeks left to live. He told me, “I would give every minute I have for the next few weeks just to have one afternoon to walk healthy in the woods.”

    It struck me to the core. I started changing my routine and would stop some each day to just walk a bit, to be present. It was my gift to my hospice patients. Being present honored their lives.

    Breathing seems so boring until you can’t.

  15. Harold Mat Matson Avatar
    Harold Mat Matson

    When Nick was a kid working with me at the car dealership, he had a standing story about his Greek Orthodox Church. He said,”during the service last Sunday, the Priest called out ‘Yea verily,” . ……….I thought he had said,”Leave early”……so I got up and left…….😇 ……..ha ha ha

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “How can we get anything out if it if it is the same every week?”

    I would ask, How can we get anything from it if it changes every week?

    But the secret is that while it does not change much it is different, often profoundly so every week.

    Being in the Divine Liturgy is about the only place left to me where there is sanity. I can be in pain, exhausted by the insanity of this world and have to sit through Liturgy with my brain numb. Praying for mercy…and somehow mercy is given, despite my almost moribund state. Strength is given, especially when my Lord allows me to partake of His Body and Blood, unworthy though I am.

    My lovely wife beside me often looking illumined by some inner light though she, too is often in physical pain.

    The world is not changed, but somehow, incrementally, I am. It is a miracle. Each time I stand before the Lord or even drag myself into His presence and sit, I am changed, even when I resist.

    Interestingly enough theatre, in its origins, was participatory community prayer, often liturgical in form. Spectators were not part of what was going on, nor could they understand.

    About the only place one can find that any more is in Native American “dances”. Interestingly enough they have much the same ambience with the children as described here for children in the Divine Liturgy. Those dances, too, are always the same, yet always different.

    The central and compelling heart beat of the drums, the dancers and those attending connecting with that heart of the Spirit, with the earth and each other sing prayers of thanksgiving for bounty, penance and peace.

  17. kLutz Avatar

    This past weekend the Holy Trinity Parish was on retreat at a local Benedictine monastery. Typically the children and their partake of the Eucharist immediately after the clergy and proceed to partake of snacks, teachings, etc. outside the temple. This Sunday they went outside to the adjacent courtyard which has a Christus statue. Much to my surprise one of the young boys who is notoriously undisciplined, perhaps due to an absent father, performed a solitary metanoia, probably unnoticed by any other but God. I am sure he had no clue I saw. And I melted: I am no less needy than that Child of God. He has, in spite of the developmental handicaps of his situation, an experience of God that is certainly attempted, in the years to come, to be negated by this ‘modern project’. Yet, as we maintain our experiential foundation of Christianity, and offer more and greater opportunities for such, he may develop a shield against the darts of of the adversary, in this day and age of idolatrous individualism.
    May it be blessed.

  18. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen: It is interesting that, not only is the brain not a computer, but also that memory is not unique to the brain alone. Memory issues from the entire human person. For example, recipients of organ transplants often experience secret esoteric memories of those whose organs they now have.

  19. Joan Moulton Avatar
    Joan Moulton

    I have been Orthodox for 45 years now and I am still learning how to be in the Liturgy. I am now learning not to anticipate the end of the Liturgy. Thank you for all of your writings.

  20. Carolyn Clark Avatar
    Carolyn Clark

    Dear Father, This is a wonderful article. I’m a convert to Orthodoxy from Protestantism and your article so perfectly describes what a Protestant expects from a Sunday service—to learn, to be informed. The thing that I like best about being Orthodox is that the Orthodox Church is first and foremost about worship. We go to church to worship. There is so much to enjoy and experience, so that for a couple hours we can “lay aside all earthly care that we may receive the King of all.”

  21. Kristin D Avatar
    Kristin D

    When I began your article I feared the worst, that you would agree with the computer model of the human being. You can imagine my relief as I continued reading!

    New to Orthodoxy, having only attended the Divine Liturgy once, I can see how Protestant services are deeply wanting. Everything you say in this article seems true of them.

    I recently left a reformed church. I am beginning to wonder, as we approach Reformation Day, how much of the admiration of the reformers boils down to idolatry. I have only begun to encounter criticisms of the Reformation. Last week it occurred to me that Reformation Day, in the end, celebrates a time when the church became deeply divided…again…and set the stage for multiple divisions, confusion, and isolation. It makes me so sad.

    I am not sure how it all fits together…east, west, liturgy, tradition, etc. I am finding myself saying, ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,’ so often now. My heart aches, but I have hope that the Lord directs my steps, even though I take them hesitatingly or at times rebelliously. I am so grateful to find believers in all sorts of places, too.

    Thank you for your article. It is lovely to me.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand the sadness you experience as understanding unfolds for you. I pray that God will turn your mourning into dancing as you see what He has preserved for us in this day!

  23. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Father bless, I keep returning to this blog post because it has resonated deep within me. My faith has been waxing and waning this past year or so but the way some things have been, and happened, of late make me recognize that I must have at least a little bit of faith, sometimes, even if I don’t understand it all very much. I don’t pray very well, but I can walk (your thoughts above about taking a walk when possible spoke to me) and I can pray when I walk.

  24. Stephen Smith Avatar
    Stephen Smith

    Dear Father,
    As a former Anglo-Catholic priest I understand what you’re saying and tried to instill those ideas in my parishioners. I have no sea whether it worked or not, but my conversion to Orthodoxy and participation in the Divine Liturgy as a layman has made life so much easier and fulfilling.
    I enjoy your blog immensely.

  25. MidwesternEasterner Avatar

    The medieval West wasn’t perfect, though. In fact, I recently read an article (by a Protestant author) suggesting that the “Hillsong model” of contemporary worship is in some ways a lot like late medieval Catholicism (immediately prior to the Reformation). Both reduced ordinary believers to the role of spectators, and turned worship into a “performance” rather than a shared work in which the entire congregation participates. (Keep in mind that some Western churches didn’t even let the laity partake of the Eucharist!) In both cases the church was divided into spectators and performers.

    And if you look at the way a lot of evangelical churches are now run, it’s almost like feudalism with the pastor being a king or something. (Rather than Christ being the King). The blog, The Wartburg Watch, has covered a lot of examples of this phenomenon.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but I think Protestant authors usually have no idea what they’re talking about when they examine Catholic (or Orthodox) worship – certainly not in the Middle Ages. The reason is that they lack the consciousness of someone who has actually experienced it – and generally presume that the consciousness of those involved is like their own, when it decidedly is not.

    I do not think the Medieval believer felt themselves to be watching a performance at all. The Orthodox often have a service in which the priest is not seen for good portions of the time, and his prayers are not often audible, etc. And yet, we don’t experience this as being uninvolved at all.

    Rather, it’s experienced as the priest doing what he’s supposed to be doing (which we cannot do directly). And we are doing what we should be doing – which can be any number of things. I daresay that Medieval Catholic congregations were far too busy praying their rosaries, lighting candles and such like to be terribly concerned about what the priest was doing – except at certain crucial moments for which bells alerted them to pay attention…and they did.

    Protestant Churches assume that the congregation is an audience and the criticisms affirm that one way or another. The consciousness of medieval Catholicism and Orthodoxy through the ages has nothing of the “audience” within it. But I would not expect him to know that or to understand it.

    The modern liturgical movement adopted a false consciousness – drawn from a lot of sources, mostly Protestant and psychological – in which the goal of everybody “participating” in the drama, etc. became important. It’s created silliness for the most part and contributed to the liturgical poverty of much of modern Catholicism (there’s a healthy backlash beginning already – more power to them).

  27. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    To affirm what you are saying Father, I just read an article about “5 Habits That Kill Church Growth.” One of the habits is not knowing the “audience” that the preacher is attempting to reach. When I was in a Protestant Seminary I was taught how to cater to the needs of my “audience” and attract them to my “message.” They gave me hints in how to build in the “WOW” factor into my sermons. It is all about marketing.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Protestant critique also is a mischaracterization of the nature of the service going on. Sacramental services necessarily involve the offering of prayers for the parish (present or not) by the priestly celebrants.

    That is not even to address the vast difference between the interaction of “audience” and “performer” that exists between medieval times and now. At that time there was not the demarcation between the audience and performer either physically or emotionally as now.
    The proscenium arch and the removal of the performance from the audience did not begin until the 16th century. IMO it is evidence of the development of the two storey universe.

    Even now there is an interaction between actors and audience in live theatre that goes beyond being passive observers. It is only TV that creates that dynamic and to a certain extent film.

    Protestant services I have attended lack that dynamic of interaction. It is a shame.

    It would be an extremely obtuse priest who was not aware at some level of the prayers and supplications of those whom he is leading and for whom he is making the offering.

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