Friday, July 13, 2012

Church Theatrics

Church events are nothing new.  They are an integral part of every assembly's calendar, varying in purpose and regularity from commemorating an annual day in the church year to ad hoc gatherings designed to entertain and evangelize.  In more recent times, events have become the norm in mega-churches citing the purpose of bringing people in to hear the gospel.  Because these groups work with large sums of money, they are able to build large, even extravagant, presentations.

The desire to draw crowds has increased exponentially.  What once was accomplished by active, willing volunteers on an annual, or less regular, basis has given way to professional design and programming—and that every Sunday morning.  Why has this shift in focus from the faithful attention to God's word to entertainment occurred?  Two possibilities present themselves.

God will be honored.  This has been used many times to justify an endeavor.  Reasoning takes the course of:
        1.  What is the most efficient way to share the gospel?
        2.  What can be done to draw a crowd to hear?
        3.  How many have attended the event and heard what we said?
        4.  How can we draw a larger crowd next time?
 And as long as the attendance figures increase and people are enjoying themselves while hearing something from the Bible, God must be pleased, however the truth may be just the opposite.

Crowds do not equate to divine sanction.  Arnobius understood this as he asked about the springtime festivals the pagans held called Floralia and Megalensia: *
But the games which you celebrate,… and all the rest which you wish to be sacred, and to be considered religious duties, what reason have they, what cause, that it was necessary that they should be instituted and founded and designated by the name of deities?  (The Case against the Pagans, VII.33)
The question on the table is: why did you start these celebrations?  To which the pagans responded:
The gods are honored by these,… and if they have any recollection of offenses committed by men, they lay it aside, get rid of it, and show themselves gracious to us again, their friendship being renewed.  (The Case against the Pagans, VII.33)
Notice the similar expectation of honor with expiation as a side benefit.  One must wonder if the modern church does not also have this as an unstated reason: surely God will overlook our sin and shortcoming if we do this to honor him.

Arnobius questions their reasoning by pointing to the activities commonly found: dancing, play-acting, pugilism, and various other lascivious acts. †  How could these possibly honor divine beings?  Yet some churches insist on following suit (with thanks to The Museum of Idolatry):

All things not forbidden are lawful.  This reason has some biblical basis.  Twice the apostle Paul mentions that though "all things are lawful for me," they may not be helpful (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23).  Those things which are used within the local assembly must be done so wisely and advisedly.  Tertullian warned how we can be allured by the opinions of unbelievers
who in this matter are wont to press us with arguments, such as these: (1) That the exquisite enjoyments of ear and eye we have in things external are not in the least opposed to religion in the mind and conscience; and (2) That surely no offense is offered to God, in any human enjoyment, by any of our pleasures, which it is not sinful to partake of in its own time and place, with all due honor and reverence secured to Him.  (The Shows, 1)
In others words the view will be promoted that if an activity can be done anywhere else, it can be done at a gathering of the church.  Cultural norms take the place of the godly and spiritual.  In a move of rationalization a church will begin to think as the world
that all things, as we teach, were created by God, and given to man for his use, and that they must be good, as coming all from so good a source; but that among them are found the various constituent elements of the public shows, such as the horse, the lion, bodily strength, and musical voice.  It cannot, then, be thought that what exists by God’s own creative will is either foreign or hostile to Him; and if it is not opposed to Him, it cannot be regarded as injurious to His worshipers, as certainly it is not foreign to them.  (The Shows, 2)
But is all this valid?  The apologist replies in the negative that "these things are not consistent with true religion and true obedience to the true God."  Though he was speaking of Christians attendance at the Roman games, his sentiment remains valid for those who bring the games into the church: "We ought to detest these heathen meetings and assemblies, if on no other account than that there God’s name is blasphemed."  (The Shows, 27)  If this conduct is not acceptable in the pagan arena, how can it be countenanced in gatherings meant for the lifting up the exalted Lord of glory?

What is the conclusion of the matter?  How are Christians to respond?  I will let Tertullian close.
Even as things are, if your thought is to spend this period of existence in enjoyments, how are you so ungrateful as to reckon insufficient, as not thankfully to recognize the many and exquisite pleasures God has bestowed upon you?  For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life?  What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death?  What nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations—to exorcise evil spirits—to perform cures—to seek divine revealings—to live to God?  These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men—holy, everlasting, free.  Count of these as your circus games, fix your eyes on the courses of the world, the gliding seasons, reckon up the periods of time, long for the goal of the final consummation, defend the societies of the churches, be startled at God’s signal, be roused up at the angel’s trump, glory in the palms of martyrdom.  If the literature of the stage delight you, we have literature in abundance of our own—plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities.   Would you have also fighting and wrestling?  Well, of these there is no lacking, and they are not of slight account. Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, [deception] slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty: these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns.  Would you have something of blood too?  You have Christ’s.

But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One!  What that exultation of the angelic hosts!  What the glory of the rising saints!  What the kingdom of the just thereafter!  What the city New Jerusalem!  Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame!  How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye!… “This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed!  This is He whom you purchased from Judas!  This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink!  This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!”… And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the pictures of imagination.  But what are the things which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and which have not so much as dimly dawned upon the human heart?  Whatever they are, they are nobler, I believe, than circus, and both theaters and every race-course.  (The Shows, 29-30)

* Honoring Flora and Cybele respectively.  The former was a well-known harlot mentioned briefly by Minucius Felix, while Lactantius gives more detail.

Ibid, Lactantius.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

The church at large is playing too much with the world. The whole "seeker-sensitive" mentality is blasphemy. The church assembled is for believers to edified and discipled; it is not a place to be entertained and evangelizing. People who attend these places are not fed anything but garbage and feel-good theology.

The Museum of Idolatry is one of my favorite sites to visit. They keep us up to date with all the bizarre happenings which are pretending to be "Christian."

danedon said...

Steve, I am shocked that this is actually a Church Service! I agree with Glenn, this is blasphemy! I've heard that some Churches are getting involved in entertainment, but this is beyond the pale!

Steve Bricker said...

Don, this is but the tip of the iceberg. Glenn has been regularly sharing on these things in his blog. Chris Rosebrough of Museum of Idolatry and Fighting for the Faith also has been reporting on the tomfoolery. Somehow I do not believe this was intended concerning being a fool for the sake of Christ.

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