Sunday is a time for spectator sports. At the stadium. In the arena. On the field. And in the church.
File in. Sit in rows. Watch the professionals perform. File out. That’s the job of the spectator.
Over the years, the church has drifted away from participation, toward passive spectatorship. The trend affects the worship hour, as well as children’s and youth ministry programming.
The trend struck me a couple of years ago as I entered a large West Coast church service. Professional musicians and singers performed as song lyrics blinked on giant screens. The quality sound system pumped the professionals’ music into the room, easily overwhelming any voices from the congregation.
Most of the spectators seemed to enjoy the concert-quality presentation. But only about one in ten sang along. The vast majority merely watched the professional Christians worship. Then the congregation settled in to watch the preacher. He too performed with polished quality.
When I suggested a few weeks ago that we turn down the volume of church praise bands, some readers balked. They argued they didn’t want to hear off-key congregants.
As a church, we must ask, has our quest for presentation quality trumped everything else?
The goal of professional sports is to fill venues with paying customers who sit and watch others perform. Has the church tacitly followed the same protocol? Or…do we have a real interest in encouraging participation, encouraging everyone to come down onto the field and actually play?
We like to describe our faith as a relationship with Jesus Christ. Relationships require full participation. They’re interactive. No relationship grows when one person simply sits in the stands and observes.
It would be easy to blame the pew-sitters for being couch potatoes. But, in many ways, we’ve created a game that encourages their passivity. They’re simply being good spectators.
You’re on to something deeper than just worship trends. American life is becoming a spectator sport. We live vicariously through celebrities and all forms of entertainment, and the entertainment itself leaves us little time to actually live or create ourselves. Bible study has given way to going through pre-packaged Bible Studies. Most of us wait for blogs like this to get us thinking deeply about things that really matter or asking questions that need asked. As a worship leader, I am deeply aware of the tension between doing the best I can do with my gifts and truly LEADING WORSHIP, which means taking the congregation with me to the throne in genuine awe and admiration. Thanks for the deep thought.
Good thoughts. Our church has a great band and great preaching, but we emphasize participation in both. I lead the worship and we have it LOUD, but many times they still overwhelm my voice. I think many churches don’t teach their congregations about the significance of singing, clapping, etc. They honestly don’t give the people permission to participate. Even at the spectator events you’ve mentioned people have permission to worship.
I couldn’t agree with you more Thom. While more contemporary worship seems to be the trend we have moved somewhat to being entertained instead of worshipping God. I am frustrated that there is not sense of reverence anymore with little commitment to God.
I thought the Bible said to make a joyful noise. I love hearing people sing who can’t carry a tune. It shows that they are focused on something other than themselves. I have built up better relationships with the baristas at Starbucks than I have a church. Great blog – it really made me think.
We’ve had this ongoing discussion at the church where I presently serve and to some degree, I think there’s a disconnect that is somewhat generational in nature. I also think the disconnect is between those who get it when it comes to reaching a new segment of the population and those who don’t get it and think that people ought to come and just worship as we worship. There is a tension and a fine line to this whole debate. Worship is and should be engaging. When people walk in the doors of our churches, they should see, feel and sense a vibrancy in our worship, which does not always translate to loud. Having grown up in the church and with congregational singing, I sing, regardless of the song or music. I’m there to worship. Some have stopped altogether because they think it’s a solo just because one of the lead singers is singing a certain part. Also, just because one person is leading a certain part of the song, not singing doesn’t mean you’re not worshipping. Maybe people are worshipping quietly and reverently in their heart as they meditate on the words being sung. I think a large part of worship is intuitive and maybe those who’ve been attending worship for years have just been following a pattern. Maybe they haven’t really been worshipping after all and now that their routine has been upset, they’re all in up arms. The whole thing is quite tiring.
Thom – That was good, as far as it went. The thing is, the spectator church is held up as the gold standard in many respected circles. They are the first adopters for the Leadership Network. They are the next big thing for seekers at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. Outreach Magazine profiles them in top 100? lists.
The thing is: that’s what most people want in this culture. Most people want excellence in entertainment, cheap goods at the big box stores, and cool and free experiences online. Spectator sport churches are, like it not, a relevant response to the dominant culture of our time.
Those who dare to challenge this reality are the voice in the wilderness. For example, Douglas John Hall, way back in 1976 in his book Lighten Our Darkness, wrote about the shallowness he saw emerging in the church. He noticed a positiveness that is phony and ridiculous: a bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial.
He wrote that before the exponential growth in market-based megachurches and the rapid rise of prosperity gospel entrepreneurs.
Thom, most people want an easy faith, excellence in worship entertainment, and freedom from commitment to any church.
You know, I don’t feel like this behavior or expectation is that new. My grandpa used to say Time to pay for the show when he would put a $10 in the offering plate. That was 40 years ago.
I do agree that experiential worship is wonderful! Our congregation loves to move from their seats to make an offering, to light a candle, to form a prayer circle around the sanctuary, to lay hands on the sick or the outgoing missionaries, and to use their bodies in a way to make worship more visible and tangible. Let’s talk about how to help our congregants and leaders do that successfully. Let’s encourage and inspire them.
File in. Sit in rows. Watch the professionals perform. File out.
Wow! A haunting description of churches today.
Thom, I totally agree with you, but we need to be careful that we don’t use this as a tool to glorify the good ole days and beat up contemporary worship. I have experienced the same mentality in the traditional setting as has been pointed out in above posts. The issue is that this phenomenon is alive in the Christian Church and any style of worship or denomination of Christianity is susceptible to it. We have both traditional and contemporary worship in our church, and both suffer from a number of entertainment based worshipers. In our contemporary service we have tried very hard to make the worship as participatory as possible with members offering up prayers and congregation members participating with some of the percussion instruments during some of the songs. At the same time, it is of greatest importance that our leaders provide a quality experience to the Glory of God. Excellence in worship does not always equal entertainment.
Re not wanting to hear off-key congregants I remember in the small church I grew up in hearing my dads off-key, off-rhythm, off-everything musical singing. Being terribly deaf he just couldn’t get it right. He told us once that he would continue to sing as loudly as he wished because God loved his voice! He was right on; God indeed enjoyed the spirit behind his singing ñ and still does at 90 years old!
You are right on! We’ve always encouraged being a participator instead of a spectator. Participators will participate’ in the whole of being a Christian ñ when they walk out the door their faith is vibrant and alive. They will witness of Christ in their own lives-it will be normal! Spectators are like infants who always need to be fed by the bottle and never mature on solid food!
Touche people don’t even have to crack open a Bible anymore, cause it’s up there on Power point.
I’m not sure this trend didn’t begin 1000 years ago with organs and choirs. But I don’t disagree with the overall point at all. Worship is not supposed to be a spectator sport whether it’s high church with the formal choir and pipe organ (a friend of mine who plays organ at a large cathedral would also be prone to saying he doesn’t want to hear the off-key congregants!) or contemporary* with a drum kit and electric guitars.
*I’d actually argue that contemporary worship is actually 30 years ago worship, but that’s another day.
Food for thought. Worship services are typically 45-75 minutes in length and that length is a key factor in getting folks filed in and out in an orderly fashion. Not only is the service planned down to the second, but if it’s canned entertainment it can be controlled no response (or engagement) required. Engagement of the congregation? I’ve not experienced that much recently outside of the fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines provided. (And we’re even controlling the length of the blanks!)
Thom ~ I couldn’t agree more!
Since when did worship become entertainment?
God calls us to engage WITH him in meaningful worship, not entertainment.
Give me a New Testament church whose intent is to KNOW and LOVE God. Period.
I’ve got a million other choices if I want entertainment!
Does this mean the end of big churches and going to house church? Of course, just being part of a house church does not mean everyone will actively participate. But it does make it harder to go unnoticed.
Great observation! I think we need to get back to what Jesus said about the church and how we should behave. This hands offI’m fine until somebody notices me thing has got to go. We are supposed to be a family. The Bible is pretty clear on these issues. All relationships take work and we don’t get it through osmosis.
It is okay to be observer in other areas of life, but not church in my humble opinion.
the temple of the Holy Spirit (me, church) went into a local fast food restaurant (or anywhere there are people) on Sunday morning (or any other time for that matter)
AND met with a couple of my friends who believe and are saved (local church, ecclesiastical)
AND went over to a young family ordering their meal
AND actually paid for it with some words like, I had a hard time this week, but God saw me through it and I’d like to celebrate (WORSHIP) that God really does care and love us (witness) by buying your meal this morning. Would that be okay with you?
AND proceeded to have an intimate conversation with my fellow believers in Jesus about what He has done for us personally lately
AND discussed what we are learning about Him. (meeting with other believers on a regular basis)
AND, yes ñ using and actually reading for ourselves The Bible.
AND, yes, taking food in His Name, remembering His sacrifice.
Just think of the people that could be fed or helped if we weren’t pumping our tithe into the warehouse and just went out and did it like we are supposed to? Look at the money, time and effort saved by not having to pay for a building (great expense), prepare sermons (paid staff) and ministries (Wednesday night supper!).
We would actually have some time to do (working out our salvation) actual ministries and maybe make a difference in the community (loving our neighbors) because we were not always being required to come to the building to keep the corporation going because we are members of the local church.
If we REALLY wanted to get BIBLICAL we would see Jesus spoke more against the formalities of the mystery Babylon (priest =senior pastor, religious system), taking money to keep the temple (building & system) going. Jesus spoke more FOR going OUT, loving and doing for others.
Where do we get that we MUST continue the pagan model of temple worship and priestly leadership? Just because early christians merged with the icons and rituals of the pagans, are we compelled to keep revering it as holy? Could it be that our modern contemporary church model might be considered by our savior as continuing in mystery Babylon? (gasp)
House churches will become a necessity, but it is not the complete answer to how to do church.
When we begin to BE the church and get that church is not a destination and that worship is done through living everyday and not a song, movement or feeling, then we may start to consider what ministry and missional work really is.
Times are changing. Who knows what will happen tomorrow that may involve our religious freedoms? But I do know that if we don’t stop comparing our worship styles, checking who’s got degrees and worrying about keeping the priests paid, we will never get about the Father’s work like Jesus told us to do.
Let the priests get a self-supporting job and become bi-vocational like everybody else and then let’s hear them tell us what their week was like! Then, we would be more inspired to listen to how to commit to the work of the church.
But then, who am I? Just a wife, mother and grandmother. I couldn’t understand theology for myself without papers to prove my religious education now, could I?
I sooo agree with you!!
Having been in liturgical, traditional and contemporary worship, I’ve seen how all three can be entertainment; all three can be worship. I think it’s human nature that people tend to routinize and standardize everything, because we are most comfortable with the predictable. So, I don’t worry about it; I just try to do the best I can and let God handle the rest. However, I also think that what most people are looking for – beyond large group worship – is small group intimacy. If a church has both, it can be healthy.