"Setting the Stage" Part 1

The following first appeared in Let's Worship a publication of LifeWay Church Resources. _____________________________________________

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"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers."Acts 2:42

"Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the earth."Matthew 28:19-20

Being and doing church can all be summarized in these two scriptures.

Now that you have jumped into this article and read the first few lines you are probably asking yourself; 'what do these scriptures have to do with worship staging?'

It's about church...about the great commission, about the public gathering and everything the worship planners and facilitators do must support both the Acts and Matthew passages. That's why we have decided to invest in a great sound system, an effective light system, a clear and easily seen projection system that is why we decide to change the look of our stage regularly...to help make clear the message of the gospel and encourage others to engage in worship.

Changing Church Architecture

In past centuries and generations architecture was used to focus the attention of the worshiper on biblical symbols of worship: the Word, the Table and the Cross. The Table was central, the Cross prominently displayed and the outline of a cross was even used as the layout for the building itself. Those leading worship, other than when serving communion, were given places away from center stage.

There has been an evolution of worship architecture through the generations where focus is given to the center of the platform finding there the choir, and central pulpit. What led to this change was born in the revival movement of the early 1800s where God used ordained men to proclaim the truths of His Word. It is not that the men were the central focus but they were placed in the center of the stage out of necessity so that all in the room would have equal opportunity to hear.

As places of worship continued to evolve we begin to see the influence of theater. It is through this process of worship center evolutions that technology and theatrical devices were used to make sure the messenger was seen and heard.

The reality of today's church architecture is that there are no set guidelines, just like there were no set guidelines for the home churches in the book of Acts. Today churches meet in a variety of buildings from store fronts to rented movie theaters, from gymnasiums to grand cathedrals, from rectangular shaped, all face forward spaces to the fan-shaped theater inspired rooms and everything in between. Each mentioned worship space has advantages for corporate worship. Without much invitation we could find passionate worshipers and leaders who could argue for anyone of these spaces.

Unchanging Mission

However, no matter the place of worship or the design of the space, the mission for the gathered church is the same: Christ-followers gathered to learn of God from the teaching of His Word, fellowship together, pray and leave motivated and empowered to carry out the mission of spreading His message to the nations.

For the last 30 years I have led worship in a variety of places designated for worship. First it was the all face forward look at the stage space, then it was the fan shaped room where one side could see the other and all the stage and for the last 15 years a gymnasium with a fixed and elevated stage.

With good intentions all these places had been designed by architects and well-meaning church members, but each had its flaws as related to encouraging worship. In one room no attention had been given to site-lines so people in some places had to look around a pole to see what was going on. In another the designer missed the fact that there were three sets of parallel walls adding atrocious sound reflections. And in another space the colors chosen were trended in their day but quickly turned from trendy to 'pink.' All of these places of worship had stages designed with spaces for the instruments, choir, pulpit and miscellaneous items and most became immovable objects. Immovable often became unsightly or the focus of attention when it wasn't suppose to: the half empty choir loft, the organ bench littered with music, etc.

We have faced many of the same problems in the place I now serve. We have battled the trendy color, the immovable choir loft and other problems all of which became things we tried to ignore. The reality, they became a distraction to the message.

Here is a philosophy we now go by: * Make things go away that don't need to be seen. * Bring things into focus that are important.

Trading Distraction for Enhancement

The stage of any large concert today is a revolving panorama of scenes created out a bazaar array of materials and lit by a mega wattage of lighting instruments. The creativity flies from the stage and the reason...get our attention and help connect us with the content. Isn't that the same reason the great cathedrals were built in the shape of a cross and windows were amazing art depicting the story of God? If mainstream artists, musicians and communicators are using changing stage designs to get their message across shouldn't the church be open to using the same tools. God is the ultimate creative, He is the creator. It hasn't been too many years ago that the church took the advances of the theater and concert sounds systems and implemented them in places of worship. So is it time to embrace other artistic communication tools?

At this point in the article you may be trying to decide if you will continue to read. You may be thinking there is no reason to continue because your church isn't going to change the stage because we want to keep it that way. Before you discount the thought of reviewing and retooling your current stage I submit that you are already following some of the concepts for getting people connected in worship, it just may not be in the avenue of the stage.

You are thinking the same as our team when you: * make the worship space a comfortable temperature * provide hymnals at each seat * make the lights in the worship center bright enough to read from a hymnal or bible * update your sound system to the best the budget allows * change the pulpit flowers to a fresh arrangement

Thinking about the stage and what will enhance the message just takes these thoughts to a different level. The question then is 'how far do we go and what elements we should we use to encourage our faith family to connect with God in worship?' That has to be answered within the context, history and architecture of the local congregation. For some congregations it could be as simple as taking a look at the stage and removing clutter, for others adding iconic religious symbols, for others replacing an insufficient sound system and for others maybe it is adding creative backdrops to the stage. The priority for each should be the same: encouraging God's people to connect to His story in worship.

For our congregation we have given careful attention to our sound and light systems and most recently our stage. It is not about just being creative but more importantly communicating the message and for us the focus needs to be on: * those leading worship * the projection screens * the pastor

So...we give attention to our worship stage design.

Clear The Canvas

The first focus we made in our quest to give attention stage was to clear the canvas. What I mean by that was we remove immovable objects or transformed them into movable objects. Although this is simply stated it was the hardest part and it was gradual. The first step was to wipe the color palette clean by transforming our back stage wall from the 'trendy' color to a non-color, black. We accomplished this by hanging a 'black' curtain. This one change allowed us to purposefully focus attention on those presenting the message rather than the color of the wall. (Info: we first introduced the curtain for a weekend as rented equipment for a musical production. It was such a dramatic change that a short introduction allowed us to 'break the ice' and then the installing was not a great shock.) (Hindsight: black works well, but an afterthought is that a dark gray or other neutral color might have worked better. A consultation from a theater staging company would have been beneficial.)

The next step in our progression was to begin to move the 'fixed' instruments and even choir area to new positions on stage. This was a lot of work especially the 'seated' choir risers. Even though moving the choir risers was time consuming it gave our congregation a new look at the stage even giving them reason to concentrate on the elements of worship as they had to look to different spaces.

The final step in the progression to a blank canvas was the transition from seated choir risers to standing choir risers. Through the early stages of my career I have always been a proponent of having all of the choir stay on stage during the sermon. The reason: be worship leaders through the whole service, including being an example of how to participate in worship through the sermon. As I examined closely the view of the congregation there was a realization that it is hard to focus on one person when there is a group. For us the solution was to move the choir from seated risers to standing risers and have them leave stage just before the sermon. Having the choir behind the pastor throughout the sermon was a far greater distraction than having the choir exit the stage. (Info: we have become creative on how we make this transition work. Some options we have used are: prayer, video intro to the sermon, and instruments do a reprise of a portion of the last song.)

The stage is a blank canvas...now what?

For quite a while we struggled with what to do: * do we dress the stage thematically to go with the sermon series? * do we decorate it using home elements: plants, candles, etc? * do we add bright colors or muted ones?

And...we made many mistakes before realizing it wasn't about the 'cool' factor but about the message: * draping fabric that without intention resembled clothing...I won't give details here * too many elements on stage * going for a very contemporary look when the congregation was not ready for it * putting elements directly behind the pulpit area that would clash with any clothing color

Now we look at it this way. * look at the stage a one big canvas * take designs to the ceiling to add expanse to the scene * what will brighten our stage * what works as a pleasingly aesthetic background behind the pastor * less color is better, allow the lights to create color * use easily to get materials that are budget friendly

Message - Driven

Through our changes we got back to the guiding principal: draw attention to those delivering the message so the message can be communicated effectively, our thought process changed adding guardrails to our creativity. The message of corporate worship is re-telling the story of God and through doing so bring glory to Him and encourage the body of Christ. This is done through active participation by all. No matter what we decide to put on stage it has to take second place to the message. So we keep things to the back of the stage and use what we have created as a backdrop to help those presenting and leading in worship be seen. We look at the whole stage as the canvas and then create a big picture. When we think this way we get picture of grandeur instead of small snapshots. In the a future blog post we are going to take a look at some of the stage designs that we have used in our local church, give you some resources for finding designs, introduce you to some everyday materials that work well, explain the design process and show demonstrate how to budget for the process. I wonder sometimes if God created the wonders of the earth, the changing of the seasons and the expanse of the sky just to grab our attention and being us back to His message, "glorify Me." Should we take His cue and make changes to make the message clear?

I never dreamed that leading a team to come up with weekly or monthly creative stage designs would be a part of my ministry. It is not something they teach in seminary but neither are the ins and outs of a good lighting or sound system. The reality is these are great tools for communicating God's story the Gospel. And no matter the congregation we can all step back and look at our stages and make action item lists of things that will keep distractions away from and communicate more effectively the message.

What is best way for your congregation to clearly present the message of Christ? You have to answer that, but a more defined part of the question should include: "does the stage of our worship center help or hinder the communication of the Gospel?"

We need all types of Christ-centered churches; those with great pipe organs, the store front gathering, the county seat traditional and the theater influenced contemporary, because it is not about conformity it is about the message. Those who are distracted by moving lights and embrace traditional and therefore will hear the message more clearly in a traditional setting. And those who love the contemporary would tune out the traditional. However your worship space is designed and decorated let do everything in our power to keep the distractions away.

I have been known to move around all the furniture in my home, just ask my wife. I just get bored with seeing the same elements in the same order day after day, week after week. My team and I could change the staging in our worship space for the same reason...we just get bored with the look...but that's not good enough. It is about making the gospel heard and seen.