With the lights out, it’s less dangerous,
Here we are now, entertain us,
I feel stupid, and contagious,
Here we are now, entertain us.
(“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind, Nirvana 1991)
“The thinking was that ‘we must approach them where they are most accessible; we must see in ways they will understand to enlighten, elevate, attract them;’ . . . ‘One minister uses a magic lantern to enforce his sermon; another has added a tavern to his church equipment; a third takes up the latest murder scandal; a fourth has a service of song; a fifth depends on a gipsy or ex-pugilist. A church will soon embrace a theatre, a variety-show, a saloon, a tourist agency, and other attractions which will draw young people and prevent old people from wearying in the worship of God’” (The Problem of Pleasure, Dominic Erdozain, 254, 255).
“[The main building] is a 90,000 square foot 2,500 seat auditorium with every seat having a great view of the stage it features a built-in baptismal pool, beautiful new screens including a 68 foot widescreen HD screen for media and a stage for creative ministries. There is plenty of room for conferences, productions, Christmas and Easter services, Hillsong nights, etc. WCC also provides plenty of altar space for people to respond to the call of the Kingdom, as people stream to Christ.
Imagine the amount of people every year making decisions for Christ…families being changed, people coming off drugs, business people’s lives being empowered, single moms’ raising nation-shaking children…Can you Imagine the Future? . . .
“Join us every Sunday at 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 6:00 PM for a time of amazing worship, relevant preaching and unforgettable friendships.” (From the website of a multi-site church in the U.S.)
How did church go from dispersed bands of rebel Jews, tripping on messianic heresy to conglomerate organizations with multi-million dollar budgets and buildings? Dominic Erdozain’s The Problem of Pleasure offers key insights that help answer that question. He traces the evangelical church’s response to leisure in Victorian England from a place of condemnation to acculturation. It is a fascinating read that draws on loads of primary source material. His thesis is “that secularisation occurred when the salvation economy became social morality in the late nineteenth century – a process fuelled by the family obsession with pleasure” (6, emphasis his). The thread he pulls through the book is that secularization is not something that was imposed upon the evangelical church, but something that the church contributed to herself, by a shifting response to pleasure and leisure.In brief, the advent of evangelicalism in 18th century England exploded, in large part, due to a new emphasis on experiential conversion from sin to salvation. Key in this new understanding of how one is saved was the notion that one could sense the “heavy burden” (to use the words of Whitefield) of one’s sin and, conversely, the great release and hope experienced in justification by faith. It was Wesley who described the feeling of his conversion experience as his “heart strangely warmed.” The individual, personal experience of God’s grace became the primary test for one’s conversion and salvation. So captivating was this experience that it was described by one convert as “a flood of joy [which] rushed in my heart, that every vein in my body tingled” (57). Erdozain writes, “The evangelical genius was to make Christianity its own recreation – at least for a while” (57). As the 19th century churned along and evangelicalism’s revivals continued to win converts, there developed a serious threat to the new converts: amusement outside the Christian experience. “Christianity was supposed to provide its own pleasures,” writes Erdozain, “and this fuelled suspicion of non-Christian activities and amusements” (69). So the Church responded by declaring a war on pleasures like drink, gambling, wrestling, bull-baiting, and cock fighting. Evangelicals campaigned to get as many of these pleasures outlawed as vice as they could. They spiritualized the problem by claiming that these activities resulted in “misspent time” that “usurp[ed] God” (71). Pleasure became Enemy Number One of the Christian life. Unfortunately, this stance did nothing to improve things. Things changed in the mid-19th century, however. Evangelicals started to explore the idea that perhaps social pleasure could be part of the solution, not part of the problem. This approach, however, also developed serious failings. Erdozain points to Charles Kingsley and his “Muscular Christians” as one example in particular, and traces the history of the YMCA (which was founded in 1844) in general, of “the emergence within Christianity of a rival account of salvation” (87, emphasis his). This new path to salvation was through sport. If certain activities were to be avoided as vice, then others should be engaged in as virtue. The higher the degree of one’s participation in things like gymnastics and cricket, the greater his sanctification. Whereas just a generation before pleasure had been spiritualized as sin, evangelicals were now spiritualizing sport as a means of grace. Now there was a choice between the wrong sorts of pleasure and the right sorts. The spiritualization of some types of pleasure and recreation combined with a Victorian obsession with statistics to create a powerful, instrumental use of pleasure in the mid- to late-19th century. As numbers of evangelical conversions started to wane, participation in social sport was on the increase. Evangelicals who were (and still are) somewhat obsessed with counting things saw that the quantification of vice – how much money was being spent annually on drink per capita, as an example – might strengthen their case and help raise funds to build bigger facilities to provide for “alternative” opportunities. As a result, churches and para-church organizations alike began building gymnasiums, pools, cricket fields, and other facilities which might offer an alternative to the pubs. “Again, we find the Christian ‘supply’ determined by the ‘demand’ of modern social life” (189). By the end of the 19th century, churches were fully engaged in offering every kind of Christian recreation distraction they could conceive of that didn’t stray directly into vices like gambling or drinking. Worship services were affected (as exemplified in the opening quote above) by a turn toward attraction and entertainment. Charles Spurgeon observed, ” ‘The church has gone into the amusement business largely. . . . The discovery has been made that the church, in order to hold its young people to its altars, must provide for the natural craving of amusements. It used to be held that Jesus and his work furnished ample resources to meet the loftiest aspirations of a saved soul. . . . That sort of sentiment is now thought not to be up to “the times” ‘ ” (233). Written nearly 125 years ago, Spurgeon’s critique of his modern church still holds painfully true today. Erdozain’s final analysis is that the Church would have done better to have left well enough alone. Attempts to outlaw pleasure and attempts to provide Christian “alternatives” led only to the insidious secularization of para-church organizations (he examines this process within the YMCA at length) and churches themselves. Presbyterian minister John Watson, writing in the British Weekly in 1899 sums it up thusly,
If it comes to be a competition between the amusements of the church . . . and the amusements of the world . . . is there any sane person who thinks that the church can win? If the gay, clever world understands anything, it is how to amuse: the power and glory of the Church has been to inspire, to comfort, to save. Are there any entertainments, with few exceptions, either more frivolous and silly, or more dreary and wearisome, than the social efforts of the average congregation? Like Caesar, the world offers her magnificent shows; the Church, like Christ, ought to present the victorious Cross. Why should the church leave her high place and come down into the arena, where she will lose her strength and be put to shame? Do men come to church for petty pleasures fit only for children, or for the satisfaction of their soul and the confirmation of their faith? Would Christianity have begun to exist if the Apostles had been ‘pleasing preachers’ and ‘bright men,’ and had given themselves to ‘socials’ and ‘sales’ and ‘talks’? The only social they had was abolished because it had become a disgrace. . . . The Church triumphed by her faith, her holiness, her sympathy, her courage, and by these high virtues she must stand in this age also. . . . but if she sinks into a place of second-rate entertainments or a cheap business concern, then it were better that her history should close . . .” (255-256).
Therein lies the rub: “second-rate entertainments or a cheap business concern.” Evangelical mega-churches today truly believe that they are competing on the stage of the broader entertainment culture. Building auditoriums modeled after movie theaters and lobbies after coffee shops, they are convinced that they are, like late-Victorian churches, providing Christian alternatives to secular counterparts. The thinking is that such allurements will draw in the unconverted and, while they are enjoying their lattes, the lights and haze of the music production, the motivational preacher on the big screen, they might accidentally hear the Gospel and be saved. This thinking is flawed on at least three counts.First, these churches are not competing on the same level as their secular counterparts. They are only serving to secularize themselves and dull any distinctions they once had from other cultural institutions. Though they convince themselves to the contrary, even the best mega-churches around are not leading innovators in the entertainment culture. They are not first-rate in the broader industry, the are second-rate. That is not to say, however, that they are not excellent at what they do. If the analysis is limited to only churches, then it is easy to make the case that there are clear leaders and innovators in church entertainment. However, placed on the broader scene of live entertainment, no churches are, in reality, successfully competing with Hollywood, Broadway, Starbucks, or Tony Robbins. Second, precious few of these churches are drawing the unconverted away from their secular counterparts. While there are some that will wander in off the street, the prognosis for their long-term spiritual growth is not good. As one contributor to the British Weekly observed in 1891, ” ‘those who come to church because there is amusement to be found in connection with it, remain only as long as this attraction lasts for them. You do not find such persons eager to attend the services that are only held for worship and purposes of spiritual communion’ “(237). In other words, turn off the haze and tone down the music and people leave. This is also due, in large part, to the extraordinary amount of transfer growth that occurs in these churches. Instead of competing with secular institutions, many of these churches are, in reality, competing amongst themselves for the same converted people. Third, the assumption that the Gospel is something that needs to be dressed up into more attractive clothing to make it more palatable is a dangerous fallacy that unwittingly reinforces an insipid consumerism prevalent in Western evangelical churches today. The Gospel is attractive enough by itself. To dress it up in any clothing other than gown of sacrifice and crown of hope ,which it already dons, is to cheapen it into one trendy choice among many, reinforcing – not confronting – the notion that Christianity is, fundamentally, no different than other major world religions. The very amusements which churches hope will bring people to the Gospel compete with the Gospel and perpetuate a culture of “church shopping” typified by the search for the “right” kind of music or a “style of preaching” that is agreeable. Yet there are churches of this ilk that are growing in converts. Stories abound of people who have come to know Christ because of a church softball team or motorcycle ministry. It is not all for naught. Nor should the church revert to an adversarial stance against pleasure. Instead, she should seek to live somewhere on the continuum between creating Christian sub-culture and circling the wagons against the “outside” world. Her main charge is to preach the Gospel. That Gospel is one that requires love and sacrifice, neither attractive in their own rights. However, it is not we who do the attracting, is it? Instead of creating campuses and activities invited to draw people to us so that they might hear the Gospel, we must remember the phrasing of the Great Commission: “As you go…” Evangelicalism’s birth was as a revival movement taking place in fields and in the squares, not in the pews. It was an affront to the institutional church of its day and it sought to take the hope of the Gospel outside the walls of the church, to the people who had, long ago, decided not to darken the doorstep of their local house of worship. To be missional is to recapture the “going” of Christianity. Instead of seeking to figure out bigger, better, and more innovative ways to attract people to our places of worship, to attract them to our communities, to make relevant (or is it relativize?) the Gospel, we need to go to them, surmount obstacles with them instead of removing them for them, engage in community that is messy, humbly discuss those things that matter (which, interestingly, almost always live on that fuzzy border of heresy and orthodoxy), and lead them to the Cross of Christ.