You know that feeling when something does not quite seem right? No matter how far you try to push it away, that feeling fixes itself inside you. The evangelical church in America has contracted this bug, and she is uncertain of how to remedy her condition. So what is this possible condition?
There are people who fear that she struggles with entertainment in worship.
Worship Leader, Christianity Today, and Relevant present this issue about the supposed crisis in their magazines, while Jamie Brown and Kevin Carr take to their blogs and share their experiences as worship leaders, some of which include hurts. A Google search consisting of “worship” and “entertainment” will provide many more articles and testimonials working through this topic.
Defining the Problem at Hand
The first task in solving a problem is to identify one, if there is a problem, and then to define that problem.
For some, the problem is that our congregants come to church looking for radio-quality production, instrumentation, and vocals. As a worship leader in South-Central Kansas, I understand and know that this quickly becomes an overwhelming expectation. Many rural churches in Kansas are blessed to have one proficient musician.
The question stemming from this position often becomes, “What can congregants expect of their local church musicians?” It is hard to pin others for being “wrong” when they desire excellence.
Another view on this problem concerns the role and expectations placed on the worship leader. 20-30 minutes, 4-5 songs, play songs we want to sing, and be creative! Also, you should be young and “hipster”. As a worship leader, this is very concerning! First, am I a worship leader or a song leader, and secondly, I will not always be young.
For others, the problem is that our worship services look like concerts. Besides the LED walls, programmed flashing lights, and the overhead lights turned off, the space itself looks like a room built for rock concerts. This concern recognizes the impact of vision in our worship services.
The issue for these writers is not whom we worship or the intent behind our worship; the issue is how we worship. What they are getting at is that how we worship shapes us. Whether it is stereotypes, lights, or expectations, evangelicals are finally becoming concerned about how we worship.
Understanding the Problem
Now that we have defined the problem, how do we worship, evangelical churches must understand how we have gotten here. There are no doubt other factors contributing to the current state of evangelical worship, but there are two I will identify and elaborate on.
First, evangelicalism proudly declares its emphasis on mission. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has certainly called us to an outward-focused life. What exactly this looks like, however, poses a whole lively conversation by itself.
In the case of the 21st century evangelical church, mission builds itself on relevance. While theologically this poses numerous issues, this constitutes the foundation of evangelical mission. This stream of thought penetrates worship and we now find the assembly a tool for mission and maintaining relevance. Consider when the Israelites insisted on being relevant to the people around them and what happened to them. I will write an article decrying relevance in worship and share the deformations it presents for our congregations.
Secondly, evangelicalism has continued the trend of reductionism. Lots of traditions have seen reductions, or a minimalizing, of their liturgies. We do less, speak less, and participate in fewer worship acts. While this is not inherently wrong or bad, evangelicalism, in some circles, has essentially reduced our assembly to singing and preaching.
How does reductionism relate to entertainment in evangelical worship? With liturgies utterly reduced to song and sermon, congregations undermine the capacity to communicate the story of salvation. One way to reverse this condition lies in a greater thematic scope for songwriting, but I digress.
Part of this reductionism stems from our desire for people to be educated on all things, but our churches present no catechisms. Additionally, I am not fully convinced our churches need to educate all people in all things prior to our introducing new elements of our faith. See my article “We’re Gonna Need A Class For This” here to see my thoughts on this topic.
Entertainment: Passivity and Individuality
We have identified the problem and presented a historical understanding of the position we find ourselves within. Where do we go from here? We must be able to identify entertainment within our churches. Let us understand what we mean by “entertainment”.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines entertainment as “1, the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment, 2, an event, performance, or activity designed to entertain others, 3, the action of receiving a guest or guests and providing them with food and drink”. This definition implies passivity and especially individuality. Where do passivity and individuality fit into your biblical theology of worship?
Passiveness does not require engagement. To enter the presence of God and not offer a response will not result in transformation. It breeds critics who pursue personal satisfaction.
Individuality erodes the church and her witness. Nothing that is right and good stems from our own selves. The Church’s true mission witnesses the work of God and the unity she has found in covenant with her God. This is especially true when the church is gathered together in the assembly. In his book Introduction to Liturgical Theology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1986), Alexander Schmemann goes as far as to say there is no such thing as individual worship, even when the worshiper is by themself. All worship belongs to the church.
While I do not yet solicit myself to Schmemann’s Orthodoxical measures, certainly there is no place for individual spirituality when we are gathered. Passivity and individuality will destroy a local church, or at least deviate her from being healthy, and her ability to witness the work of God becomes severely lacking.
Addressing Entertainment in Worship
There are many more paths this conversation could take, but for now we will leave it as is and begin to recommend some ways to combat entertainment in our worship.
First, consider the space within you worship. I just spent quite a bit of time asking questions about the space we worship in last week, so you can visit my article review here for more thoughts, but I will offer some suggestions here.
How does your congregation interpret the space you are within? Even if only subconscious, everyone steps into a room and interprets how they ought to act and what they are able to say. What does your worship space say about how your church understands God, her relationship towards Him and His salvation story?
Secondly, strive for active participation. This is different than striving for an emotional response. Are people singing with you? Speaking with you? Confessing with you? Proclaiming with you? Maybe it is time to bring the act of kneeling into our liturgies. Do people kneel with you? Do they stand with you? If your congregation does not participate with you in the church’s response to God, then alterations need to be made.
Education correlates with active participation. While I would argue that understanding is not an absolute when determining your liturgy, education certainly gives rise to a greater ability to participate in God’s story (of which your church’s liturgy is a part). How can we educate our people so they can engage with God Most High?
Lastly, change your liturgy. What we do shapes us. This time-tested truth does not escape our world today. If your liturgy deforms people rather than forming them towards Christ and the Church, then how you worship must change. It is that simple. And while indubitably not easy, altering our liturgies is the primary way to alter the formation of our congregations.
This recommendation undoubtedly will be the last action any church leader will want to take. However, it may be the most effective and efficient way to combat entertainment in your worship. Many evangelical church leaders are exploring liturgical developments. There are three, Glenn Packiam, Zac Hicks, and Stephen Proctor, who are striving to develop holistic and healthy evangelical liturgies. Their blogs/websites can be found on my Links page here. I would also recommend the following books:
The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services, Constance M. Cherry, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010
Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community, Simon Chan, IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL, 2006
Chan offers a lot more theological foundation before providing some practical liturgical suggestions. Cherry lays a quick but solid biblical foundation, then goes through liturgical design with great detail. Both of these authors come from an evangelical background, so they know the contexts in which we are working within and use language we understand.
So what do you think? Is the spirit of entertainment affecting evangelical worship? If so, how do we counter this liturgical development?
May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.