How should we balance in-depth teaching with lighter fare to draw crowds to our churches?

How should we balance in-depth teaching with lighter fare to draw crowds to our churches?

Are churches more interested in entertaining people and drawing crowds than in actually doing the work of worship? 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.

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.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

Condensed and adapted from "What Does God Think of Entertainment?" by John Ortberg, Leadership Click here to read the original article in its entirety and for reprint information.

Free Newsletters

More Newsletters

Follow us