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Church as Entertainment — An Excerpt from "Sacred Roots" (FRAMES Series)

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9780310433231 (1)For a decade, cultural critics inside and outside the Church have used the term post-Christian as one way to define the Western cultural mood.

It isn't that the West is anti-Christian; it is beyond Christian—beyond the Christian religion as the only shop on the block; beyond the Christian story as the single Western Weltanschauung; beyond Christian morality as the barometer for right living.

This post-Christian mood has inevitably translated into a post-Church one, too. If you're in ministry you probably know the stats reflecting this mood. And perhaps you're haunted by the question these stats provoke:

"Does church matter?"

It's a good question, one Jon Tyson, church planter and lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City, addresses in a new book that not only argues yes, it still matters; he explains why it matters.

The book is called Sacred Roots: Why the Church Still Matters, it's part of an innovative series of short books called FRAMES releasing today, a partnership between Zondervan and Barna Group.

One of the ways Tyson argues it doesn't matter is through the endless circus of relevance, born out of consumerism and entertainment. In the excerpt below Tyson discusses how these aspects of our Western culture have impacted how the Church tries to matter, and what we ministry leaders should do about it.

Whether you're training ministry leaders, preparing to enter vocational ministry, or trying to help your own church matter, this excerpt will encourage you to consider how we are trying to remain relevant to a culture that's said "Thanks, but no thanks."

As you read Tyson's excerpt consider these questions:

  1. Do you agree or disagree that a “culture of entertainment” is shaping how we respond to church and discipleship?
  2. As a student or teacher, how have your expectations been shaped by the culture of entertainment?
  3. What would an alternative look like? How would a sermon or classroom be different if we were no longer trying to entertain?

We understand the concept of consumerism and wonder about its implications for our culture. But we rarely ask how it forms our longings and expectations as disciples of Jesus. When we apply these same consumer standards to church, we end up approaching our Sunday worship with an attitude that can be summed up in this one simple phrase: “I want experts to put on exciting events that meet my expectations.” …

It’s not enough for things to be good or true or faithful. They have to earn and keep our attention. This has the double effect of making us increasingly passive in real life, while at the same time making us increasingly critical about the life we experience.

This leaks into what happens at church. We expect brilliance from the pulpit, but often accept mediocrity in our souls. What is presented up front is often exceptional, yet most of us live average lives. This can lead us to strive after incredible encounters while failing to pay attention to what God is actually doing around us. As Catholic theologian Vincent Miller says,

Along with sporting events, rock concerts, shopping malls, and magazines, television provides images of the good life that bring virtual vicarious fulfillment. In the face of a spectacular world with which our everyday lives could never compete, we are reduced to passive spectators, consumers of illusions.

If it’s not “incredible” or “awesome,” we begin to wonder if it’s even worth our time. I have never heard a church leader say, “This is going to be pretty average, not very exciting, and probably hard, but it will form your character so you should deny yourself and come along for your own good and the good of others.” No, everything is framed as an event not to be missed: “Our next series is going to be amazing, our small groups are going to be incredible, our new website is unbelievable, our kids’ ministry is fantastic, and our pastor is hilarious.”

But the hyped expectations don’t match the depth of the issues many of us are wrestling with — things like abuse, abandonment, unemployment, divorce, bankruptcy, dead-end jobs, and heartbreaking relationships. Our lives are filled with the failed promises of consumer culture. What an indictment if the church proves to simply be another failed promise. The church should be the place we are not just promised more, but the place we can be vulnerable. It should be the place where, together, we can explore the mess and the grief and the joy and the sorrow.

In a “church as entertainment” culture, instead of seeking to be equipped as disciples of Jesus, we are slowly formed into consumers and critics who give ratings and reviews on a local church’s performance. Our expectations of church have been shaped by what we expect from the rest of our lives. When someone hears about or first visits a church, the culture has already told them what matters. Rarely does a person enter a church thinking, “How can I honor these people as better than myself?” or “I wonder what ministries are struggling so I can use my gifts to help build up others?” Instead, most people come in with a subconscious rating and review system. We evaluate, grade, and critique every aspect of the service...

When we expect the church to entertain us, it limits the church’s ability to challenge us. Entertainment rarely transforms. Think about the last time you went to a concert. What did you experience? Perhaps incredible visuals, swelling emotions, a sense of community among fans, and the power of a group of people with the same style, taste, and aesthetic values. It can be very moving. But normally, after a concert, the number one question people ask is, “Where are we going to eat?” You don’t normally leave these sorts of events reevaluating the kind of person you are becoming; you simply enjoy it and move on to the next thing.

Something similar happens when entertainment shapes the church. Our emotions may soar, we may have a shared sense of “us,” and we may resonate with the experience, but rarely does entertainment sanctify our hearts. It rarely challenges the practices that form our character or shape our lives. It’s hard to live the Sermon on the Mount with the whole of your life when your understanding of church is that it is like an exciting concert. The result may be that we overlook the things that make up our actual lives, the normal stuff that shapes who we become over the long haul. And it can cause us to miss our call. We don’t exist for ourselves, but to embody the good news of Jesus to those around us.

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