Years ago the MGM film studio put out a compilation of scenes from some of their more famous movies in the form of a feature-length film. "That's Entertainment!" they called it. Later, the studio released a sequel.
More than twenty-five years ago some good folks in the church came up with something called "seeker sensitive worship." People like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek and Rick Warren of Saddleback and Walt Kallestad of Community (Lutheran) Church of Joy looked around, saw that too much Christian worship was irrelevant. They saw the church using language and symbols that got in the way of communicating the Christian message with ordinary folks who had no church background. The style of worship and preaching was static that was keeping people from hearing God.
So there was this powerful impulse to reach ordinary, unchurched people with the amazing story of God's love in Jesus Christ. Use language and images people would understand. Robes were replaced with bluejeans or khaki slacks and knit shirts. Choirs were replaced by Christian rock bands or "praise teams." The cross was taken down and worship teams began using film clips, dramas, and the latest in sound/light technology. People talked more about the type of coffee served in the coffee cafe than they did the bread and wine of communion.
We've been in this era of "seeker sensitive" worship and that approach has produced a lot of fruit. Lives have been changed. The era of the "mega church" arrived big time as churches with thousands in attendance dotted the landscape.
Like every movement, though, this movement of "seeker sensitive" worship has its limitations. The folks at Willow Creek, through their Reveal survey, have discovered that mass gatherings of people don't necessarily lead to spiritual growth. Worship has become, more and more, a passive event. People come into great auditoriums, hear outstanding musicians sing great music, watch professionally done dramas, and hear outstanding teachers
- but too many of them aren't growing spiritually. Churches are full of passive religious consumers rather than active disciples. There is all sorts of talk about community but precious real intimacy -with God or other people. (Someone sent me a note recently and told me they are glad to be in a church where people know their name!)
Last week I came across an article by Walt Kallested titled "Moving from Entertainment to Worship." The church he leads in Phoenix had a state-of-the-art campus, a tremendous staff, and 12,000 attenders each weekend. But Walt looked around and realized too many were just being entertained. People were coming because Community of Joy had great music or great children's programs or great teachers - but people weren't building meaningful relationships with other people or with God!
So the church changed direction. They focused on real worship rather than entertainment. They challenged people to stop watching and risk commitment. The changes in the church caused attendance to drop from 12,000 to 8,000.
Our church isn't in the "weight class" of a Granger Community or a Willow Creek or a Saddleback or a Church of the Resurrection (UMC), but I think we are facing some of the same challenges. God is doing all kinds of great stuff at Trinity - just amazing stuff. Lives are being changed. The community is being blessed. Jesus is being lifted up and presented to those who do not yet know him. And yet...
And yet we have folks who are sort of here and sort of not. They are ready to consume spiritual good and services, but they are unwilling to make a commitment. They're sort of here...as long as everything is cool. As long as the next church down the road isn't offering a better deal...better coffee, better youth ministry, better parking, better visuals, better music or a more entertaining teaching style.
What ends up happening, of course, is we end up shuttling people back and forth. We get folks coming our way from other churches. They discover us and think we're the best thing since sliced bread. And there are people who have been here for months...for years...heading out the door. Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes because they are moving or it is just time...but often because there is the next, cool thing down the road. We send folks to GCC and they send folks to us. Crossroads picks up people from St. John's Episcopal and St. Thomas picks up people from Belmont Mennonite. We shuttle people back and forth but are people growing?
It all seems a little like the way people embrace a restaurant when it opens up. Folks line up to sample the menu. Experience the decor. Things are different. Not like the old place where we've been eating for years. This new place has pizza with extra thin crust. We've enjoyed deep dish pizza at our last "favorite" place but now we just sort of enjoy something different... so we go to the new place until someone else opens up down the street.
God is leading us, at Trinity United Methodist, towards a conversation about all of this. We're going to be talking about the absolute necessity of people -in the words of Walt Kallestad- "breaking out of their private, cocooned lives and fully engag(ing) with God and his people."
We'll continue to strive for worship and ministries that are creative, faithful and beautiful. We'll continue to try and meet human need. We'll continue to try and share the Good News in a language those ordinary folks outside the church will understand. But the church ain't all about entertainment
- it's about being loving God with our whole heart, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and transforming the world through service.
A lot of pastors and lay leaders say they are tired of running an "entertainment" machine. They are tired of trying to "sell" programs to indifferent consumers who insist that church is all about having their needs met. We're hungry for something deeper...something more real. And I think you are, too.