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Showtime Religion

March 2003 | by John MacArthur

Can the church fight apathy and materialism by feeding people’s appetite for entertainment? Evidently many in the church think so, as church after church jumps on the show-business bandwagon.

It is a troubling trend that is luring many otherwise orthodox churches away from biblical priorities.

What they want

Church buildings are being constructed like theatres. Instead of a pulpit, the focus is a stage. Some feature massive platforms that revolve or rise and fall, with coloured lights and huge sound boards.

Spiritual shepherds are giving way to media specialists, programming consultants, stage directors, special effects experts, and choreographers.

The idea is to give the audience what they want. Tailor the church service to whatever will draw a crowd.

As a result, pastors are more like politicians than shepherds, looking to appeal to the public rather than leading and building the flock God has entrusted to them.

The congregation is served a slick, professional show, in which drama, pop music, and maybe a soft-sell sermon constitute the worship service. But the emphasis is on entertainment, not worship.

Underlying idea

Underlying this trend is the notion that the church must ‘sell’ the gospel to unbelievers — that churches compete for the consumer on the same level as Frosted Flakes or Miller Lite.

More and more churches are relying on marketing strategy to sell the church.

That philosophy is the result of bad theology. It assumes that if you package the gospel right, people will get saved. The whole approach is rooted in Arminian theology.

It views conversion as nothing more than an act of the human will. Its goal is an instantaneous decision rather than a radical change of the heart.

Moreover, this whole Madison-Avenue corruption of Christianity presumes that church services are primarily for recruiting unbelievers. Many have abandoned worship as such.

Others have relegated conventional preaching to some small group-setting on a weeknight. But that misses the point of Hebrews 10:24-25: ‘Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together’.

True pattern

Acts 2:42 shows us the pattern the early church followed when they met: ‘They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’.

Note that the early church’s priorities were to worship God and to edify the brethren. The church came together for worship and edification — it scattered to evangelise the world.

Our Lord commissioned his disciples for evangelism thus: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Christ makes it clear that the church is not to wait for (or invite) the world to come to its meetings, but to go to the world.

That is a responsibility for every believer. I fear that an approach emphasising a palatable gospel presentation within the walls of the church absolves the individual believer from his personal obligation to be a light in the world (Matthew 5:16).

Lifestyle

Society is filled with people who want what they want when they want it. They are ‘into’ their own lifestyle, recreation and entertainment. When churches appeal to those selfish desires, they only fuel that fire and hinder true godliness.

Some of these churches are growing exponentially, while others that do not entertain are struggling. Many church leaders want numerical growth in their churches, so they are buying into the entertainment-first philosophy.

Consider what this philosophy does to the gospel message itself. Some maintain that if biblical principles are presented, the medium doesn’t matter. That is nonsense.

Why not have a real carnival? A tattooed knife-thrower who juggles chain-saws could do his thing, while a barker shouts Bible verses. That would draw a crowd, wouldn’t it?

It’s a bizarre scenario, but one that illustrates how the medium can cheapen and corrupt the message.

Trivialising

And sadly, it’s not terribly different from what is actually being done in some churches. Punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, clowns, and show-business celebrities have taken the place of the preacher — and they are degrading the gospel.

I do believe we can be innovative and creative in how we present the gospel, but we have to be careful to harmonise our methods with the profound spiritual truth we are trying to convey. It is too easy to trivialise the sacred message.

Don’t be quick to embrace the trends of the high-tech super-churches. And don’t sneer at conventional worship and preaching. We don’t need clever approaches to get people saved (1 Corinthians 1:21).

We simply need to get back to preaching the truth and planting the seed. If we’re faithful in that, the soil God has prepared will bear fruit.