Gary Swisher

The Sunday Morning Show

In Christianity, church, edification, evangelical, pastor on January 27, 2011 at 4:48 am

A piece this week in Politics Daily focused on some twilight reflections of, likely, the most famous evangelist of our time, Billy Graham. In the article by David Gibson, Graham expressed regret about becoming entangled in politics. His close ties with U.S. presidents seems to have been the source of this regret, and a rare public falter when he believes he was influenced by the power of the office. At the end of the article Graham is quoted, saying, “[S]uccess is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us?”

The last part of his statement should ring through the ears of any person who has been associated with a mainstream church over the past few decades. If there is one area (and there are truly many) where the church has become more and more prone to please the world, it is in the emphasis on a programmed performance–what most would call a Sunday worship service. In the name of cultural relevance, churches have adopted every element of show business from the broad stage with a complete musical ensemble to the media team that nuances lighting and sound throughout the service and cues the Hollywood-esque videos, complete with sound effects and dramatic visuals designed for maximum impact.

Our generation is so attuned to music and consumed with entertainment that church services have become more like movie trailers and infomercials. Many pastors seek real-life testimonials, human props and optimal audience interaction in order to impact their visitors and members, alike. Church leaders would reasonably argue that they are simply adjusting their delivery to the times. And so they are. Yet there has to be something wrong when you see churches so caught up in show business that they have sound systems that cost a quarter-million dollars in addition to elaborate music and drama teams.

One church in my local area actually had a series in which they created full-blown musical productions with drama vignettes intertwined in an attempt to connect with people based on what their favorite kind of music was! One particular Sunday they had a Rock music production. Another week it was Country Music Sunday and so on. I was able to view this extravaganza on their website. I have never seen anything that more closely resembles a circus atmosphere in a church (the word “circus”, by the way, likely shares a common root with the word “church”).

So am I advocating that churches retreat to monotone preachers and musty old hymnals? If this is the question that really comes to mind I think we are still missing the point. Whether it’s a showy, multimedia extravaganza or dry and lifeless regimen, church goers have long been treated to a systematic program. The trend we see now is very likely a reaction to the boredom many Christians experienced in past decades. It’s as if someone said, “Hey, Christianity should not be characterized as stuffy and boring. Let’s spice things up.”

For a long time now the pendulum has been swinging toward the dynamic and exciting extreme, and we’re talking extreme here! Anytime people are sitting in one place for more than 20 minutes and treated like receptors of information, you will have to employ every possible means to hold their attention and make it “fun”. This is why churches have long sought out dynamic and engaging orators and well-prepared and rehearsed musicians. But the apostle Paul said his speech was not eloquent. His critics complained that his presence was not impressive. When singing and praising occurred in the New Testament assembly, it seems it was very spontaneous and organic; not rehearsed and showy.

So where do we land? I have no doubt that the religious drudgery of the past (past, in some cases) has little to do with what our life in Christ is really about. But neither is the Lord Jesus Christ the true focus of the more modern worship service, even if his name and gospel are mingled into the context. Christ is not to be truly encountered or expressed through a prepared service that relies on performers and an audience.

If you, like me, bemoan the fact that churches today have lost sight of what is important and become very superficial, you might be inclined to go back to the old school, where whispering during the service is frowned upon and all the men wear their best suits. That isn’t the answer either. But the question is not about what type of service or program will put Christ front and center. We should first ask why we tend to rely so much on programs, and why we treat our gatherings as a spectator sport in the first place. And while we’re at it, we don’t need to fool ourselves into believing that God is the audience of our show either. God never required us to put on a performance each week.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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  1. Where does your church come down on this measure? Is it too accommodating? Out of touch? Or just right?

  2. That’s a hard question to answer because it isn’t MY church.

  3. Or, if the above categoriztion is misleading, the church you are currently attending.

  4. Thanks Paul. I didn’t mean to be evasive. The fact that we have this church and that church, to me, demonstrates part of the problem. People attend one church over another primarily because of the worship or preaching style. I think this contributes to the divisions and places emphasis on personal styles of “doing church” (hate that terminology). I am trying to point out here that we could debate about how much emphasis we should place on the entertainment value of a prepared program but that still misses the point. The problem is that we think of our gatherings as a program where people come to SIT AND WATCH. I can’t endorse any particular church because they all use the “programmed” approach. Churches prepare the external aspects of a gathering rather than individuals preparing themselves to build one another up in mutual edification. That is the Biblical precedent.

  5. The quality of your blog is awesome. As a pastor l understand the problem you present in this article. It makes me so thankful for my recent mission trip to poor areas of India to help start simple Acts 2:42 House Churches. At New Song we sense the Lord leading us to a more authentic and organic model that you refer to in your article.

  6. Thanks Chris. Hope to hear more about what you’re experiencing.

  7. Every Tuesday early morning i meet with some men friends and we discuss our lives and relationships and encourage each other into moving towards a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and, even though my wife and I attend and are busy with an inner city church, this is usually my best ‘church’ time. We enjoy a freedom to speak like we would never find in a regular church service, so it is always very uplifting and ‘feeeing’ to say the least.

  8. That’s a true-life example!

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