What Does God Think of Entertainment?
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.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.