Four Ways Churches Amuse themselves to Death

October 25, 2016

On average, 98 churches in the United States die and close their doors each week.[1] The reasons for the decline are many, but among them I merely want to spotlight one: amusement. Neil Postman, the late cultural critic and media theorist, famously warned that the American culture was most threatened not by tyranny and pain, but by a self-indulgent addiction to pleasure—“amusing itself to death.”[2] That warning seems prescient, and it applies to American churches, too.

As the statistics reflect, many churches in the United States are dying physically, some quite literally through the death of one beloved saint at a time. Others may appear healthy by external measures, yet are dying spiritually. Amusement can be both an impediment to change that would lead to life and health in a physically dying church, or it can be the slow inner spiritual rot that will eventually cause a church to collapse on itself. It afflicts churches of all stripes—traditional and contemporary, large and small. Here I identify four ways churches can fall into the trap of entertainment:

(1) By preaching sermons that tickle ears. A sure way to grow a business is to give the consumer what they want. Sadly, some pastors take this approach to their pulpit ministry and offer messages of self-empowerment and self-improvement, which resonate more favorably than those of total depravity and utter dependence (2 Tim 4:3–4). Not only is sermon content altered to suit its hearers, but also its form. This approach to preaching can emphasize a highly polished delivery which includes the use of props for visual emphasis. But the hell-fire and brimstone preaching favored by older traditionalists can tickle ears, too, since there are a surprising number who enjoy a red-faced man passionately denouncing cultural sins. In one church, I lost track of the number who told me they wanted to have “their toes stepped on” through preaching. Rather than loving the Word and sound doctrine (and with these, genuine conviction of sin), it was a particular experience they were after.

(2) By promoting the pastor as celebrity or holy man. We live in a celebrity culture—the outsized attention given to the political convictions of actors and athletes is but one example. But the same trappings of fame seduce many a pastor, and too often their congregations as well. In a previous generation this status was reserved for televangelists, but with the proliferation of multi-site churches and video-screen preachers, the temptation to view a pastor as a kind of celebrity is widespread. This tendency surfaces somewhat differently in smaller traditional settings, but it is still present. In this context the pastor is the “holy man” who has unique wisdom and knowledge, and can be viewed as having a more direct connection to God and his will. The root of this culture is in our own hearts—we want to follow such a dynamic leader and be part of his movement. We want to esteem him and trust someone who seemingly has all the answers. But the biblical description for pastors is that of shepherd—hardly a glamorous job—and Jesus instructs his followers to humbly regard themselves as unworthy servants who are only doing their duty (Lk 17:10).

(3) By emphasizing entertaining music. This tendency is most readily seen in modern megachurches, who so prize professional production, lighting, and musical excellence that corporate worship gatherings resemble modern rock concerts—complete with fog machine. But the same impulse is seen in the traditional church’s “Gospel Singings” and special love offering concerts. For months one traditional church in my area advertised a different Gospel music group on their marquee every week. The implicit message? “Want to be entertained by a specific style of music? We’re the place for you!” This is the silent message of both churches, in spite of their vast differences. Both aim to attract consumers of particular styles of music. But God seeks active worshippers—not consumers. Ultimately worship is about giving praise to God for his worth and works—not getting an emotional, warm fuzzy experience.

(4) By focusing on attractional programming. Programs are not intrinsically bad. But unfortunately churches of all stripes take a “butts in the seats” approach to programming, where value is assigned to that which brings in the masses. This is especially seen in youth and children’s ministries, where many churches wage a kind of arms race to offer “the best.” But the reality is that those who are drawn to attractional programming are often not unbelievers, but rather, consumeristic Christians who want an upgrade from their current church. There are two fundamental problems: 1) No matter how much a church invests in a program, the church will never match the attractive excellence of the world’s entertainment. 2) What is truly attractive about the church is not that it can offer a dim reflection of worldly pleasure, but that in the gospel it presents salvation through Jesus Christ, who offers real and lasting joy of which all the world’s pleasures know nothing. Why would the church hold out a dull, muddy stone to the world when it possesses the brilliant, radiant diamond of God in all his beauty?

Postman remarked, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”[3] Surely Postman is right: the gospel of entertainment offered by many churches is another gospel altogether, and churches who embody such things need either repent or shut their doors. The radiance of the bride of Christ derives not from her similarity to the world but from her distinctiveness to it. It is this peculiar glory that is to shine as a light from on a hill, bearing witness to the matchless King in his beauty.

NOTES

[1] See http://thomrainer.com/2016/03/seven-ways-churches-should-die-with-dignity/

[2] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Revised Edition. New York: Penguin, 2006.

[3] Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 121.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Clint Darst October 25, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Great work here bro! Amen and amen!

  • Reply Chris Griggs October 26, 2016 at 6:43 am

    Fantastic assessment! You put into words what many have been thinking. Now, how about a follow-up article on how to move away from the culture of entertainment as a church and a pastor?

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