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Turning a Congregation into an Audience

Turning a Congregation into an Audience: Ten steps toward producing dependency and passivity

Here are a few ways you can facilitate an audience approach to the Eucharist.

It took me a long time to figure out why some of what we do contributes to passivity and dependency. I think it’s rooted in a mix of 1) turf and 2) our genuine desire to be helpful. It’s also rooted in our tendency to respond to the perceived needs of the more tentative and immature parishioners with the offer of comfort instead of growth.

The result is that on many Sundays, in too many parishes, there are a large number of “messages” reinforcing dependency and passivity. Instead of encouraging and equipping Eucharistic proficiency we nurture helplessness. We usually have a good reason for each practice. One practice by one practice we move further and further into an unproductive dependency.

It isn’t any one practice. A parish can tolerate a few of these practices. It’s the cumulative effect of many practices.

Here’s the list: How to turn a congregation into an audience

1. Clergy can give directions and prompting movement during the liturgy. For example, invite people to sit for the readings and sermon. Instruct people to stand for the Creed. Do not develop an awareness of what’s actually happening in the congregation. Invite them to sit even if they are already beginning to do so. Introduce the Creed even if they have already opened their Prayer Books or leaflets to that page. In time we may be able to move to cue cards held up to guide the congregation. 

2. Ushers can control the movement of people when it’s time to come to communion. Don’t allow people to move until the celebrant makes a gesture at you. Walk backward from the front pews. Never allow a line to form. It’s important to undercut the energy and flow of the people’s communion procession.

3. Print the entire Liturgy in a bulletin. This will effectively undercut liturgical competence. Why learn if there’s no need to learn? It will also encourage people to avoid looking toward the liturgical action. In time this may allow us to return to the practice of having the “clerk” read the service from a lectern.

4. Parish musicians can contribute to the effort in a variety of ways:

  • Have cantors lift their hands when it’s the congregation’s turn to participate. 
  • Use hymns that are unfamiliar without rehearsal. It’s especially effective when it’s several hymns.
  • The musician can conduct the choir from the center of the choir aisle  (yes I know this was never seen until recent years but it seems more natural to musicians who think this is a performance) 
  • Lead the whole congregation (as in a sing along; older members will fondly recall Mitch Miller on TV).
  • Have the choir face out toward the congregation as though performing. Facing out makes it look like a performance and on many occasions means that the sound of the choir overwhelms the congregation
  • Ask people to remain in the pews after the end of the liturgy for a postlude. This can become another performance by the choir or organist. It helps if you can produce a feeling of obligation so that leaving feels rude.

5. Use a screen that keeps the liturgy and music in front of people.

6. In regard to the seating arrangement of the clergy—it’s useful to follow the practice of the more Protestant churches of having the clergy sitting near the altar but facing the congregation. This helps make them the focal point for attention and in doing so provides an opportunity to distract the congregation. This also avoids the traditional arrangement of being behind the altar (which at least allows the feet and hands of the clergy to be out of view).

7. Develop a norm of applauding during the Liturgy. If musicians do an extended postlude applaud after. If there is something or someone to approve of applaud them.

8. Make the Offertory a passive action for the congregation.  Have an anthem and no hymn. Encourage people to stay comfortably seating during the presentation of the gifts.

9. Positioning the baptismal font in the front of the liturgical space. That way no one has to turn around or move to participate.

10 Base liturgical decisions on four things:

  • Focus on comfort and safety. Clergy can develop the habit of saying, “If you’re comfortable try it.”  It encourages the fear in people. When you hear members say something like, “I’m not comfortable with doing that.”  Allow that statement to end the discussion. 
  • Compete with an entertainment culture – trying to create an upbeat environment of friendliness and “joy.” Take on the responsibility to generate uplifted feelings in people. 
  • Ignore the conventional suggestions in the standard Anglican pastoral theology models to nurture the “Remnant”[i] or the “Apostolic” and “progressing Sacramental”[ii] and give your attention to the comfort of the regular attendees who are more tentative, uncertain and possible immature. 
  • Ignore the liturgical prescription to shape worship with grace, beauty and flow and providing this kind of guidance, “If the ritual customs of the Episcopal Church are unfamiliar to you, relax, and let the community carry you.” Instead focus your attention on what you suppose is the anxiety of the visitor and new comer and your assumption that what they need from you is to be walked through the liturgy step by step.


Over time you will achieve the goal of de-skilling the congregation. People who once knew when to stand will now wait to be invited. People who once took responsibility to know where they were in the Liturgy will now wait for instruction. People will become more passive and dependent on the clergy and other leaders. A feedback loop will develop in which the more passive and incompetent the congregation becomes the more the need for clergy direction will increase.


This is a draft of a section of the upcoming Eucharistic Spirituality: From Audience to Congregation, Robert A Gallagher, OA, Ascension Press, available later this year.

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[i] Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation, Martin Thornton, Wipf & Stock Pub (June 1, 2010). Also, originally in 1956; new edition The Heart of the Parish: Theology of the Remnant (posthumous, 1989)

 Thornton wrote, “The Remnant, far from being an amputated segment – the clique detached from the whole – is at the centre of the parochial organism and of power extending beyond it. It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; the heart of the Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to its environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps the blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savours the whole. There is nothing so contagious as holiness, nothing more pervasive than Prayer. This is precisely what the traditional Church means by evangelism and what distinguishes it from recruitment. … The Remnant concept is more than the “nice little nucleus” backed by a comfortable theory. True representation, real vicariousness, the whole process of Christ’s redemption of creation by the redeemed in him, is to be ascetically achieved.”

[ii] Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church, Robert A. Gallagher, OA, Ascension Press, 2008. I wrote, “When a parish has a healthy and productive Shape you see a definite movement. People are drawn into a deeper relationship with God and the church. There is a sense of spiritual movement in the parish. The Apostolic Faith percentage increases. Those of Apostolic Faith serve others by the example of their prayerfulness, humility, and openness. The sacramental and apostolic life of the parish draws the C&E and Vicarious. This process of drawing is evangelization. What this is not, but can be mistaken for, is the spirituality seen in some parishes that is really an outburst of experimenting Sacramental Faith. The parish seems full of energy. There’s a lot of motion but if you look closely there’s little personal and spiritual growth. Some parishes get caught up in multiple service projects, others in looking for behaviors that appear joyful, warm, and friendly, and others in signs of common agreement to a political version of faith.”