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worship or entertainment?

A week ago Rev. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ (author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul”) sent a IMO very timely warning in the New York Times. He writes about the increasing demand for church services to be entertaining. Particularly, he is focusing on the effect of this on the vocation of church leaders.

I remember meeting a priest who had overhead projection during his services and sermons: photo images, words, video clips – there was always the expectation that each time there would be something different, something new. He was going around during the week making videos, editing, photo-shopping. When I met him he was up to more than 20 hours of his week working on his visual presentation. The community, when I joined them for “worship”, was passive, sitting in comfortable seating watching the presentation as if they were in a theatre. I advised/warned the priest. But he could see no way forward. Sadly, he had a breakdown and left. You can also imagine the issues as his successor took on the leadership of this community.

Commodification of the gospel and spirituality so often appears to happen surreptitiously, without the slightest reflection. People use selling, and particularly entertainment-selling, language and concepts in relation to church, services, and even denominations, without appearing to stop for a moment to reflect whether in doing so they are actually destroying the gospel they think they are presenting.

The focus can be on numbers, and not God. And if that isn’t idolatry, I don’t know what is. Alongside numbers there very quickly develops a focus on the leader, personality cult. Communities seek a particular “niche” market. Denominations are even presented as different styles for different preferences – as if they are alternative supermarket chains.

On a not-unrelated but slightly different tack, growing, vibrant communities can actually conceal the lack of real growth. A community can appear to be evangelising while, in fact, numbers are there because they just got bored in the other Christian community they were attending. Numbers are not of new Christians, but of Christians moving around. Their community of origin was maybe never helped to provide real nourishment for the long haul, or maybe they themselves never realised that constant excitement is not really what worship is about. One Pentecostal church I knew took the risk of analysing their large, vibrant, youthful congregation. They were shocked to discover their average congregant stayed for 18 months, and when they left they went nowhere else. I’ve been looking over some of our diocesan statistics sent to us in preparation for synod. One of our most “successful” communities has a weekly attendance of about 500. This past year they have only had one adult, and six infant baptisms.

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15 thoughts on “worship or entertainment?”

  1. Good comments. I believe there is a place for video and visuals in a message if they help the worshiper remember the main point of the message,but not just to entertain. Jesus used object lessons in His parables. But when people come to church to see the latest “Christian entertainment” – the service with the most bells and whistles – we’ve missed the point of worship. It’s not about me, It’s about God.

  2. What an insightful post. I have been thinking along the same lines. So much of my Christian experience has been about what I enjoy and the focuses on me. It is so much richer when I can take the focus off me. Honestly, I still go back to focusing on me, but I continue to try to focus only on Christ. So while pastors and leaders can be part of the problem they are only part. The “members” of the body are just as much to blame.

    Thanks for this great post.

    Grace & Peace.

  3. Idolatry the church is full of it. I’ve seen the same people giving their heart to christ year after year. the church happily pumps the numbers while the devil uses those who come in amongst the sheep to seperate them while the sheppherds hold the door open for those wolves in sheeps clothing
    Control is rife and the wolves have figured out how to push the buttons so the church uses the spirit of control to gut the immature while the rest of the camp followers shoot them in the back.
    If your wondering why they don’t come back who in their right mind would. What makes your computer any different to that overhead projector and who is God that he cannot use even our greatest disasters. More to the point which bit do you think should or shouldn’t be included in your sermon.
    to be honest the church better do some real soul searching there is a lot of people out here who got right royally screwwed because the church dosn’t understand mathew seven or use the gifts Jesus gave it.
    One more thing they are supose to go out anyway did you equipe them or fill their head with religon ?

  4. An old quote comes to mind as I read the above ” We are here to feed the sheep and not amuse the goates”

  5. The _challenge_ the gospel presents is not entertaining, yet it is life-giving when engaged rather than passively received. Ritual is the doorway to engaging the gospel and drinking its solace as well.

  6. I’m a pastor. I think you have grasped a huge problem in the American Protestant Church. Success has been greatly distorted. We Christians spend too much time discussing and portraying a certain image that we want the world to see and forget that it is supposed to be the Image of Jesus Christ that the world sees in our local Christian communities. Good read.

  7. I think there is a fine line between engagement and entertainment. I think worship it at its best when it fully engages our humanity in honoring divinity. This means engages all 5 senses of the body, mind, and spirit. In the attempts to do this, many have entertained people turning them into an audience. Engagement draws you in as a full participant. Sometimes — what we do in the worship order may appear the same whether for worship or engagement but the experiential reality is quite different. Our task as Worship leaders is to draw people into engagement not entertainment.

  8. Great post. I know of a couple who stopped going to church because of the lack of a PowerPoint presentation accompanying the sermon. I think they’d become addicted to constant sensory stimulation – the idolatry of looking inwards.

  9. Great post, Bosco!

    The issue for me is that many of us have stopped understanding worship as a spiritual discipline. The discipline of worship is to show up week after week to build a history of intimacy with God, that slowly transforms us. Entertainment provides a quick high, and draws in people, which is why it is attractive in our media-driven world, but it can never bring about the kind of transformation that Christ calls us to.

    When we plan for the practice of a spiritual discipline, rather than the performance of an entertaining experience, our churches will change. We may lose spectators in the short term, but the impact of our ministries on our communities will be significant in the long term. Or, at least, that’s how I see it!

    Thanks again for a great, thought-provoking post.

  10. Like this article. I saw this happening in 1990-1991 when a “new contemporary” church went up in west Billings. They quickly boasted a massive growth in numbers (in their newspaper ad.) We were discussing “contemporary church growth” in bible study, so I went by there after first service at my church to see if the “new church’s” parking lot lived up to the claims. They did have a lot of people in attendance judging by the amount of cars there. (Having ample parking was a must according to the reference that my pastor was using for his bible study.)
    A few months later, another “contemporary” church popped up. I did the same thing after the second church claimed massive growth (in _their_ newspaper ad.)
    Lots of cars in the parking lot of the second church. But there were way fewer cars in the first church’s lot. I didn’t take license numbers or anything that obnoxious, but it was clear that those people were church hopping for the newest in entertainment.

  11. Richard L. Lindberg

    This is why I appreciate the liturgy of the Prayer Book. Worship is not a passive event. Everywhere in Scripture, worship is shown as active, by bowing, kneeling, standing and participating. Worship should be simple: reading and preaching Scripture, prayer, acts of praise by the congregation and observance of the Lord’s Table. The Reformation went back to this simplicity in worship.

  12. I think you hit on something I was hinting at in an earlier post of yours. The American church is often too focused on entertainment value than on building up leaders that can themselves shepherd a flock. Case in point: I live in a town where a particular pastor’s sermons are so enjoyable, that their church has chosen, instead of planting new churches and raising up new leaders, to create “satellite” churches, that present instead a live simulcast of the sermon. My question is, is this church so poor spiritually, that they cannot find, in their thousands of congregants, even one man who can hold the attention of a couple of hundred people for 30-45 minutes once a week? When the message of a particular person becomes more important than raising up others who can teach the same messages, the environment becomes dangerously close to a cult. We’re told to replicate, not syndicate. But when the messenger becomes more important than the message, there’s a problem.

  13. Satellite churches? http://www.seattlepi.com/local/425045_mars13.html

    When I posted this link on Facebook, I added this comment: “I wonder when Pastor Driscoll will stop going exclusively with company-owned stores and start franchises?”

    My partner is the associate minister of music for a large Lutheran congregation. His primary duties is at a satellite congregation. They haven’t regularly tried using Skype to connect the two locations during worship.

    They did do it, though, on the first Sunday of the satellite congregation. Fortunately the Mother Church and the Satellite have different times when worship starts. I’m almost afraid they will figure out their problem and start worship at the same time at the Satellite and one service at the Mother Church.

    If they do, some blog posts of mine will take on urgency.



  14. Considering the fact that Jesus Himself only gave us 2 specific instructions for maintaining the faith; one was Eucharist “Do this to remember me”, and the other, by implication; Baptism ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’; entertainment was confined to hospitality – not worship.

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