The Church, Entertainment, and Authenticity

At one point early on the Christian church was fighting for its very life. As such, it had absolutely no time for peripherals, for externalities, for superficialities, and for secondary issues. It had to stick to that which was essential. In Acts 2 we read about these four essentials:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). And what does it then say just a few verses later? “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47).

The early church grew, multiplied, prevailed, triumphed and conquered because they concentrated on these basics. The early Christians did not rely on marketing techniques, advertising campaigns, celebrities, entertainment, specialised youth workers, international speakers, video nights, pizza parties, or weight loss seminars.

They relied simply on the Holy Spirit and they concentrated on teaching the Word of God and prayer. A pretty simple formula really. But it wasn’t even a formula – it was a way of life. They did not need gimmicks and famous entertainers and all kinds of razzmatazz.

How far have contemporary churches moved away from all of this? In his new book The Church Awakening, Charles Swindoll says this: “Our world has lost its way. So it’s no surprise when the church takes its cues from the world, the church begins to go astray as well. But must we resort to gimmicks for people to come to church? Is biblical reinterpretation the new essential for church growth? Must we dumb down historic Christianity into shallow entertainment in order to pamper consumers? May it never be!”

He continues, “I am convinced that the church doesn’t need marketing devices, worldly strategies, live entertainment, or a corporate mentality to be contagious. Not if the glory of God is the goal. Not if the growth of God’s people is in view. Rather, the church needs biblical truth taught correctly and clearly . . . and lived out in authenticity.”

Quite right. In a recent interview Swindoll continued to speak about this theme: “We live in a time with a lot of technology and media. We can create things virtually that look real. We have high-tech gadgets that were not available to previous generations. And we learned that we could attract a lot of people to church if we used those things. I began to see that happening about 20 years ago. It troubled me then, and it’s enormously troubling to me now because the result is an entertainment mentality that leads to biblical ignorance.

“And alongside that is a corporate mentality. We’re tempted to think of the church as a business with a cross stuck on top (if it has a cross at all). ‘We really shouldn’t look like a church.’ I’ve heard that so much I want to vomit. ‘Why?’ I ask. ‘Do you want your bank to look like a bank? Do you want your doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, or would you prefer your doctor to dress like a clown? Would you be comfortable if your attorney dressed like a surfer and showed movies in his office? Then why do you want your church’s worship center to look like a talk show set?’…

“Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people. But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.”

When asked about the place of innovation in our churches he replied, “Innovation doesn’t have to be loud or a gimmick. How about silence? Most people get no silence in their world. Imagine three or four minutes of silence. No music. No background distractions.

“Or change the order of worship. Start the service with an invitation rather than ending with it. Nothing in the Bible says to walk down an aisle. So be innovative. I’m not against screens, or new songs, or innovation. I just don’t like the gimmicks. I want to know when worship is over that that leader’s sole purpose was to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s not important to himself, and I’m not.

“Here’s what troubles me: I don’t know why leaders younger than me aren’t saying this. I’m not talking about novices, but the leaders in their forties and fifties. Why aren’t they raising questions and showing some concern for where the church is heading with its focus on media and headcount and passive spectating? I know one church that has 17 people on their media staff and only 12 on the pastoral staff.

“When a church is spending more of its budget on media than shepherding, something is out of whack. We have gotten things twisted around. My book is simply saying come back, folks. I’m not against innovation. But we need more wisdom.”

He concludes by reminding us where to keep our focus: “I tell them, ‘Keep me off the pedestal. You’re heading for a real disappointment if you put me on that pedestal. I am a sinner just like you are. Yeah, I’ve got gifts. I can’t help it. That’s the way God made me. But don’t think I’m better than I am.’

“One of the best pieces of counsel I got was from a staffer with The Navigators named Jim Petersen. He had ministered in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for years with great effectiveness. I said, ‘How did you do it, Jim?’ He said, ‘Oh, I let them see the cracks in my life.’ I love that answer.

“So I blow it from time to time. I lose my place in my sermon. The other Sunday I read from the wrong passage of Scripture – I was a full book away from where I was supposed to be. We all had a good laugh about it. I let people see the cracks in my life. We can’t be phony. We’ve got to keep it real.”

Indeed, it’s all about Spirit-empowered reality versus showmanship, gimmicks, and the celebrity culture. All the great men and women of God said as much. As but one example, E.M Bounds, the 19th century pastor, put it this way:

“The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men…Men of prayer.”

We so very much need to seriously heed those words today.

[1119 words]

13 Replies to “The Church, Entertainment, and Authenticity”

  1. Completely agree. There is so much time, energy and resource spent on fruitless things. They might be nice things, and create a warm atmosphere, but it doesn’t last and it often doesn’t change lives or steer people toward Jesus. The ironic thing is, gen Y are getting over gimmicks anyway. We are probably turning a lot of people OFF rather than “attracting”.

    I really do hope that churches can start to re-evaluate their priorities and put the basics back at the top. I think most congregations would like that. It would take some time but a shift isn’t impossible.

    Jess Hagen

  2. When ever i hear someone start talking about wake up church! I get all warm inside. I know that’s mushy but well, it reminds me that’s there’s hope. That God is speaking clearly to some people, rather some people are listening to GOD.
    Thanks Bill.
    Daniel Kempton

  3. A couple of months back I had the privilege to attend one of Chuck Swindolls seminars hosted by ‘Insight for living’. One of the main speakers touched on some of those very key issues, which you have kindly highlighted in your article. The speaker simply addressed three keys issues to why the church is not impacting the world. Which I have paraphrased:
    1. Each Church has a unique role in the Kingdom; how does our church fit into this role?
    2. Are we bearing fruit within the church demographics?
    3. The message is central within the church – above or else.

    Sadly, many of our young people in churches are being fed with church entertainment and socials, and yet are being spiritually and theologically deprived of biblical truth. Though, there is nothing wrong with Church entertainment, as long as it doesn’t take over the house of God.
    Panage Kontos

  4. Hi there,

    Our church is moving towards Gospel Communities, which is were gatherings of families from a church live as much as their lives together as possible, inviting their unbelieving friends along to see the gospel being lived out together as they share their ordinary lives together. GC’s allow fellowship, pray, teaching one another and do mission together in people’s lounge rooms, back yards etc (see Acts 2:42 above). GC’s are often “messy” as groups of families (including children) meet together to share ordinary everyday life together with “gospel intentionality” with believers and unbelievers. They still gather together on Sundays to listen to teaching and celebrate God’s grace together, but then they often meet over a meal afterwards to discuss how to put the teaching into action in their lives. The Sunday meeting therefore doesn’t need to be entertaining, or the minister a superstar. For more insight into GC’s, read Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis and/or watch


    David Roberts

  5. I think there are two issues here. One is that human tendency to want easy solutions and live easy, and I have seen this is in the church in different parts of the world in different forms. People don’t want to face the hard realities of disciplship. They want an easy patch and an easy life.

    The other issue is getting people into the church. They ask “Why should we listen to Christians?” The answer sought by the church when it turns to entertainment is the wrong one, and doesn’t really make much sense either. When we turn to entertainment we are competing with people who really do know how to entertain and to draw people, and secondly we have no need to – people have *real* needs, much deeper than entertainment, and the gospel has the *real* answers to those needs. Or don’t we really believe that? Is that why we turn to entertainment because we don’t believe our faith really has the answers? Faith in Christ really does have real solid answers for the world’s real problems. Why aren’t we presenting them? Turning to Christ can really change peoples’ lives. Why resort to entertainment?

    Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with having a good time. I love a good time! However I think we miss so much when we pitch there as if that’s the main thing…

    John Symons

  6. The following quote is is taken from “Experiencing the presence of God”, by A W Tozer (p134-135)

    “From my reading of the Holy Scriptures, church history and Christian biography, I find that there is nothing in the church that appeals to the world, and nothing in the world that appeals to the true Church of Jesus Christ.

    Every revival in church history has occurred when the Church stood in stark contrast to the world around them. Our worship services should be so holy and so filled with God’s presence that unholy men will be very uncomfortable.

    Now we have done it the other way round. The most unholy person in town can come into the church and feel quite comfortable. People should come to a church worship service not anticipating entertainment but expecting the high and holy manifestation of God’s presence.

    When this begins to take place, several things will happen.

    First, all carnal and pseudo-Christians will let out a yell and head for the nearest exit. Attendance will plummet and offerings will all but disappear.

    Many churches are not willing to pay this price. But then the next thing that happens is the church begins to draw in people with an insatiable hunger and desire for God. Tired of the trite entertainment style of the world, they long, as the deer pants after the water brooks, for a real experience with God.”

    Peter Baade

  7. Charles Swindoll has it right when he declared “the church needs biblical truth taught correctly and clearly . . . and lived out in authenticity.” and “I want to know when worship is over that that leader’s sole purpose was to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ.”
    Having said that, some of Charles Swindoll’s criticisms seem a little irrelevant to the above.
    For example, he seems overly concerned about what the church building should look like. Fair enough, don’t hide the fact that it is a church but by inferring that the building itself should look like a church indicates the general thrust of his criticisms. After all, the form of church buildings has varied throughout Christian history. Perhaps as Swindoll is close to 80 years old, he would prefer a Gothic cathedral to inspire awe in the peasants?
    Swindoll suggests “three or four minutes of silence. No music. No background distractions.” as a worthwhile innovation. Another suggested innovation was “Start the service with an invitation rather than ending with it”. Both these so-called innovations are more like gimmicks. I certainly don’t need to go to a church service to find three or four minutes of silence.
    Swindoll seems to mainly object to “loud” innovations… I guess loud music is his target. Did I mention he is close to 80 years old?
    Finally, his example of “losing my place in my sermon” as letting “people see the cracks in my life” seems strange. Either he genuinely lost his place in the sermon in which case he could not avoid this particular “crack” being seen, or he was being “phony”. Perhaps the first explanation fits. I did mention he is close to 80 years old, didn’t I?
    The reality is that churches and Christianity are vastly more than buildings or Sunday services. There is a whole array of teaching and pastoral ministries that form part of any proper church. The actual church buildings and Sunday services can take many forms. Many churches have different styles (acoustically) of services through the day, often with the same sermon or teaching. There is no “one size fits all”. All you need to do find yourself a church that suits you and that also adheres to the two principles declared by Swindoll. Get involved more deeply than just attending a Sunday service and you’ll soon be busier than a dog with two tails.
    Michael Uncarat

  8. Thanks Michael

    But while praising him with one hand you beat him around the head with the other! I don’t find his recommendations to be so problematic. For example, a bit of corporate silence before a holy God in church is most appropriate. Indeed, we even find such truths discussed in Scripture, as in Rev. 8:1. But I am not here to defend Swindoll in all things, just to highlight his proper concerns about our entertainment-mad churches.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Hi Bill,
    Well put together. I was preaching yesterday on the issue of belief systems and as part of that subject I raised this very issue: the lack of solid teaching amongst Christians. However although I agree with the thoughts on entertainment etc in some churches today, and I believe that is an issue that needs to be addressed, it is equally important that individuals understand that the responsibility rests with them to ‘get wisdom and with it get understanding’ – understanding being a knowledge of God. I think we need to see both things operating together.
    Warwick Murphy

  10. When the Christian Churches get back to their Foundations, and start to preach the Word uncompromisingly – not apologizing or trying to get around the hard to digest scriptures, but preaching it under the power of the Holy Spirit by the Holy Spirit anointed, appointed leaders, and when ‘Christians’, start being obedient to the Word of God and being doers and not hearers only, and get back to right Biblical discipleship, then they won’t have time to waste on services that have no substance but are all froth and bubble, glitz and glamor!!! They will then be able to worship in Spirit and in truth – getting back to the heart of worship – God’s heart for our worship of Him, because He is WORTHY of our Worship!!!
    Barb Hoc

  11. I agree with both David and Peter. Entertainment in the church obviously fills a need, if we take away the entertainment we need to put something else in its place, similarly to re-introducing good and healthy food to a pallet long used to the instant gratification of junk food. This will be a process, not an over-night change, unless the Holy Spirit does a mighty work as He has done before in the Revivals of Wales etc. That is 1) to let the presence of the Living God do His work among us in our services as well as 2) as a result start to live differently. I wonder if the issue of Christian Community has a place in this discussion? Often I find a gap between that which our Christian World View reveals in theory and that which we feel we are able to do in our daily lives. Just a small example is the values we have as parents as to what our children can watch or read and then the clash between that and what other children at school are allowed to watch and read, even in Christian schools. It is so difficult to be strong by yourself, especially when your scripturally transformed mind discovers principles that would almost be impossible to implement as one individual or family without leading you into poverty or total misunderstanding even among your own fellow Christians. But these quite fundamental changes might be able to be put into practice in a group of likeminded Christians, gathered from a wider Australia rather than from a geographically restricted area, though geographic proximity can probably not be dispensed with in this idea. It is probably hard to compute what we have actually lost in the last 100 years. Because Australia was openly built on Christian principles, Christian values extended beyond the church into the wider community, thereby quietly supporting and underpinning the lives of especially the young and new believers. I can at this moment not imagine another road back to the church being the light on the hill and the salt in the community other than through the reformation of our worship services, the distinct teaching of Christian doctrine and the practical outworking of Christian values in the actions of the church as a community.
    Has anybody read “In His steps”? Not sure if it is actually a true story, but I still find it very challenging.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *