Are churches more interested in entertaining people and drawing crowds than in actually doing the work of worship? Last Sunday in our weekend service, I posed just this question to Justin Bieber, who was guest leading a worship set after Siegfried and Roy made an actual lion lie down with an actual lamb to launch our new series: “What Happens in Shalom Stays in Shalom.”
Okay, we didn’t really do that. But the demands of cranking out services and sermons are intense. We are trying to edify people who already attend our churches as well as reach people who don’t attend any church. The sheer pressure of doing that week after week can keep us from stepping back to ask what we are really trying to achieve.
Add to this the unbearably weighty realization that we are somehow doing this to please God. (We often talk about doing all this “for an audience of One,” but if you end up with no one else in the audience, you probably won’t keep doing this very long.)
Chuck Fromm expressed the struggle like this: “How can we make sure ever-changing technology serves our worship of the never-changing God rather than becoming an object of worship? And how can we use it soundly in the service of the Lead Worshiper and High Priest of our confession, Jesus?”
So let’s look at some questions to help us develop what might be called a practical theology of entertainment.
Am I Closer to Boring or Amusing?
Aristotle said that all virtue could be defined as a Golden Mean between two vices. Ethicists may argue about how universally that applies, but it is helpful to reflect on worship and preaching along a spectrum:
Boring . . . Arresting . . . Amusing
In general, church should not be boring. There may be some exceptions, which we’ll look at later, but most of the boredom I have experienced (and generated) in churches has been self-inflicted, poorly constructed messages; badly-thought-through elements, people praying or singing or teaching who have not been gifted by God for such tasks but no one in the church has the courage to say so honestly. Such boredom is ineffective at best and sinful at worst.
Bible characters respond to God-encounters in many ways: adoration, terror, joy, guilt, dancing, repentance, and rejection. It’s hard to think of any passage where someone experiences the manifestation of God and then says: “That was boring.”
At the other extreme, we don’t want to be merely amusing. I’m using the word here in its classical sense. To “muse” means to reflect and ponder; put an “a” in front of it and you have the absence of reflection. Amusement is a way of boredom-avoidance through external stimulation that fails to exercise our minds. It’s mere diversion. It is a kind of performance-enhancing drug for an attention-deficit society. “Amusement” is appealing because we don’t have to think; it spares us the fear and anxiety that might otherwise prey on our thoughts.
In the context of worship, amusement is a waste of time and a waste of life, and therefore a form of sin.
To arrest someone’s attention, on the other hand, is to cause them to sit up and take notice. It is the waking of a sleeping conscience, the cry of hope to someone drowning in a sea of despair. Beauty, pain, joy, and love are the great arresters of our attention, and of these the gospels are full.
This spectrum is helpful to me because I need it every week. Andy Stanley often distinguishes between “problems to be solved” vs. “tensions to be managed.” This is clearly in the second bin. That means there is no service format or style that can spare us from having to struggle with this.
How do we judge effectiveness?
The primary criteria for the effectiveness of a church service is not “holding people’s attention.” It’s not compliments after the service, or growth in attendance, or satisfying our staunchest critics, or even satisfying our own internal assessment.
It is this: Is Christ being formed in those who hear and participate? Paul told the Colossians he struggled and agonized as he taught in order to “present everyone mature in Christ.”
Sometimes this means we get creative in gaining peoples’ attention; sometimes it means we are willing to risk losing it.
We are not the first generation of church leaders to wrestle with this tension. Charles Spurgeon was widely criticized for too much levity in the pulpit, both by attenders and by other clergy. He once commented: “If only you knew how much I hold back, you would commend me …. This preacher thinks it less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour of profound slumber.”
This actually offers a helpful question: How often do I “hold back”? Today (I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon) I had a moment of humor planned in a sermon, but it was clear when I got to that point that there was a poignant spirit in the room which an attempt at humor would have violated. I had to hold back from saying something I thought might get a laugh because it would have kept the sermon from its purpose.
On the other hand, preaching as a cure for insomnia goes back to the beginning of the church. It actually got recorded by Luke: Eutychus fell into a deep sleep “as Paul talked on and on.” In this case, it led to a fatal fall from an open window and then a resurrection, after which Paul kept on preaching, and I’ll bet everybody stayed awake.
How entertaining was Paul? We get tantalizing glimpses through the New Testament: Paul himself says that people often complain that his letters were weighty but that he was not so captivating in person. Perhaps Paul knew the pain that many of us share at messages and teaching moments that do not seem to connect with people.
Paul did not measure his preaching by his ability to keep everybody awake. He had bigger fish to fry. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”
While Paul’s preaching may have put Eutychus to sleep, it also launched a riot in Ephesus a short time earlier. I have yet to stir up that much energy.
Can we use our gifts without relying on them?
We are given gifts: technology, music, intelligence, creativity, planning, knowledge of what moves people. These gifts are ours to use. Within bounds.
We use gifts; we rely on God. Not the other way around. When we rely on gifts instead of God, we find ourselves not praying much; we find ourselves more easily shaken if the response is not euphoric; we treat the outcome as a referendum on our worth.
Many centuries ago, a preacher came to be known as John Chrysostom (his name, given posthumously, actually meant John the Golden-Tongue). He had to address worship and entertainment issues. He touched people’s hearts so deeply that they began applauding his sermons, until he felt compelled to address his growing popularity:
“When you applaud me as I speak, I feel at the moment as it is natural for a man to feel. I am delighted and overjoyed. And then when I go home and reflect that the people who have been applauding me have received no benefit, and indeed that whatever benefit they might have had has been killed by the applause and praises, I am sore at heart, and I lament and fall to tears, and I feel as though I had spoken altogether in vain, and I say to myself, What is the good of all your labours, seeing that your hearers don’t want to reap any fruit out of all that you say? I urge you to listen in silence.”
In fact, at one point in his ministry, after teaching on the dangers of worship and human approval, Chrysostom told the congregation that they were not to applaud any more. They were so deeply moved they actually applauded the announcement.
When people focus more on the gift than they do the Giver, the gifts have probably ceased to help.
What are people able to absorb?
Attention span, listening capacity, is a reality.
In the 1858 senatorial campaign, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated each other seven times across the state of Illinois. The format was formidable: the first speaker had 60 minutes; then came a 90-minute rebuttal, then a 30-minute response.
Three hours of political speech. People attended by the tens of thousands—and actually paid attention. Why? It wasn’t because they were morally or politically superior to our generation. And it certainly was not because they were more educated.
It was because they had nothing better to do.
There were no TV shows, computer games, movies, DVDs, YouTubes, iPods, iPads, iPhones, or home theaters. They did not suffer from information overload.
Three hours of political debate by brilliant minds felt like a treat for minds that had never gotten used to outside stimulation competing for their attention.
If you are raised on nothing but broccoli, an apple tastes like dessert. If you are raised in the Cheesecake Factory, an apple tastes like punishment.
We are doing church for a society raised in the Cheesecake Factory.
A friend of mine does ministry with middle-school students; he reckons he can do about four minutes of abstract teaching before their minds start to wander.
As preachers and worship planners, we must come to grips with how much sustained attention people are able to give. Rick Warren often preaches for a period of time, then breaks for a story or a song, then preaches some more, because it’s easier to keep people’s attention when you give them breaks.
When preachers consistently violate people’s attention capacity without knowing it, that’s a problem. One of the simplest and best rules for preaching is this: Leave people wanting more. (Full disclosure: I violate this far too often.)
If you’re a preacher, ask some folks you trust this question: “Do I ever preach too long?” And prepare to receive what medieval contemplatives used to call “The gift of tears.”
Does the Jar fit the treasure?
How do we compete for the attention of an attention-disordered society? How do we capture people’s attention without fostering the very shallowness of mind that God wants to deliver us from?
Paul offers a wonderful metaphor: he said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.”
The treasure is the gospel. But it always comes in a jar. Some jars have candles and incense, some have guitars and drums; some have robes, some have jeans—but everybody has a jar.
The question is—given my context—is there anything about this jar that could detract from the treasure? Is someone drawing attention to themselves by the way they posture or preen on the platform? Is the music or clothing or style too conspicuous? Does anything get in the way?
We have this treasure in jars of clay. Some jars are better—more fitting—than others. But they are all clay. No one will invent the perfect jar.
The bigger question is: am I all-jar, no-treasure? Am I focused so heavily on making the jar attractive that I forget it’s what the jar contains that matters?
Worship services and sermons are, in a sense, like windows. They are not what we want people to notice. A window is not for looking at, it’s for looking through. They are designed to be openings that enable us to see something else—Someone else.
What makes a word “Apt”?
A word aptly spoken, says Proverbs, is like an apple of gold in a setting of silver. But here lies one of the great challenges of preaching and worship: there is no formula for “apt.”
Human communication is subtle as spider thread. Body language, tone of voice, trust level, discernment of heart, verbal context—will make what could be apt in one setting horribly not apt in another.
For example, Tony Campolo has famously told thousands of young people: “Thirty thousand children die needlessly every day, and too many people don’t give a damn. And what’s really sad is that you are more upset that I used the word ‘damn’ than you are about the dead children.”
Because he is an extraordinary communicator, able to build a connection of trust with an audience; and because he has devoted his life to fight for a Jesus-shaped response to poverty and injustice, these words have been used by God to convict the conscience of untold thousands.
However, I remember them being used by the pastor of a local church where they did not work at all. For one thing, he did not have the communication radar ofTony Campolo. For another, he did not have a lifetime of credibility in fighting poverty. The impression he created among his congregation was that he was really motivated by seeing if he could get away with swearing in the pulpit.
Are we feeding people’s minds?
Unfortunately, it’s possible to err at both ends of the spectrum simultaneously while missing out on arresting altogether. There is a reason why clichés are often so deadly—they can be boring and a-musing at the same time. The worst of both worlds.
For instance, consider the pastor or worship leader who says: “Now we are going to enter into God’s presence.”
Where else does he think we’ve been? Has he ever read Psalm 139? (“Where can I go from your presence? Where can I flee from your Spirit?”)
What we communicate with language like that is a subtle attempt to convince people that what we’re leading is what really matters to God—that’s why he’s now here. So they’d better pay attention. But the words themselves don’t describe reality.
Where in the Bible does it say that a church cannot be outrageously creative and passionately thoughtful?
Neal Plantinga had a wonderful observation: that while Deuteronomy tells us we’re to love God with our heart, soul, and strength, Jesus adds to this that we are also to love God with our mind. This is not original with Jesus—he is following the Septuagint here—but it certainly is a mandate to bring our thoughts and words before God; to at least not sleepwalk through the service or use words thoughtlessly.
Nancy and I talked with a couple who have started attending our church recently but are still up in the air about Christianity. One of their comments was how off-putting some of the words are that we use for God. To hear God referred to as “Lord,” for instance, communicated to them that God is uncaring, bossy, and pretentious. I realized again that I am often clueless about how the words that I speak may be heard by the actual listeners.
We talked about how all language for God suffers from precisely this problem. Words are associated with fallen humanity. This is precisely why Israel would not pronounce the sacred name, why to this day Jewish writers will often use the form G-d when referring to Divinity. And I thought of the rich opportunity we have been missing to educate people about worship in a way that can both feed the mind and resonate with hearts aching to know a God who is truly good.
Do we ever refrain from trying to enthrall?
Recently I preached a sermon about hell that consisted simply of walking through the images Jesus used to talk about it. I was struck in preparing the message how little serious, adult thought is given to such a critical topic. I didn’t want to do anything that would cause people to take it casually. So I deliberately chose to have no humor at all in that message. This requires an internal adjustment for me; normally I am acutely sensitive to how much attention I am gaining or losing in a room and will look for vehicles like humor to sustain attention.
So with a message like the one on hell, I have to turn my attention radar off and trust that God will work even though I am deliberately not doing certain things to keep people engaged.
Are we looking for the right results?
Fairly early on when I worked at Willow Creek, I can remember having a conversation with Bill Hybels in which he said to me he felt like New Community (our mid-week services for believers) had been growing in ways that were a little too easy, and that we needed to thin out the crowd at New Community.
He said it was time to turn up the learning density and the call for commitment. I was surprised by this, and it was surprisingly liberating to think of actually deliberately trying to challenge people at such a high level. So we landed on a series that we thought would get the job done. Ironically, more people came by the end of the series than at the start.
So I decided to really up the challenge level. We developed a plan that would take an entire year to walk New Community through the entire Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi.
This time I succeeded in thinning out the crowds. Alarmingly so.
Do we shy away from sacrifice?
We deal with a call to ultimate things, a call to die to self in a way that leads to life, and a call to joy that willingly plunges into sacrifice and suffering.
Eric Metaxas’s riveting biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is especially challenging in this regard. I found myself wondering, as I read through it—are our churches today producing people like Bonhoeffer? Am I becoming such a person? Am I being co-opted by the temptations of survival and success rather than sacrifice?
Bonhoeffer himself said that what was missing from the church in Nazi Germany was “the day to day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of being in every moment, in every part of one’s life.”
He found that the groups which stressed a call to devotion and commitment tended to be fundamentalist/pietist groups that had pushed away from the best of education and culture in ways that left them in little ghetto-ized sectarian enclaves. But the mainline state church had been co-opted by a larger cultural captivity.
“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together to do this.”
He devoted his life, then eventually sacrificed it, to help the church be the church. Do we ever lead people to a similar sacrifice?
Can we see without special effects?
Clearly in the Bible spiritual leaders found ways to get people to pay attention. The prophets would use props such as plumb lines and cisterns. They would set a record for most days spent lying on one side. They would bury and dig up undergarments. They would marry women with shady reputations. Their lives often looked like something between performance art and reality TV.
Jesus himself was both a riveting teacher as well as a prophet and a worker of miracles.
But it’s striking that Jesus and the other apostles would sometimes refuse to do miracles. They didn’t depend on them for the essence of their message.
It seems like celestial special effects (somewhat like the human variety) have limited impact. We all crave them. Yet shortly after the stunning parting of the Red Sea and the miraculous giving of manna, people are grumbling to go back to leeks and garlic and slavery.
The danger of “special effects” is that we begin to demand them, and to demand more and more spectacular ones. Our attention can be arrested by deeply dramatic moments. But our character cannot be re-formed by dramatic events alone. That demands a longer, slower, less glamorous process.
Our attention, like our habits, will have to be re-trained. Spiritual maturity is not the capacity to see God in the extraordinary. Pharoah could do that.
Spiritual maturity is the capacity to see God in the ordinary. And if you receive that capacity, if you become someone with eyes that can see and ears that can hear, you are given a gift.
It is life beyond boredom. Beyond amusement. Beyond attentive.
It is resurrection.