Casually Authoritarian Language in Church (or, Don’t Tell Me What to Do)

Casually Authoritarian Language in Church (or, Don’t Tell Me What to Do) February 3, 2023

I’ve begun to notice some of the casually authoritarian language people use in church services when speaking up front. And it’s begun to bother me.

“Read along with me,” the preacher says from behind the pulpit, up in front of the sanctuary, a couple steps higher than the congregation. 

“Stand and clap your hands!” the worship leader exclaims from behind a turned-way-up microphone, stage lights shining on him while a couple hundred people sing along unplugged in the dark.

This kind of communication might seem innocuous enough, or at least normal enough. But the dynamics behind it seem worth exploring.

illustrate pulpit
The words spoken from behind the pulpit – and how they are spoken – matter / Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash

The Orders Might Not Fit Everyone

This way of speaking sounds an awful lot like giving orders, and receiving them. The person speaking assumes they have the right to tell a whole group of people to do something all together, whether it’s read out loud from their Bibles, or stand and clap their hands in worship, or close their eyes and bow their heads in prayer, or turn around and greet the people sitting nearby.

None of these are bad things—Bible reading, standing and clapping, closing and bowing, turning and greeting. 

But they are things that are only meaningful if freely chosen. Not coerced by a powerful-seeming person on stage. Not pressured by the fact that everyone around you is doing the same thing and you’ll stand out if you don’t do it.

And these things are also often not equally accessible or welcoming to everyone. Not everyone has the same ability to read aloud or stand and clap. Not everyone feels safe closing their eyes in a public place full of people they don’t know well. Not everyone has the extraverted energy to be able to offer an authentic smile and handshake, let alone a reasonable attempt at small talk, to the strangers sitting beside them in the pews. 

What If We Get a Little Too Accustomed to Being Ordered?

Beyond these access concerns, there’s another issue. I wonder, what does it do to people—and communities—when we become accustomed to being told what to do, and to doing what we’re told without thinking?

Is it a terribly far leap from “clap your hands” to “vote Republican,” or “get out there and oppose reproductive rights” (okay, it probably wouldn’t be said in quite that way, but you get the drift), or “don’t let Biden take your guns”? 

In some ways, I’d say, yes, that is a far leap. Those are very different things. But I wonder if, in other ways, it may not be all that far at all.

I don’t want to be conditioned to do whatever a church leader tells me to do. I want to think about what I hear, decide whether I resonate with it, and move my body and mind in ways that feel right to me—not in ways someone else tells me to move. 

And I want to practice this anti-authoritarian approach in the small things so that it comes more naturally in the big things. 

Do I feel a sense of joy and connection right now that makes me want to clap my hands to this song? If yes, sure, I’ll clap. But maybe there’s a lyric I’m not so sure I actually believe. In that case, I’ll keep my hands (and maybe my voice, at least for that one sketchy line) to myself. 

Now, if someone with church-y authority says something a little higher-stakes that doesn’t quite sit well with me, I have already established a practice of considering everything. Keeping the things I want to keep. And letting go of (or pushing back against) the rest.

Resistance is Spiritual 

I think often of a sermon preached by activist and musician Andre Henry a few years ago at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA. Here’s the video—it’s really worth watching the whole thing. 

Andre uses a game of Simon Says to illustrate his point that power is located with ordinary people. We have the right—and the responsibility—to resist laws and orders that are unjust.

Andre invites the congregation to play a game of Simon Says, which starts in the usual way (“Simon Says touch your right hand to your ear”) and ends with “Simon Says punch your neighbor in the stomach as hard as you can.” Everyone plays along until the last command. 

At that point, instead of a sea of violent blows, the congregation erupts into nervous, understanding laughter. They get it. There are some commands—even some norms, some deeply ingrained ways of being—that we are meant to resist in favor of a higher law, a law of love and justice.

Sometimes we might think of “spiritual people” as those who are always gentle, meek, mild-mannered. Some of our faith communities might have encouraged us to think in this way. 

But sometimes being spiritual—that is, being in touch with the Spirit of the God who brings justice—means resisting. Sometimes it means stirring things up. Exposing injustice. Making good trouble (as John Lewis might say).

Being a faithful Christian doesn’t mean doing whatever Christian leaders tell us to do. Just as we can learn to read the Bible in ways that avoid authoritarianism, we can also learn to do church in ways that avoid authoritarianism.

Consider an Invitation Rather Than an Order

For the average person in the congregation on any given Sunday, doing church in ways that avoid authoritarianism means thinking before we do something we’re told to do. But there’s also the other side of things. There’s the person speaking to the congregation.

If or when we are that person, how do we avoid speaking in casually authoritarian ways?

Here are a few ideas—a few other ways we could say something like “read along with me” or “stand and clap,” to use the same examples as before:

  • “I invite you to read along with me.”
  • “If you like, please read along with me.”
  • “I invite you to stand and clap your hands, if that’s something that feels right for you right now.”
  • “If you’re connecting with this song and feel like you want to stand and clap along, let’s do it!”
  • “Feel free to stand and clap your hands if you like!”

There are plenty of other ways these things could be said. These are just a few examples. We can draw on language of invitation, of choice, of pleasure or desire (“if you like”), of embodied authenticity (“if that feels right for you”), of feeling and freedom. 

Moving from “read with me” to “I invite you to read with me” might seem like a small change. But it more clearly honors people’s agency. It engages with people as equals rather than in an authoritarian relationship between leader and follower. 

If you’re a churchgoer, I’d invite you (see what I did there?) to think about these things the next time you’re in church. 

Consider resisting a command—if there’s an order you don’t want to follow, or that you aren’t sure about. And if you’re speaking in front of church, consider experimenting with whatever form of invitational, non-authoritarian language feels right to you. 

I want to be part of communities that honor people’s dignity in this way. And I want to be part of communities that prepare people to, when necessary, resist unjust orders—whether from church, or government, or anywhere else.

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