By Ben Swift
‘The Gods are a long way away and they don’t bother about us, so relax and enjoy your life.’ (A quote rooted in Epicureanism, N.T. Wright)
There is a feeling of anticipation and excitement in the slightly hazy atmosphere of the room. The windowless walls, painted black, set us apart from the outside world, adding to the professional lighting effects that suggest a show worth queuing for. Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter. We’re in the new world now. The stage is set, the spotlights poised and ready to shine their light on the musicians and lead vocalists as they grace the stage. Dry ice machines intermittently pump out just enough smoke to create a feeling of mysticism in the air. Then enters the keyboard’s sustained chord.
Once upon a time a description such as this would have felt most at home in Rolling Stone Magazine or the like, possibly as a rock journalist penned his or her experience of a Pink Floyd or Bon Jovi concert. These days however, they could be describing the experience of entering into any one of thousands of rapidly expanding megachurches throughout the Western World.
This should come as no surprise as new generations move with the times, but it does raise the question, “Do we in The Church and society in general, now live in a world where the ultimate sin is to be bored?”
It was once suggested by Anglican Minister, John Swift, that you can tell a great deal about what a church holds most important in terms of congregational worship, simply by walking into the church building and noting what stands out. For example, many Presbyterian and Reformed churches will place the Bible and the pulpit in a central position of importance while a church of a more Catholic orientation will often have the alter front and centre, to show that they consider the sacrament of Communion to be the highpoint in The Mass. So what can we derive from a church that has been carefully architected and set up using the same techniques of the world’s great theatres?
In his book, ‘This Little Church Went to Market’, Garry Gilley suggests, “It would appear, when it comes to entertainment, Christianity has caught up with the culture at large. One social observer, Neal Gabler, who has no axe to grind in this regard, making no pretence to be a Christian, has noticed, ‘Evangelical Protestantism, which had begun as a kind of spiritual entertainment in the nineteenth century, only refined its techniques in the twentieth, especially after the advent of television.’” Gilley later goes on to write, “The problem is the main business of entertainment is to please the crowd, but the main purpose of authentic Christianity is to please the Lord. Both the Bible and history have repeatedly shown that it is seldom possible to do both at the same time, for very long.”
While by no means are all activities of modern day megachurches negative, in fact some great things have come from them, it is worth considering the consequences of aligning with the culture of entertainment and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as an ultimate focus.
If we think of entertainment and pleasure in terms of false gods in the same way as the Ancient Greeks saw their gods Mars or Mammon, we can start to get some insight into the problem. Theologian N.T. Wright interestingly suggests that the ancients would have believed that ‘those who worship gods become like them; their characters are formed as they imitate the object of worship and imbibe its inner essence.’ Perhaps it’s not surprising that the rise of the megachurch, with its power to entertain and give the people what they seek, has its roots in the United States, the unofficial capital of The Free World, where the relationship between celebrity and influence so often go hand in hand. It’s a sign of the US times when the most powerful, high budgeted political positions of influence be handed to stars of the big screen. Why is it that presidential candidates rub shoulders with pop stars and Hollywood royalty at the pointy end of their campaigns? Is it that they know what god has the most influence on people’s votes?
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of The Church becoming entangled with the culture of the world is in the sacrifices that result, including a lack of spiritual growth. When congregations are being served with messages of pop psychology lined with a dash of half-truths, the message may be popular but it won’t provide Christ’s sheep with the solid food they need to mature. As The Church and as Christians we have been given clear instructions. Consider the following words of Paul:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
It is clear from Scripture, that church be a place where we are transformed through the work of the Holy Spirit and by hearing and meditating on The Word, growing in our knowledge of Christ’s truth. We must move beyond simple understandings so that we can, as The Church scattered, be able to give a reason for the faith we have, standing firm in a faith that has deep roots that won’t shrivel and die when hard times arrive.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14)
It is obvious that the growth of God’s Church is of great importance to all Christians, or at least it should be. It simply has to be done in accordance with Scripture and not under the influence of pressures to conform to popular culture. After all, consider the popularity Jesus earned in his ministry, a popularity that found him nailed to a Roman execution stake, the cross. Are we really willing to take up our cross? Or do we simply want to be entertained in our pursuit for happiness?
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)