A video has been making the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere. It shows a trio of ballet dancers giving a performance during an offertory at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller is the founding pastor (as mentioned here). You can watch it here if you’re so inclined, but my remarks don’t necessitate it.
There’s a lot that can be said about it, a lot that should be said, and a lot that has been said. However, I want to briefly mention something I haven’t read anyone else say.
This performance would only be possible in a church building with a stage. Your traditional Reformed church building with a large pulpit occupying the center of attention would never accommodate a ballet trio. However, these days it has become virtually a given that any new church building must have a stage. How did this happen? You can pretty much blame a Canadian preacher lady.
But before I get to that, we need some other history. Prior to the Reformation, medieval church buildings also featured performance front and center. It was the performance of the mass at the altar that was the central part of pre-Reformation worship. When the Reformation took place, the altar disappeared. The focus turned to the pulpit, where the living Word of God was preached. Performance was out, preaching was in. Now it is true that in the old medieval buildings repurposed for now-Reformed churches the pulpit did tend to stay on the side. However, as new Reformed church buildings were constructed, the pulpit became the center of ecclesiastical architecture. It was the center because the Word was at the center.
I’m not sure about European Protestantism, but it seems to me that the stage first appears in American Christianity in the time of the Second Great Awakening. An American architect and engineer named Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited a Methodist camp meeting in Virginia in 1809. He drew some sketches. One of them, “Plan of the Camp,” includes a stage (see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, 54). This was an outdoor revival camp. However, so far as I know, Protestant church buildings of this time did not yet include a stage.
Enter Aimee Semple Macpherson (1890-1944). She was born in Oxford, Ontario –quite near to Norwich, today the home of a very large Netherlands Reformed Church community. By 1918, she was a Pentecostal revivalistic preacher. She made her way to Los Angeles and set out to build one of America’s first mega-churches. The Angelus Temple was completed in 1923. It was built to seat 5,300 worshippers. For our purposes, I believe it was the first church building in the United States custom built to include a stage. Certainly, Sister Aimee was a dramatist. She employed dramatic productions in her worship services — she was quite the actor herself. Along with the traditional pipe organ, she also used a big band for the singing. These liturgical features virtually required a stage. The Angelus Temple was cutting edge and within a few decades, it was common for American church buildings to include a stage. In time, it became common for the pulpit to disappear as well.
Note well the development. The Reformation recovered the preaching of the Word — and with it a church architecture which made the means of grace central, especially preaching. The heirs (and heiresses) of Anabaptism adopted a church architecture which sidelined the Word. The stage appeared where the Word wasn’t enough. So, especially when building churches or repurposing other buildings for churches, Reformed and Presbyterian believers do well to ask themselves whether their architectural instincts reflect a Reformation worship ethos. What are we saying when the pulpit is traded for the stage? Does performance have any place in Reformed worship, i.e. the kind of performance where afterwards the congregation applauds?