I’d much rather stand in front of a crowd of strangers, project my voice, and talk about something I believe in deeply, than pick my way through a party looking for a friendly face to engage in casual conversation.
I’m not an actor onstage under spotlight, audience invisible in the glare, so for me, the crowd (and I’ll call twelve a crowd) is never faceless. It is all faces. And those faces matter.
When I had the privilege and responsibility of pastoring a church, I knew most of the faces on a Sunday morning, many of them quite intimately—ours might be considered a micro-church—and after a few years in that role, unless I was reading from a book, or a story I’d written, I stopped preaching from notes and relied on looking at those dear faces to bring forth the words.
I tried to expand the view for others. We rearranged our sanctuary, so the pews were slanted not straight, and the choir came out of it’s elevated box, but even then, I was the only person who could and did see into the faces of every person present.
It was a privileged position and I miss it.
When I found myself in the pew instead of the pulpit (although we got rid of that, too), what I thought I missed was being in control, knowing what was going to happen and when, structuring content and flow of the service, so that it was beautiful and meaningful (according to my definitions) and met all my (and by extension the congregation’s) needs.
As a parishioner and participant, I found myself sitting back and judging the pastor and the church: what felt authentic, what felt contrived, picking and choosing what I liked and didn’t (most often thinking I wouldn’t do it that way), filing mental ratings, deciding whether or not I’d go back as I hopped from church to church.
It was disconcerting to find myself the consumer that other church leaders and I bemoaned. We wanted committed, not cafeteria, Christians in our congregations. Eventually even I grew tired of the buffet, and selected a church without worshipping at every single one on the Island (which had been my odd-as-it-seems goal).
It’s not all ego and as an introvert I don’t much like attention, but something happens when I’m “in charge.” An alchemy of intention and attention, desire and creativity, a welling up from my own heart, my own soul, that is split open, held out, offered up. It demands humility and vulnerability and my full participation. I must show up completely, in a way I often don’t when I’m not the designated leader.
Bless those who come to the pews and theaters and bleachers with open hearts and sympathetic attention, who step into the container and fully contribute their own energy: the eyes closed in deep listening, the nods of affirmation, the smiles of understanding, the twitches of recognition. As the one standing up front, I recognize the great gift of looking into those faces while speaking, the way we are held in a holy container, sparking with an electric charge, connected to something deeper that is plugged in and turned on, especially when afterward, someone shares what sparked for them—it’s not about me, but what I’ve been a conduit for.
I had the opportunity to speak about spiritual writing at my local library last week. The first time in my new home that I’ve been “up front,” and I was buzzing with it, a metal rod in the energy field we created, absorbing all of it, from the holy force fueling me, from the faces in the room, from inside myself.
Without the role of pastor or presenter, I am usually sending out pieces of my writing into the ether, to be selected by anonymous editors, and read (if they’re selected) by unknown readers. Connection is missing in that equation.
There is something about this physical exchange, this call and response to and from the listener/reader and the great permission and trust she offers to the speaker/writer in return that is integral to our human story and our storytelling, our naming what is powerful, moving, and true.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have shaped such a container last week, for the embrace of generous listeners as Presence dwelt among us.