Many churches do a little something special on Easter. They crank up the choir or play an inspirational video or perform a dramatic reading.
Sometimes it’s an entire theatrical production with tickets and everything.
I understand this impulse. The resurrection of Jesus is THE central event that defines our faith as Christians. We want to signify that with some “special” elements in our worship services. We did a few things like this at the church I serve.
At the same time, there can also be a more questionable impulse at work. Here’s what it is: sometimes we are simply attempting to impress the influx of visitors we assume we’ll get.
We want to pull out all the stops and put on a show that will get these sporadic visitors to become regular attenders (probably not a bad thing in and of itself, by the way).
But in our desire to impress, it’s easy to cross a line. Instead of leading people in worship on Sunday, we find ourselves merely entertaining people in an effort to get them to come back next week.
In other words, it’s easy to become entertainers instead of pastors and worship leaders.
It’s easy to look at your congregation on Sunday morning and feel like the pressure is on.
They got up early instead of sleeping in. They got the kids dressed and ready for church. You’d better show them it was worth it, or you won’t see them until Christmas.
Here we are now, show us a sign
I remember when I first heard the 1990s alt-rock band Nirvana. I was watching MTV at a friend’s house and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on.
I was transfixed.
They repeatedly chanted what they saw as the anthem of a relentlessly bored youth culture:
“Here we are now, entertain us.”
Nirvana saw that this is the world we live in. We are accustomed to being amazed. Blown away. We seek out that which we’ve never seen before.
We hope the season finale shocks us. We love watching the games that go down to the last minute. We love to have our Minds. Blown. We want something to talk about at work the next morning.
Worship as entertainment?
So of course it’s easy for us to bring this same expectation into our worship services. We think we’re competing with Netflix and NFL football and Game of Thrones.
The cardinal sin for many churches is that someone would say their worship service was boring. Everything must be fun and upbeat and exciting, lest we (*shock/horror*) bore people!
People expect to be blown away by our music and preaching and kids ministry, etc. And we try to deliver this!
The upcoming series is going to be the best thing we’ve ever preached! You are NOT going to want to miss this weekend’s service project! Our kids’ ministry is off the chain! Etc.
This is simply taken as obvious truth in many churches. Sit in on a staff meeting and listen to the topics of discussion. It will be almost entirely about the “weekend experience” and how to make it awesome-er.
In other words, “Here we are now, pastor. Entertain us. Impress us. Show us something we’ve never seen before. Blow us away.”
Jesus refuses to entertain people
In many ways, this isn’t new. People have been acting on this impulse to be impressed for thousands of years.
Many in Jesus’ day were exactly like the people Nirvana lampooned in their song. They looked at Jesus and said, “Here we are now, entertain us!”
“Show us a sign!” they repeatedly asked Jesus. Prove your awesomeness, Jesus. If you’re truly the king we’ve been looking for, just show us!
Do a miracle. Make bread rain down from the sky. Heal someone right now. Display your greatness! Prove your authority! Blow us away!
This is the impulse to impress. To entertain. To amaze.
Jesus is asked these kinds of questions over and over in the Gospels, and he says no every single time. Every. Single. Time.
Jesus flatly refuses to entertain people.
Entertained people don’t become disciples
If you do a cursory walk through the Gospels, you’ll see that the crowds were often amazed at Jesus, but that amazement rarely turned into discipleship.
In John 6, Jesus multiplies bread to feed a hungry crowd of thousands. They people are amazed! Entertained! They try to make Jesus king but he refuses, instead withdrawing by himself.
The next day, these amazed and entertained people seek Jesus out (they came back the following week to church, in other words!), and ask him to do it again.
Give us more bread. Impress us. Entertain us. We want to be amazed again.
Jesus refuses. He tells them he himself is the bread they really need. This is not what they want to hear, and they leave.
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him,” is how John puts it.
Generally speaking, entertained people do not become disciples of Jesus.
They might become fans of your church. They might invite their friends. They might even become volunteers or leaders at your church.
But they probably won’t become disciples of Jesus.
Entertainers don’t make disciples
But there’s something else at work here. It’s not just that the crowds want to be entertained. It’s that we want to entertain them.
Luke tells us in Acts 8 that a man named Simon had “amazed all the people of Samaria” with his sorcery. He was an entertainer, basically.
Philip came to Samaria, proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, and many people believed and were baptized, including Simon.
When Peter and John came to Samaria, they placed their hands on these believers and they received the Holy Spirit. This so impressed Simon that he offered to pay them money so he could obtain the same ability.
Peter rebukes Simon fairly harshly because he thought he could “buy the gift of God with money.”
Simon still had an entertainer’s heart. He still wanted to amaze the crowds. He still loved impressing people, having them come back week after week, calling him the “Great Power of God.”
I think if we’re honest as leaders, we have at least a little Simon in us.
We want to amaze the crowds. We want to “make Jesus famous” (and, by extension, ourselves!). We seek greater influence and wider impact.
In a consumer culture, people want to be impressed, and we want to be impressive. The reason it’s so tempting to give people the entertainment they’re looking for is that it feels so satisfying to be an entertainer!
But just like entertained people don’t become disciples of Jesus, entertainers don’t make disciples of Jesus, either.
Awesome church without Jesus
Why is this? Because all the stuff about your church that entertains people is stuff you don’t need Jesus for.
You don’t need Jesus to create an amazing weekend experience.
You don’t need Jesus to play high-quality, cutting-edge music.
You don’t need Jesus to create a fun, engaging children’s ministry experience that your kids will love coming to every week.
You don’t need Jesus to sing beautifully about Jesus.
You don’t really even need Jesus to preach eloquently about Jesus.
Let that sink in for a few minutes. All those things are mainly what people “look for” in a church. They’re the things we as pastors feel pressure to deliver.
And we don’t need Jesus for a single one of them.
Is the gospel powerful or just important?
The issue is that we just don’t trust that the gospel is actually powerful.
Paul wrote that the gospel is the power of God, which means that simply proclaiming the good news of the kingdom releases God’s power into people’s lives.
But typically we don’t think about the gospel that way. We think of it as important information, but not powerful in and of itself, so it needs to be propped up with “wow moments” and dressed up with entertainment.
Worship is better than entertainment
A.W. Tozer said, “A church that can’t worship must be entertained; and people who can’t lead a church to worship must provide entertainment.”
I have no idea if Simon repented, but I know I can. Every time I feel the impulse to impress, the eagerness to entertain, I can choose to rest in the easy yoke of Jesus instead, and lead people to worship.
I lead people to worship by simply proclaiming the good news. Jesus is Lord. God is love. The Spirit is here. The good life is ours. Grace is available.
I simply announce these things, trusting that God’s power works as I speak, that I don’t need to give the gospel an entertainment boost.
So what’s the difference between worship and entertainment?
- Entertainment depends on my skill. Worship depends on God’s presence.
- Entertainment draws people to me. Worship draws people to Jesus.
- Entertainment causes amazement in the talents of people. Worship causes awe in the love of God.
- Entertainment leads to repeat visitors. Worship leads to discipleship.
Entertainment would be all fine and good if churches were media production companies. But they’re not. They’re churches. Churches are churches.
If you keep trying to entertain people, you might get raving fans and willing volunteers, but you won’t get disciples.
If you lead people to worship, your church will go from being “attractional” to simply being attractive.
What attracts people to your church won’t be the things that any other production company could pull off, but the things that only Jesus can do in a community.
Our job as pastors and leaders is to look at people who say, “Here we are now, entertain us,” love them by refusing to do so, and gently call them to something better.