That is the question, isn’t it? Where is the boundary between worship and entertainment? Entertainment is one of America’s leading industries, accounting for $504 billion, or at least 3.2 of GDP if you only count films. According to a 2016 study, the average American spends a total of 725 minutes a day consuming some form of media, some form of entertainment. And of those minutes, the average adult spends around 131 minutes in front of a computer screen. Granted, some of these minutes may be worthwhile, but many of them are wasted on some form of titillation, to use an old word. If we were to write a doctrine or set of beliefs for entertainment, at center stage would be appeal. Second to appeal would be delivery, lighting, storyline, and maybe application. 2 Timothy 4:3 has this warning about false doctrines:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
Here are several warnings about entertainment in the church that we might each want to explore further, perhaps with other pastors at our churches or a local pastoral fellowship group.
Where are the Boundaries Between Worship and Entertainment?
1. Entertainment easily becomes a mirage
Entertainment easily becomes a mirage, no matter where we experience it, and particularly in the church. Is that so bad? We’d all answer, “Yes and no.” We realize the danger in combining the elements of worship and entertainment together, but we also see the benefits of a job well done, whether it’s a movie or video game or even a mobile app, or a well-written story. In church, it’s the lights and staging, the superb praise team, and the catchy hook to a message.
We serve a creative God and we are co-creators with him. No wonder music and drama developed and thrived first in the church. To be full, we are called to worship and praise. Recall Psalm 150:
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals. (1-5)
We are given license to praise him with our full selves and with our instruments. If we don’t, the rocks will stop being silent bystanders and cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). However, it’s important to pair Psalm 150 to the sound in I Corinthians 13:1, which warns us that we can become, “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” if our intention is not one of love – love of God and love of neighbor.
2. Entertainment does not equal inviting
When it comes to today’s worship service, there’s something peculiar about even asking about the blurred line between worship (and I’m using it here as the entire church service experience) and entertainment. The refrain we often hear from our teenage sons, especially about church is, “I’m bored.” I know they are not alone. So we try and fix it, right? We strip away thousands of years of order (or liturgy) in our church and replace it with more enticing, alluring stuff. We say, “We don’t want our congregation bored,” or, “This is the only way they’ll come.”
In the effort of being inviting, have we lost the invitation? A curiosity and hunger for God’s Word is not rooted in rounding the edges of a pointed and difficult Gospel. We don’t read into Jesus’ statement about an easy yoke and light burden to ignore the taking up of our cross and enduring to the end. In 2007, Willow Creek released their study on the church’s effectiveness. “We made a mistake,” Bill Hybels said. “What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
3. A priority on entertainment can suggest intent
Few of us will stand up immediately and say, “Yes, we’ve been in the entertainment business at church and we need to change.” The declaration is too biting, and, hopefully, an overstatement. But perhaps we come to the place where we see our church having a priority on entertainment. The thing that makes all our questions about the love affair of worship and entertainment difficult is that they orbit around intent. What are we trying to do? Are we trying to attract others with our worship, or are others attracted to our worship because of whom we are worshipping? Do we build out a series of messages in order to appeal to a mass audience, or do we prayerfully consider how the Lord is working in and through our congregation in the eternal endeavor of making disciples? Are we fashioning a stage with cults of personality or are we in the process of diminishing ourselves so others can serve and be pointed to Jesus?
4. Entertainment can be a weapon to wield growth
A number of years ago, I approached a pastor about why he felt it best to move the church where he served from its historic location to a campus six miles away, especially since the expense would be $11 million, even in this small Oklahoma town. His answer: growth. “Growth?” I asked. “Why don’t you stay in your present location and send overflow to other churches in the area who have empty pews?” I didn’t think it was such a bad question, but the pastor simply hemmed and hawed. Last Sunday, in Northern Virginia where we live, we visited a church where $15 million of new construction is being planned. Why? The pastor wants a more welcoming auditorium environment and to ditch the pipe organ, chandelier-wearing sanctuary. I didn’t ask the same question, but it applies. It applies to our present topic of worship and entertainment too, because we often act out our belief in Ben Franklin’s adage, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” We know that’s not the Gospel, but its temptation is the same as Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when the Devil showed him all the kingdoms he could possess. Let’s not lose sight of the truth that God owns every heart and every breath of his creatures. It’s ours to fall into his story and not force our own.
Jesus didn’t invite the masses. They came because he spoke into their lives. As we know, he used story, miracle, and demonstration to provide God’s truth. He never appealed to people for the sake of appealing. And, he wasn’t even that attractive. Remember what Isaiah wrote:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (53:2-3).
Recall too that when Jesus addressed some “hard teaching” about being the bread of life, he asks, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” John explains that, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:60-66).
5. Entertainment infects experience
In our desire to invite others into worship, we can never lose sight of the invitation to discipleship. If we do, worship can become an experience, rather than an act of adoration; church can fall into the capitalistic trap of competition and just bang its cymbals; and we can become more inclined to adjust the message of Jesus, rather than call people to the cross. We need to be aware that entertainment is an allurement. It’s a device that can become a vice to true worship and genuine community. At the same church we visited last Sunday, the worship band projected itself so loudly, there was little reason or room to sing along. I think this is why I appreciated Rich Mullins so much. He not only self-declared his concerts as entertainment, suggesting that if you want to really worship God, go to church, but he also ended his shows in tribute to the heart of worship. He came back onto the stage and you thought it was a traditional encore performance. Instead, he said, “Let’s sing a hymn.” He started in and then left the stage as the audience continued on in worship. He realized it wasn’t about him; it was about Jesus.
Are we itching the ears of our parishioners, or are we worshipping Jesus? Our music, message, composure, heartbeat, love, care, patience, prayer and study habits, among other visible and private actions, will attest to our intent. Let us be living sacrifices and be far removed from the words of God spoken through Amos, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me” (5:21). Let us study hard the churches represented in Revelation and be found with Philadelphia, who, “kept my command to endure patiently,” says the Lord (3:10).
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.