(March 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 3)
If entertainment has become a way of life, it has permeated all aspects of society and culture. If, in fact, so much that the American people say and do is defined by entertainment (as we argued in our last paper), then we are not surprised to find that entertainment has encroached upon the church as well. After all, even the best of churches are comprised of redeemed sinners who have been shaped all too much by the world in which we live. And although Scripture clearly warns us not to be conformed to the world’s mold (Romans 12:2), that battle unfortunately is not easily won. The reason being, at least in part, is that we often define nonconformity to the world in terms of externals – how we dress, what we eat or drink, where we go – while ignoring the philosophy of the world system that tends to creep into our hearts and minds. Many believers, who would never think of taking a drink or dressing immodestly, are nevertheless quite worldly in philosophy. That is, they have taken a page out of society’s playbook and developed corresponding lifestyles. In other words, they think like unbelievers. They approach the issues of life like unbelievers. They solve their problems like unbelievers. They make decisions like unbelievers, and usually they have no concept that this is how they live. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of amusement. If this is the case it may be because few Christians have ever thought deeply on this subject of entertainment, and few understand the danger.
Although, as demonstrated in our last paper, entertainment has roots that go back many years, recently it has been developed into an art form. Something is driving this engine and it is gathering steam. I believe that something is the relatively recent philosophy of self-fulfillment that has emerged out of the 1960s. “Baby boomers have reoriented our society towards peers and away from family. They have moved the psychic center of the family away from obligations to others and toward self-fulfillment” (Christianity Today, July 12, 1999, “The Triumph of the Praise Songs, How Guitars Beat Out the Organ in the Worship Wars,” by Michael S. Hamilton). The so-called “need” for personal fulfillment, I am convinced, is what propels this generation. Personal fulfillment is what people want, what they crave, what they will have. Entertainment is but one of the wells into which they have dipped their bucket in search for fulfillment.
It should not surprise us to discover that such a society has remade the church in its own image. “A generation so at odds with the traditions it has inherited is going to change the way it does church…. The generation that has crowded into maternity wards and grade schools and rock concerts now crowds into megachurches (only a generation that loved Woodstock could love Willow Creek). The generation that reorganized family around the ideal of self-fulfillment has done the same with religion. Surveys consistently show that baby boomers – whether evangelical or liberal, Protestant or Catholic – attend church not out of loyalty, duty, obligation, or gratitude, but only if it meets their needs” (ibid., p. 30).
One of the areas in which this generation believes their need for fulfillment is met is in the form of entertainment. The seeker-sensitive church (see our papers on “The Market-Driven Church”) has caught this wave all too well. They understand that this age is seeking fulfillment, and often in an entertaining format. They have designed their churches to meet this “need” which largely explains their phenomenal growth. But it also is their greatest weakness. Os Guinness recognizes this when he writes, [Take for example] “the megachurches subordination of worship and discipleship to evangelism, and all three to entertainment, a problem that is already the Achilles heel of evangelicalism” (Dining with the Devil, by Os Guinness, p. 27).
It must be understood, at this point, that entertainment within the church comes in a variety of wrappings and the more subtle the wrapping the more dangerous the content. For example, when I am being entertained in either a secular or ecclesiastical setting, and know I am being entertained, it is of little consequence. If I go to a so-called Christian event, which for the most part is lighthearted, full of laughter and fun music, I have gone to be entertained. I am not in attendance to worship God or be instructed in His Word. I am there to have a good time. I know that, and as long as the entertainment is not out of sync with Christian character and biblical truth nothing is harmed. This boat springs a leak, however, the moment I begin to believe that this activity is worship or that this is the way worship should be packaged. As long as I can distinguish amusement from worship I can appreciate both in their proper setting. It is not wrong to be entertained as a Christian; it is wrong to confuse it with, or allow it to replace, true worship and biblical instruction. “The purpose of worship is clearly to express the greatness of God and not simply to find inward release or, still less, amusement” (Losing Our Virtue, by David Wells, p. 40).
Herein enters one of the subtlest forms of entertainment as related to the Christian and the church. The cry pouring from the wilderness, by a self-fulfillment seeking generation, is the need to experience, or feel the presence of God (not to be confused with a genuine passion to know and worship a most holy God). Increasingly Christians say they attend church to experience God, to come into His presence, to have a Divine rendezvous. They want to go to a church where they can “feel God.” There are a number of pitfalls imminent in this desire, the most obvious of which is that it is unbiblical. Where in Scripture are we told to seek the presence of God as a felt experience? As New Testament believers we are already in the presence of God since He resides in our bodies (I Cor. 6:19). And since Christ is our High Priest we are told to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). But no where in Scripture are we told to seek an experience in which we feel the presence of God. I often ask people who are caught up in this “experiencing God” current, “Exactly what does God’s presence feel like?” After a fumbling attempt to explain, my next question is, “How do you know that what you felt is God and not the devil, or your own imagination or last night’s pizza?” They have no legitimate answer to this question, except “they just know.” But that is not enough. If God did not see fit to neither demand us to seek such a Divine experience, nor to describe what one would feel like, who are we to make this the apex of the Christian life of worship? Every Christian leader, especially in this age of quasi-mysticism, should read William James’ old classic, The Varieties of Christian Experience, which, while not a Christian book, gives great insight into the claimed experiences emanating from all forms of religion. This volume should give us pause before so quickly pronouncing so many feelings and experiences as encounters with God.
But more germane to our subject is the live reality that the “feeling the presence of God” stampede is actually a form of entertainment with a thin layer of worship draped over it. This recent hunger for Divine encounter is precipitated by an appetite for personal fulfillment. A culture that so prizes personal fulfillment has found that one of the ways they can do this is through what they believe is experiencing God. Many are seeking the presence of God simply because it makes them feel better. “Modern evangelicalism,” writes Donald Bloesch, “has shamefully adapted to the therapeutic society, which makes personal fulfillment the be all and end all of human existence” (Donald G. Bloesch, Christianity Today, February 5, 2000; “Whatever Happened to God,” p. 55). This is entertainment (a focusing on my gratification and pleasure) not worship (focusing on the greatness of God). And it is a shameful form of entertainment because it tries to make God the servant to my desires.
That this is rapidly becoming the status quo in evangelicalism is evident by the number of Christians who now choose a church on the basis of musical styles and other superficial features rather than on the basis of the truth being taught. Growing churches, claims Christian A. Schwarz, an expert in the church growth industry, are characterized by inspiring worship. In defining inspiring worship he writes, “People who attend inspiring worship services unanimously declare that the church service is — for some Christians this is almost a heretical word — ‘fun’” (Christian A. Schwarz, The ABC’s of Natural Church Development, p. 14). Fun, (I.e. entertainment), has become the criteria by which people are choosing a church. Many are all too happy to sacrifice doctrine for a good time. Many will endure outright heresies to enjoy a pleasant experience or to “feel the presence of God” even if that presence is generated by mood altering methods closer akin to manipulation than worship. Indeed, it is altogether likely that some are willingly being manipulated because they enjoy “Christianity Lite.” Michael Horton understands where the Christian herd is headed in this explained distinction between inspiration and entertainment:
Probably the single word that most viewers believe best describes the [Christian television] broadcasts is “inspirational.” But what does it mean to be “inspired”? It is a feeling of being moved religiously. What determines the genuineness of the feeling of inspiration? What separates inspiration from entertainment? Perhaps the dividing line can be described this way: Genuine inspiration is an emotional response to a genuine encounter with the living God. Inspiration, therefore, is not an end in itself or even something we should seek. It is rather a result of seeking and meeting God in His way. Inspiration is the result of something profoundly God-centered. Entertainment is profoundly man-centered. In entertainment a person looks for what pleases and excites himself or herself.
Entertainment gratifies the viewer emotionally. Whether it pleases God may be quite a secondary matter. Error can inspire. It can make people feel good, though it displeases and angers God. The electronic church too often is in the entertainment not inspiration, business. One is more likely to meet and be moved by singers and personalities than by God. And to mask the quality of their programs with the ambiguous term inspiration is quite dishonest.
One of the great tragedies of our time is that so many local churches are choosing to try to copy the electronic church. Many local churches are seeking to be attractive by emulating some of the easy, individualistic, and interesting features of the electronic church. This strategy is self-defeating because usually the local church cannot match the professional production and slick graphics of television. But more important, the strategy dishonors God by failing to be what He wants the local church to be” (The Agony of Deceit, by Michael Horton, pp. 163, 164).
The biblical picture is that the believer may in fact experience many wonderful emotions as a result of his or her relationship with God. But those emotions should result from, and be based upon, scriptural truth, not man-created substitutes manufactured to elicit an emotional response.
To be continued. . . .