In a previous post I highlighted four ways that churches—whether old school or new school—amuse themselves to death. Without recapitulating the details, I argued that churches of all stripes can unwittingly create cultures of entertainment that feature ear-tickling sermons, celebrity holy man pastors, performance-oriented music, and attractional programming that caters to market demands. These cultures, I suggested, will eventually lead to the spiritual and even physical death of such churches.
But it’s easier to throw stones than pose solutions. So in what follows, I’ll suggest four antidotes for reversing the creep of amusement culture.
(1) Expository, redemptive-historical preaching centered on the gospel.
Defined simply, expository preaching aims to make the main point of the biblical text the main point of the sermon, and so seeks to preach texts in a way that preserves their original context (verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book). In spite of caricatures, expository preaching need not be boring or lacking in application, but in contrast with topical preaching (which essentially trusts the genius of the preacher to meet the perceived needs of a congregation), expository preaching trusts that the Spirit-inspired Scriptures are already sufficient. Here the Word does the work, and the preacher labors only to clarify—not create—the relevance of Scripture (Neh 8:8). To this end, sermons should expound the Bible redemptive-historically—that is, with an eye to how each text fits into the grand narrative of God’s work to redeem a fallen, rebellious people for himself through Christ (Lk 24:27, 44–49). Rather than preaching to “felt needs” or against cultural sins—both of which can tickle ears in their own way—the gospel must pervade Christian preaching and not merely surface during a tacked-on invitation. Such preaching may offend rather than entertain, but this is the nature of the gospel (1 Cor 1:18–25), and so long as Christian preachers winsomely proclaim both grace and truth, Christ will build his church.
(2) Plural leadership that shares vision and shepherding responsibilities.
People naturally follow gifted, charismatic leaders, and Scripture itself is replete with examples. But when a pastor takes on an outsized role in a church—as local celebrity or holy man—the church often lives or dies on the strength of that leader’s giftings, and they are likewise uniquely vulnerable to all of his weaknesses. This is likely one reason why, when it comes to the local church, God has ordained leadership by plurality. Such leadership can take a variety of forms— a team of pastors, a plurality of staff and lay elders, or a leadership council comprised of key leaders. Regardless of the particular makeup, distributing responsibility for the leadership and care of a church across other biblically qualified leaders protects and serves both the pastor and the church. The pastor is guarded from the real seductions that accompany pastoral authority and the praise of men, and he is helped by surrounding himself with fellow burden-bearers who round out his abilities. By humbly sharing influence, a pastor can diffuse the mystique of “the preacher” and diminish the degree to which the church is built around his personality. As a result, Christ—the church’s unfaltering cornerstone—is seen as the one who fills all in all (Eph 1:19–23).
(3) Music that facilitates Godward, congregational praise.
Rather than mere entertainment, music is designed by God so that we can give unified expression to the innermost depths of our hearts and minds. Yahweh is a singing God (Zeph 3:17), and God’s people respond in kind. In corporate worship, we sing to confess, praise, depend, hope, and delight in God. Our orientation is vertical. But because of the corporate dimension to our relationship with God (one body, one Bride), our singing is also horizontal. We sing to encourage one another and collectively express our hope in God, providing reinforcing assurance to the bruised reeds who gather weekly. The implications of this are manifold: 1) Worship is active, not passive—therefore congregational singing (and not “specials” or performances of varied types) is prioritized. 2) Songs should be selected to orient our hearts and minds to God—focusing on the excellencies of his character and away from ourselves—and they should be singable for average people. 3) The setting for the service—and accompanying components—should be arranged so as to facilitate corporate singing—therefore the volume of leaders and instrumental accompaniment should be carefully considered, lighting should be sufficient so that congregants can see one another, and unnecessary production elements (fog machines, complex lighting, etc.) minimized. While musical excellence is a worthy goal, the collective voice of God’s people singing to God and to one another is the true aim of church music.
(4) Discipleship as the plumb line for programs.
God gave the gifts of pastors and teachers in order to equip the saints, that they might grow to Christ-like maturity (Eph 4:11–16). We have been commissioned to make disciples and “teach them to observe all things” (Matt 28:20). These twin marching orders must govern the ministries of a church. Many a well-intentioned program has been conceived with the promise of attracting outsiders, reinvigorating the inactive, and thrilling the faithful. But in reality the ministries of the church are not—and need not be—particularly flashy. The early church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These things are enough because the God of the gospel is enough. Our focus and our measuring stick for success must be growth in this gospel—not attendees or decisions or excitement or traditions or preferences. This may necessitate difficult decisions. Numerically successful, but otherwise ineffective programs may need to be shut down. Beloved traditions which drain resources but bear no gospel fruit may need recalibration. But at the final judgment pastors will be held accountable for their faithfulness in watching over souls. This sobering reality should stir up sufficient intestinal fortitude to lead well and eschew vapid programming.
The church exists to herald the majestic mystery of God, namely, that with wisdom foolish to the world God redeems his people by the bloody sacrifice of his own Son (Eph 3:8–10). We do not adorn this good news by attractions that imitate vaudeville shows and parlor tricks. Instead, we must faithfully proclaim the truth of the gospel in all its counter-cultural offensiveness, trusting that the One who promised he would build his church will do precisely that.
 See Acts 14:23, Phil 1:1, and Titus 1:5. For some of the arguments, see Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 161–96.