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He said with reference to what he has seen on TV of mega

That's Entertainment

He said with reference to what he has seen of mega-churches, "Worship has become entertainment."

I agreed.  But I need to explain with some nuance.

Beginning with the consideration that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being entertaining on a Sunday morning or whenever two or three are gathered together.  I've quoted it before, and I hope with some accuracy of attribution, if not exactly, the observation of David Read, the renowned Madison Avenue Presbyterian preacher of an earlier generation, that the greatest sin in the pulpit is being boring. There is plenty of  temptation to nod off in the pew, especially if the Sunday morning is preceded by a Saturday night of revelry.  In earlier days churches employed beadles armed with staffs of sufficient length and sharpness to prod snoozers back to wakefulness if not attention. In an age when corporal punishment has fallen into disfavor the preacher has to rely instead on rhetorical strategy to keep congregants awake, like raising the voice, telling stories, using gestures, and wearing funny hats. 

You know, a little drama... and music, music, music.  A jazz combo, and sometimes a full-fledged orchestra, is de rigueur in mega-churches, and many of their imitators. The familiarity of popular music with its sounds and rhythms lends itself readily to the simplicity of praise songs (projected with PowerPoint to front walls of naves) which for many Christians have displaced the use of hymns in the hymnal (a book which continues to occupy space in the bench racks).  Vatican II didn't start this trend but the "hootenanny masses" with guitars and folk songs implicitly suggested that pipe organs and the sacred music of yore might eventually become relics like the bones of saints sequestered in an alcove of the cathedral.  Nowadays one enters a Protestant church and reflexively searches for a percussion set in one of the transepts.  And why not, a little tapping of the feet and a swaying of the body seems to be endorsed in the 150 Psalm, especially the loud clashing cymbals.    

The rationale for this spiritual pandering has been around for my entire professional career.  It originates nobly and innocently enough in the desire to connect, to make the Word of God relevant, to brush away the dust which has accumulated on tired confessions and over-repeated prayers, to present faith as something vital, modern, "cool" even; or how will Jesus ever get a fair hearing in the You Tube age? 

My quarrel isn't with this rationale... although I have feared that in our zeal to be relevant we in church leadership may sometimes have overdone it.  As when paraphrases of Scripture are substituted for authorized translations; when Milky Ways and Coca Cola are used as the elements of holy communion; when prayers get chummy with the Almighty; and when the passing of the peace begins to resemble the old parlor game, Fruit Salad. Thankfully such practices are the exceptions we like to frown on and think we are "above all that."

No, what concerns me is that the entertainment in worship can, and often does, detract from the message.  Like Marshall McLuhan (remember him?) famously could have explained about worship in the 21st Century, "The medium is the message." A dear and devoted congregant occasionally sent me a note with this flattering opinion, "I like what you say and the way you say it."  As pleased as I was with such praise, it always made me feel embarrassed, with a tinge of guilt, that, maybe, just maybe, I was getting in the way of the message (effectively, yes, but still in the way). And that previous sentence proves just how priggish preachers can be... this preacher, anyway. 

Other comments I have heard feed my worry.  Like the observation offered in praise at the church door post-sermon that there wasn't a dry eye in the house, as if the power of preaching lies in its ability to entice water from tear ducts.  Or the observation: wow, she never once glanced at her notes.  And on Christmas Eve the soloist who wrings every precious quaver of sentiment out of "O Holy Night." Such pursue effect at the expense of authenticity. Emotions in worship should flow from thought and deed and not be an end in themselves.  When they do (become an end in themselves), I, if I am a witness to it, am overcome with an urge to find an exit... which impulse civility usually inhibits.

But maybe it's just my problem.  A carpenter from Ohio in my Brooklyn congregation gently chided me for my habit in sermons of "pulling my punches" (his metaphor).  That I had a tendency to see both sides, a hesitation at driving a point home to the exclusion of other possibilities.  He would have liked a little more fire and brimstone and less shades of gray. Maybe that's why in fifty years of preaching and praying only once (on the front porch of Brooklyn's Borough Hall) did an audience applaud me for my spiritual offerings... for which, by the way, I've never felt even a twinge of remorse! 

Despite my lapse, maybe, just maybe, that, applause, may be the consequence to be avoided, if, when leading worship, one is tempted to pull out all the stops and go for the rapture... which usually becomes the phony equivalent thereof.  Applause appropriately greets bravura performances.  Once in a great while what issues from the pulpit and the choir loft is bravura. But mostly when pulpit and choir loft strive for bravura, they usually end up delivering bombast.

'Nuf said.

 

 

 

 

 



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