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Churches and the Fourth Wall

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

In theatre, the fourth wall is an imaginary, invisible wall at the front of the stage - between the performers and the audience. In film and tv, the fourth wall is the screen that we are watching. Put another way, it can be thought of as a conceptual barrier between those expressing the art and those consuming it. The existence of this fourth wall allows the audience to be transported to another reality with 'suspension of disbelief' being accomplished.

The fourth wall is broken when a performer acknowledges the presence of the audience or the camera. Even an actor making or holding eye contact with the camera or audience is enough to break the fourth wall. One theatre example is the Porter in Shakespeare's Macbeth. An example in fiction literature is in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events series in which the narrator begins by saying, "If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” Film examples are Barbie and Ferris Bueller's Day Off when the lead character speaks to the camera. A tv series example is The Office.

Although the congregation is often acknowledged in churches, the breaking of the fourth wall is not a common practice in tradition religious services. Churches can benefit from the concept of the breaking of the fourth wall. Some of the following are already done in church services:

Speaking Directly to the Congregation: A host, worship leader or pastor welcoming the congregation at the beginning of a service, or sharing a benediction at the end of a service breaks the fourth wall. A minister leading the congregation in communion is another way in which the fourth wall is broken.

Sermon Interaction: Speakers (/preachers/ministers) can occasionally pause during the message (/sermon) and directly address the congregation, asking rhetorical questions or inviting them to respond. Such interaction create a sense of engagement and involvement.

Prayers from the Platform: Instead of the traditional one-way prayer where the minister prays on behalf of the congregation, a pastor could come down off the platform and pray, even specifically for one person in the church family that they approach. Congregational members being asked to go up onto the platform for baptisms, child dedications and other acknowledgements also breaks the fourth wall.

Participatory Prayers: A minister or worship leader could encourage congregants to actively participate in prayer by having moments where individuals from the audience are invited to lead the prayer or share their own personal prayers.

Drama: As has been described from the world of theatre above, the fourth wall could be broken in dramatic sketches, plays or musicals where there is interaction between the characters and the audience.

Multimedia: On video screens in the auditorium (/sanctuary) or as part of a streamed broadcast, churches can utilize such multimedia tools as displayed messages or questions to which the congregation or viewers can respond during the service. This can include discussion prompts, polls, interactive quizzes, and inviting attendees to engage actively in the content being presented. Another example of the use of multimedia is a person on the platform directing congregants to printed material, such as fill-in-the-blank message outlines, that has been left on chairs or at the end of rows.

Open Q&A Sessions: After a sermon or time of teaching, the church could set aside time for a live question and answer session where the pastor or a speaker addresses inquiries from the congregation. This allows for direct interaction and involvement from the audience.

Some churchgoers may prefer a more traditional style of worship, while others may welcome innovative approaches to engage and involve the community. Therefore, it's crucial for church leaders to understand their congregation's preferences and adapt accordingly. Accordingly, it's important to note that breaking the fourth wall in a religious context should be done thoughtfully and respectfully, taking into account the traditions and sensitivities of the congregation.

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