Are Fun-Filled Church Events Missing the Point?

Last week Matthew Paul Turner reached out to get my opinion on church Father’s Day celebrations like Church Unlimited’s Baconfest (Corpus Christi, TX) – offering 5 types of free bacon cuisine to draw a crowd to celebrate fathers and Father God. Matthew’s article for The Daily Beast explores how church Father’s Day parties are trying to reverse the American male’s disinterest in church.

But what if these fun-filled church events are missing the point?

Having helped produce big church events and studied them from afar, I’ve learned that it can be easy to get caught up in all the hoopla and distracted by the pursuit of cool… fun… entertainment. If done right, these events can be quite spiritually fruitful, but it’s a risky approach that has undermined the intentions of many a church. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly popular for churches, particularly American Evangelicals, to try to create low-pressure church services that lure non-church goers with free food, popular music, fun activities, humor, and fancy lights and buildings. And it works very well, particularly along the South’s Bible Belt. Among Evangelical pastors this is known as Seeker Sensitive ministry – make church enticing and easy to attend for those who don’t know Jesus but are seeking something spiritual.

But what’s the value in it? I’ve had friends who came to know Christ through a fun-filled event. I know their testimonies are real. And churches like Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church boom with 24K+ weekly attendance after decades of Seeker Sensitive events. But in 2007, Willow Creek also conducted surveys called the REVEAL Study that discovered that while they’re great at getting people to attend church and say they’re Christians that the unfortunate majority of their congregation is in a state of arrested spiritual development. They discovered that their approach was great at Christian baby-making, but they couldn’t disciple them past being bottle fed by the pulpit and into learning to spiritually feed themselves and abide in Christ like John 15 expresses.

Almost a decade into these insights, Seeker Sensitive churches are still exploring how to offer more spiritual substance and better discipleship. But they’re also ratcheting up the fun. This past weekend is Father’s Day, and around the country were fun events and gimmicks like Baconfest, church car shows, and gun & grill giveaways. I’m not ashamed to admit that Baconfest’s 5 free cuisines are enough to make me want to attend.

In fact, in recent years I’ve wanted to attend several church events just for the free food and entertainment. I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. But it was bad for me. I was convicted because my heart attitude cared nothing for the spiritual potential but only for selling an hour of my time for $3 worth of food.

The value in Seeker Sensitive ministry, also known as attractional ministry, is that it attracts people with stuff so that they might hear the Word of God and have the Holy Spirit move on their heart. After all, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Some Seeker Sensitive churches are great at preaching the gospel and Word of God, and unfortunately, others are oft critiqued for sermons that are virtually devoid of Scripture. A Seeker Sensitive church is only effective if layered on top of the wisdom of God and proclaiming the gospel.

Not all Seeker Sensitive events are created equal. Surprisingly, the atheists of New England can sometimes be more discerning about what is biblical than a preacher from the Bible Belt. I met a youth pastor from Connecticut once who told me a tale of two churches. One church in the area had a big promotion advertising a big screen TV and La-Z-Boy recliner to be given away on Father’s Day. The local atheists were livid pointing out how unChristlike it was for a church to celebrate Father’s Day by giving away things that cause dads to check out and ignore their families. Another local church also did a giveaway, but they gave away tickets to the local fair, which was applauded as a great idea for encouraging quality family time. Sometimes those who are furthest away from Christianity are more insightful as to what is most like Christ.

This isn’t a rant against special church events. After all, I’d go to Baconfest (for the food). But I say all of this because I think we have to be extremely careful. American Christianity dumps so much clutter and cultural opinion on how they do church. Meanwhile, the majority of American Christians are missing the obvious basics that Christ called us to – repent, be meek, love, reconcile, seek the Kingdom, take Christ’s yoke, pray, care for the poor, disciple, and so much more. This applies to the majority of US churches. Too many of them create complex yet comfortable systems to replace the simple yet uncomfortable mandates of Christ. It is hard to be a Christian in America because we are so easily distracted by the comforts and cares of this world.

Christianity thrives on selfless sacrifice and one-on-one relationships. We must be careful of church models that layer on more comforts into a Laodicea culture. Very few churches can effectively get people in the door with gimmicks and then disciple them to be selfless. I think it is possible, but it’s brutally hard. And more often than not, it ends up with a church full of spiritual babies like in 1 Corinthians 3. People are more starved for genuine, selfless relationships than they are for free food and cool music. If we aren’t careful, we can get so caught up in doing the latter efficiently that we never have time to do what Christ actually told us to do.

Malcolm Gladwell on David and Goliath

Catalyst Atlanta 2013

At Catalyst Atlanta 2013, Malcolm Gladwell discussed David and Goliath.

Israel was still in its infancy, and their great enemy was the Philistines. One day the Philistines came through the valley to attack, and Israel came out to meet them. They were deadlocked. So the Philistines sent out the Philistine giant named Goliath to fight single combat (i.e., a tradition of a one-on-one fight to decide the battle and save bloodshed). Goliath was too big, but David the shepherd boy was willing to fight him.

David told King Saul,

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.

King Saul offered David his armor, but David refused. Instead David brought a staff, 5 smooth stones, and a sling.

1 Samuel 17:31-39
And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.” When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

David was not an underdog.

I think the way this story has been interpreted in modern culture has miscontrued its meaning.

We call David an underdog. Why?
He is a kid. He is shorter. And because all David has was a sling.

However, in ancient combat a slinger was one of the more devastating weapons. Its projectile moves at such a speed that Goliath wouldn’t have time to react. Based on the speed and hardness of stone, the projectile was the equivalent of a .45 caliber bullet. We know that in these times, slingers could be as accurate as a hair’s breath.

So David had an advantage.

Goliath was a big, slow heavy infantry man. The convention was for heavy infantry to fight heavy infantry, which is why King Saul offered David his armor. But David would not play by convention.

So we have a slow lumbering giant versus a nimble kid with superior technology and who is filled with the Lord. So who is the underdog?

When you look at the heart, David is not the underdog. Your obstacles and moments of weaknesses are our opportunities for our greatest learning.

David refused to be passive. He was the only one that understood the power of his faith.

An example from WWII

During World War II, the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon defied the Nazis. Andre Trocme He was a minister who chose to not submit to anything that went against the Bible. He refused to salute the invader’s flag and ring the bell for them, and the town joined him. Most importantly, they chose to protect the Jews.

The town was so defiant that the kids wrote a letter to the government explaining that they have Jews among them and do not make a distinction between Jews and non-Jews because it is against the gospel. They added, “If you try to get them, we will hide them.”

The people were prepared for this because the Protestants faced severe persecution from the Catholic Church in earlier years. Earlier persecution taught them how to band together and be strong, but most importantly, they learned the power of faith. So here come the Nazis, and they say, “We’ve seen worse. Why should this be any different.”

One woman that harbored Jews said, “I did not know that it was dangerous.” She didn’t see herself as an underdog. There were plenty of other Christians in France that didn’t act like this. They saw themselves as underdogs.

Underestimating the power of our faith has real world consequences.

We misunderstand Goliath.

But it is not just that we underestimate David, but that we misunderstand Goliath.

First of all, Goliath is led down to the valley by a guy. Why? Why does the mightiest warrior need help?
Then there is a specific mention about how slowly Goliath moves.
Why does it take Goliath so long to figure out what David is doing? He is oblivious.
Then Goliath says, “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?”

Modern medicine deduces that Goliath suffered from adenoma, which is a tumor on the pituitary gland. It causes people to grow tall, but sometimes the tumor grows to impair the optic nerves causing nearsightedness and even double vision.

Why does Goliath call out, “Come to me?” He needed David near. Why did Goliath say “sticks”? David only had one stick. Goliath couldn’t see well.

So remember 2 things:

  1. Giants aren’t always what they seem.
  2. Someone armed with nimble feet and superior technology and filled with the Lord is not an underdog.

I’m sorry. I was wrong.

I began blogging in 2006. Last year I said I would take the blog in a new direction. And I have subtly shifted the language towards where God has been refining me.

But it needs to shift more. I need to better reconcile what this blog has been and who I am now.

Quite frankly, I no longer agree with some of my early writings. It is not that they were blatantly wrong or heretical, but they did emphasize the wrong things. They often emphasized man’s strength or were even godless. But in the work of Christ’s Kingdom, God has to be at the center. God has to be in it in order for there to be fruit. We plant and water, but God makes it grow (1 Cor 3:6). And there will be no growth if God is not truly invited.

I’ve studied the business of ministry long enough to feel confident that there are almost guaranteed principles and techniques for growing a large American church. I know how to grow a church in my own strength that appears successful in man’s eyes. But man’s metrics aren’t Kingdom metrics, and a seemingly successful church can actually be an anemic church.

If God told me to start a church, and I was faithful to hear and obey every nudge of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, it may not appear impressive in man’s eyes. That is not to say that God doesn’t grow large gatherings because He can and sometimes does. However, the most striking moves of God I see often seem grassroots and unorganized in such a way that nobody can take the credit except for God. Many moves of God are mundane in institutional appearance but radical in local impact.

The same can be said for individuals. Of course, God can use someone famous, but you don’t have to be impressive in man’s eyes to be used by God. Among the Christ followers I’ve recently met recently that seem most in tune with God, I am amazed by how many work jobs like Fedex, Starbucks, and homeless shelters. They fly under the radar of man’s attention but do so much for the Kingdom. This isn’t about social status; it is about heart attitude. So God also uses designers, ministers, and multi-millionaires.

How I was wrong.

Of course, when I started blogging, I would have agreed with these statements, but I didn’t live or write like I actually believed them. I thought I believed them, but I only religiously knew about them. I thought I was promoting biblical ideas but often promoted the wisdom and best practices of man instead.

I felt like a Pharisee from Matthew 15 when Jesus rebuked them by paraphrasing Isaiah 29:13, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” In other words, I was learning about God from preachers and middlemen rather than properly communing with God directly. I teaching man’s ideas as though they were God’s.

Matthew Henry adds the following insights:

When men’s inventions are tacked to God’s institutions, and imposed accordingly, this is hypocrisy, a mere human religion. God will have His own work done by His own rules, and accepts not that which He did not Himself appoint. That only comes to Him, that comes from Him.

Those who are most zealous of their own impositions, are commonly most careless of God’s commands.

Like most Pharisees, I was blind to what I was actually doing. My chief error was in what I emphasized and prioritized. I knew prayer was important, so I’d occasionally toss it into an article as a legalistic afterthought, but I wasn’t living it, and I was drowning out what few spiritual disciplines I mentioned with my overemphasis on man’s ideas.

I wrote what I knew but lacked spiritual maturity.

People write what they know, so it was easier for me to write about man’s wisdom rather than spiritual disciplines. I was groomed for ministry by working on a team that didn’t need God (i.e., we were self-sufficient). We were so talented, efficient, and well-funded that there was seemingly nothing we couldn’t do in our own strength. God broke me years later by teaching me how much I need Him. Please understand that it is not bad to have a skilled team or great resources. However, such strengths make it easier to forget about God, prayer, and abiding in Him and easier to fall into temptations like pride and self-reliance.

I understand that it is harsh to say a team “didn’t need God.” I try to be cautious about assuming the heart attitude of others. At the same time, I know that “the heart speaks what the mouth is full of” (Luke 6:45), and I know that our theology dictates our methodology. I am deeply troubled by how many esteemed ministry leaders and teams I’ve encountered that talk hours about strategy and techniques but rarely if ever speak any words of prayer, Scripture, or things deemed spiritual. It is dangerously influential on an organization’s culture.

I’ve encountered too many ministries shaped by cultures that unintentionally communicate, “You don’t pray about it. The leadership will pray and tell you what the Holy Spirit wants you to do.” Of course, no one ever says this, but I’ve sadly seen many operate this way by spiritually emasculating workers and siloing them as compartmentalized cogs rather than members of a body. It trains ministry workers to use their own strength rather than God’s wisdom and focus on their role’s needs rather than the body.

I don’t like writing that. It sounds negative. It may hurt some of my relationships. But it is a very real dynamic I’ve experienced on multiple teams, and it’s consequently shaped some of my writings.

I assumed people knew and wouldn’t forget the power of prayer.

I made the same mistake that church growth experts made decades ago. I assumed that I didn’t need to emphasize prayer because everyone already knows they should be praying. However, when spiritual disciplines are deemphasized and man’s strategy is exalted, there is a grave danger for established generations to stray from what’s most important and for upcoming generations to be mistrained by religious middlemen rather than being directly reshaped through abiding in Jesus Christ the Living Water (i.e., enjoying God through prayer, worship, reflection, and Bible study).

It reminds me of this quote by Gary McIntosh in an interview with Ed Stetzer:

Here is what I have learned about McGavran and the early church growth movement, McGavran was a man of the Word. He was a man of prayer. This man would get on his hands and knees and pray an hour every night whether he was traveling or whatever he was doing. His memorized almost all the Psalms in two languages – English and Hindi. The Word was in His heart.

Now what happened in the early church growth movement is that a lot of assumptions were made. He made the assumption that churches were churches of prayer, that churches were churches of relationship. And I think all of us in the early part of our church growth experience, we focused on methodology. We focused on technology or techniques of helping people build communities, build evangelism, build houses of welcome for newcomers to come. But then we’ve all through our history, through one way or another, have come back to those spiritual disciplines of it’s prayer; it’s the Word; it’s the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the beginning of the movement, the assumption was made that we don’t need to talk about the Holy Spirit, don’t need to talk about prayer, don’t need to talk about relationships because we all know that that is the core of everything. So pastors need help with specifics. How do we build a welcoming process for people in the church? How do reach out to the community? But over time, we got criticized for that lack. And it wasn’t because we didn’t believe it but because we assumed it in the early writings.

We cannot forget to emphasize the basics. Talking about ideas, strategies, and techniques isn’t bad, but doing so must fit within the scope of the Holy Spirit’s calling, be fueled by engaging with Christ, and be built upon the biblical basics of the gospel, the Great Commission, the two love commandments, prayer, worship, the Beatitudes, the Galatians 5 fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the armor of God, and the pursuit of purity.

Just to clarify…

I still love institutional ministry and organic ministry. I still love ideas and strategy. I think there is a place for pragmatism, models, and ministry tools. And I love and am grateful for the teams I’ve worked alongside.

In the past, I have written things that emphasized the wrong things. I am sorry.