Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Worship or Entertainment?

During my reading of other people's blogs yesterday, I came upon this post wondering about how to incorporate children into the worship service. Among the comments to that post were several messages advocating structuring worship so as to make sure that children do not become bored. In response, one comment in particular sought to clarify that this was not the same as confusing worship with "entertainment."

This reminded me of a paper I wrote several years ago on the topic, so I decided that I should dust it off and share it here (with some editing):


When asked to describe my call to the ministry, I usually spend a great deal of time talking about my experience at Youth Conferences in Montreat, North Carolina. We sang, we played goofy games, we got to meet other Christians our own age. It was a blast! Some of the most fun I've had in my life was had at those conferences. More importantly, I met God in a way that I had not before, and it changed my life.

One of my college professors in North Carolina would always warn against the dangers of playing music at worship services designed to "entertain" rather than to "worship," as though there is a thin, but definite, line that separates the two realms of "entertainment" and "worship." I disagree. In a class I took in seminary entitled Multimedia Arts in Worship, we talked about worship in terms of "encounter and response." I encountered God at the Montreat Youth Conferences, and responded to a call to become a minister. Yet, I had tons of fun at these Conferences! Clearly, entertainment and worship are not mutually exclusive.

For many people, the concept entertainment and worship being at all compatible may be a new one. The debate concerning worship and entertainment is not one that will be settled quickly. However, I argue that not only are worship and entertainment not mutually exclusive, but that if entertainment is defined as having to do with being "pleasured" or "amused"(as the Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary defines it), and we proclaim that God is the source of true joy, then worship which completely fails to give pleasure, while still being true worship, fails to acknowledge something fundamental about God. While it often seems that more conservative worshipers adopt a position that says "fun is sinful," it is doubtful that even they truly believe it.

Of course, it is certainly true that something that entertains one person will not entertain another. My grandparents complain about the music in the early morning "contemporary" service at their church, saying it's "too loud," or "too redundant." (As Grandma says, "They just say the same thing over and over!") There is nothing wrong with such differences of opinion. In fact, C.S. Lewis suggests something to this point that may help clarify the role of music in worship. He suggests that music that is disliked, but tolerated for the sake of belief that God may somehow be glorified, will be for the person who tolerates it a means of grace. However, he suggests with equal certainty that the person who holds on to his/her distaste and hostility to some form of church music is unable to worship properly. This, of course, does not answer to the question of whether music that one likes is appropriate for worship, but does shed some light on the importance of people's attitudes when it comes to worship. If one holds on to attitudes of resentment, one does not encounter, nor respond to, God. This is certainly evidence that one need not be entertained in order to worship. However, it is an argument for exercising tolerance toward musical forms often condemned as "entertainment" (admittedly most often by those who are not entertained by such forms themselves).

But more to the point, during my time in college, I became involved in the college's drama troupe, and I later worked with drama for one of my internships. Drama is also a tool that can be used for worship, but one that is viewed with suspicion by those who see it as "entertainment" which (says the suspicious) therefore can't be proper for worship. The church that hired me as a drama intern while I was working on my Master of Divinity was deeply divided on this issue. I got the job more out of the fact that I was known to the members of the church ruling body (called "the consistory"), who wished to aid me in my seminary education, than out of any desire to have drama as a part of their worship.

Make no mistake about it, drama is entertainment. There's no getting around it. Does that make drama unsuitable for worship? On the contrary, I believe that drama which fails to entertain will also fail meet its goals as worship. Steve Pederson, director of drama for Willow Creek Community Church, suggests that "when Christians talk about 'using drama to evangelize' or 'drama with a message,' they're actually abusing the art form. Good drama doesn't preach."(1) Drama should "tell a story." In short, it should entertain. That is the primary purpose of drama. But the fact that drama "doesn't preach" does not, in my opinion (nor, presumably, Pederson's!), prevent drama from being used in worship. Drama should be used for what drama is good for. If the main purpose of drama: to entertain, to tell stories, etc., is lost, so is its power to be a tool for worship. Screenwriter Craig Detweiller maintains that the reason that so much Christian movie-making fails is because the Christians behind it try to "evangelize" rather than to simply tell a story.(2) When the storytelling gets lost in the intent to preach, both fail to achieve their purpose.

How, then, is drama to be used? My college drama director maintained that any production, even secular plays, can be used to display Christian truths. Part of this is because of the redemptive power of God to take anything and use it for God's purpose. However, my director also maintained that Colossians 3:17 instructed us to do our best at whatever we do as Christians. Therefore, a Christian drama should not be a lower quality drama than a non-Christian one, because Christians are committed to excellence for the glory of God. It is also worth noting that, while even secular drama may have the potential to tell stories with redemptive value, not all stories are good stories. This has unfortunately included many "Christian" stories. A poorly scripted story will fail to have an impact on its audience. Steve Pederson notes the trend in many areas of drama-making, including Christian drama, to dwell more on spectacle and special effects than on the "real stuff of drama": story and character.(3) He suggests that, in so doing, "we may be providing a kind of 'Christian entertainment,' but we have to do more than that. We need to get back to a simple story, to real, believable characters, because there is where the real power of drama lies."(4) If the character isn't believable, the audience won't relate to that character. It is through characters that people can relate to that they will encounter the God who cares about their lives.

This means, however, that the role of evil in the world must be allowed to be portrayed. So much of Christian drama (and I have to confess, much of what I presented in my own church as a drama intern falls under this category) steers away from certain kinds of sin deemed "unsuitable" for worship. This will probably be an ongoing issue. The problem is that when this is done, some amount of believability is also lost, and the ability of characters to encounter their own lives and situations; those places in which they need to encounter God, is diminished.

Of course, the question remains: "Can we get so caught up in entertainment that the worship is lost?" Certainly. While I don't believe that a "definite line" exists between worship and entertainment, there clearly is "grey area" between the two. Becoming too focused on anything that detracts from the worship experience is a danger that needs to be guarded against. I do not pretend to have all the answers to this dilemma, and expect that each congregation will have to decide for themselves how to work it out. But I would definitely argue that any congregation that rejects possible modes of worship simply because they are seen as "entertainment" will not only alienate potential worshippers, but will continue to miss out on important truths about God themselves.
1) Steve Pederson, Drama Ministry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999, p. 25.
(2) Quoted from a discussion following a seminary airing of the movie version of Left Behind, February 3, 2001.
(3) Pederson, p. 31.
(4) Pederson, pp. 31-32.


  1. We are missing the point in this discussion - I don't mean only here, but all over the place... we keep focusing on this as "entertainment vs. worship" and then each camp tries to create arguments to support their cause.

    The issue is not "can worship be entertaining" or vice versa. I think that is up to the person in the pew.

    We have to consider what we REALLY mean when we use the word "entertainment" - not what some dictionary declares it to be. When we use the word "entertainment" we are talking "showbiz" or "flash" - that sort of thing - or a "performer/audience" venue.

    Now, we leaders and creative Christians out there can make all the lame excuses we want and try to rationalize our way into continuing to draw attention on ourselves with our art... but the truth is, if ANY part of what we are doing AS the leaders, draws attention away from God, then we are creating IDOLS, plain and simple.

    I don't think this means we stop being creative - it simply means that we keep in mind that we are not CALLED to "notch it up" for God. He doesn't NEED us to do that. Really. He simply needs us to be broken vessels, conduits of His glory, delight and wonder! If we can do that in entertaining ways that never mistakes the recipient of the applause then so be it! If not, then we must step back and evaluate the motivation for why we are doing what we are doing.



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