Progressive Churching: On Breaking the Fourth Wall

(This post is a continuation of my Progressive Churching series;
observations from the front-lines of curating a Progressive Christian Church)


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The Fourth Wall

You’re familiar with the Fourth Wall, right? It’s the imaginary wall that separates those on stage acting from those in the audience watching. In television it’s the actual screen between the actor and the viewer. Breaking the Fourth Wall is the term for when the actors on stage or in the film turn and acknowledge the viewer’s presence. Classic examples of this occur during Wayne’s World, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Fight Club. More recently consider how Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) often turns to the camera to give us a look, or occasionally speak to us in House of Cards. Or how Dora always wants to know if the kids at home will help her get to Sunshine Mountain. Vamanos!

The power of breaking the fourth wall is that it connects the audience. It creates a shared experience where boundaries are broken down. It flattens the power structure, if only for a moment, as we the viewers become part of the action, part of the story. There is a “letting in” factor that acknowledges how important the viewer is to where this particular narrative is going.

When we started Sojourn we felt it was important to build in to our DNA elements that break the fourth wall. Moments where we are intentional about flattening the power structure, where the congregation becomes part of the action.

So we created what we call End of Series Discussion Sundays (kind of a mouthful… maybe I’ll change it to Fourth Wall Sundays? That has nice ring to it), and this past Sunday was the fifth one we’ve done so far.

End of  Series Discussion Sundays

While I might organically solicit people’s thoughts during a sermon, or ask for a volunteer to help illustrate something, both of which help break the fourth wall, we wanted to take it even further. And so at the end of (most) teaching series we will set aside the final Sunday in the series to be a church-wide discussion.

The concept is simple: instead of a sermon, Kate and I will quickly recap the series to remind everyone what we’ve been talking about the previous 6-8 weeks. Then, I might devise a couple prompt questions to help get the discussion going. Usually these are questions like:

What follow up questions do you have?
What did these sermons bring up for you?
How were you challenged? Encouraged?
Where did you disagree? What frustrated you?

Then I ask someone to give the rest of us the gift of going second (meaning, they volunteer to go first and get the ball rolling).

Three Helpful Hints

If you are interested in trying out a Fourth Wall Sunday then here are three things we’ve done that have we have found helpful.

1) Establish the Values. After we quickly recap the series, but before we open up the floor for discussion, we will establish a couple ground rules. Some values to help create a safe space. For us, that means that everyone’s voice is welcome and will be heard. Diversity of thought is not just tolerated but it’s celebrated. We will point out how there is significant theological diversity even amongst the Leadership Team, and between the Pastors, so hopefully everyone feels like they’re probably not as crazy as they might think. We also demand that we respect one another. It’s okay to pushback, but it’s not okay to put down. And we ask people to be mindful of sharing the space. No one enjoys having conversations dominated by one or two voices. You might think of others, but again the goal would be to lay some ground rules to create a safe space for people to share in.

2) Sit in a Circle. I realize this may not physically work in your space, but since we have movable seating so we take advantage of it by setting up our chairs in a large circle. It’s kind of fun, too, because we make everyone do the actual circle building work. Our typical setup for the chairs is a horse-shoe shape, so then during Pass the Peace and while the kids are being dismissed to their classes everyone picks up their chair and helps to make the circles. Lately we’ve actually had to make the circle several rows deep to try and keep it an intimate space still. If you can’t physically alter your seating, perhaps there are other ways you could change the environment to help break the fourth wall. For instance, don’t stand on the stage but come down on the ground floor, maybe even all the way out in to the middle of the seating? The goal is that everyone feels connected to the shared space, instead of just spectators. That way they can speak to one another and not just to me. Which leads me to…

3) Facilitate, Don’t Answer. My role is not to be the “answer guy.” This isn’t a time where I stand up there and pretend to be able to answer everyone’s questions. Now, if I’m asked a direct follow up question to some content that I’ve taught in the previous weeks, then I’ll answer that (i.e. “which came first, the Genesis Flood Story or the Epic of Gilgamesh?”). But if it’s a more abstract question directed at me, then I will turn and say, “what do you guys think?” Again, this is about connecting the community to one another, to the story of the church as a whole. It’s not about hearing even more from the Pastors. Lord knows they get plenty of that already!

There is definitely a risk involved in Breaking the Fourth Wall. Sometimes you get a person who really wants to make a point about something and it gets awkward fast. I’ve had other people that very nearly declared us all as lost sinners and almost did an altar call on the spot in case people actually wanted to come to Jesus. People won’t agree, which in theory is awesome but sometimes in real life it can get messy and uncomfortable.

But for us the risks are worth it. It’s far too important to the culture we are trying to create that people feel like they will regularly have a chance to interact with each other, and with the preacher, about what gets shared on Sundays. It’s far too important that we establish that I, the Preacher Guy, am not the smartest one in the room, the guy with all the answers. It’s far too important that we are a faith community of people who share sacred space together and participate in our gatherings, as opposed to being passive recipients of a “service.” 

These Sundays aren’t a unanimous hit, to be sure. It isn’t for everyone. But for the most part I think people have come to really appreciate having them, and they can see the value they add to our developing church ethos.

Too many of us are familiar with the know-it-all Pastor who wouldn’t dare share his/her “platform” with the laity. But Fourth Wall Sundays (formerly known as, End of Series Discussion Sundays) inherently communicate a humility to not just teach but to listen and learn.

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