The Fourth Wall

Someone recently told me that they like the way I “break the fourth wall” when I preach. That sounded kind of cool, so I immediately had to go and find out what he meant by it.audience

Turns out, this is a theatrical term referring to the imaginary wall that exists between the stage and the seating area. Most theatres feature a back wall, two side walls, and a metaphoric fourth wall that the actors seldom try to broach.

I have found that the fourth wall is sturdily constructed in our churches. It takes a great act of intention by the preacher to break through that wall. When it happens the congregation will not feel comfortable. They may not be happy with you.

Of course that can work for you. The first time I remember attempting this breaking through, was when I was preaching the ‘walking on water’ narrative. I decided to portray Peter’s foray onto the sea by actually leaving the pulpit area and walking out into the congregation.

I immediately felt uncomfortable, which was actually appropriate given the nature of the story I was trying to transmit. It was as if I could hear the listeners saying, “What are you doing down here. This is our space. You get back up on the platform where you belong.” It was not hard to offer Peter’s sense of distraction when I was feeling a similar discomfort myself.

Since that time, I have found myself breaking the fourth wall on a regular basis, sometimes physically, sometimes orally. I enjoy picking out trusted members of the congregation as objects of direct statement or even brief conversation. Obviously, this has to be handled with extreme care. You don’t want to embarrass the listener or to put them in a bad or awkward light. However, when done well, this kind of brief encounter has a way of drawing close the whole congregation who view my conversation partner as a proxy for themselves.

Oscars selfieLater in the evening of the day I got the wall-breaking comment, I watched Ellen Degeneres host the Oscars. Breaking the fourth wall has become Ellen’s signature move. She held conversations with several members of the audience, sometimes to their discomfort, but always to the delight of the audience. They danced together and ate pizza together. I doubt whether Ellen had any concept of the fourth wall at all. The crowd loved it – even the crowd in my living room who seemed to connect with her antics in a way that would not have been possible if she had kept to the platform.

While some might find this kind of decorum-breaking practice to lack the dignity necessary to the practice of preaching, I would suggest that it might be just the kind of thing we need. It is the objective of the preacher to draw the listener in so that he or she can be transformed. Any kind of wall that creates separation, distance, or a false sense of security for the listener might well be broken, dismantled, and destroyed.

Tear down that wall. Once your people get used to it, I suspect that they might find they like it, and profit from it.