Posted by: Johnold Strey | May 25, 2010

Gimme that Show-Time Religion

Near the end of Sunday’s Pentecost sermon, I included a quote from the late A.W. Tozer.  Since most of my pastoral reading involves materials written from a confessional Lutheran perspective, Tozer’s name was not very familiar to me until recently.  During a Camp Logos presentation that I attended earlier this year, Morris Proctor, the presenter at all Camp Logos seminars, mentioned Tozer as one of the most influential Christian influences in his life.  Prior to Proctor’s seminar comments, Tozer was a pastor and author I didn’t know much of anything about.

While I was working with my Logos Bible Software last week, I came across a book by John MacArthur, another man who falls into the sphere of conservative Christianity but outside the sphere of confessional Lutheranism.  The book (which is a part of my 1,300+ volumes in Logos!) that caught my eye was titled, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World.  As I skimmed through the digital book, I came across the A.W. Tozer quote that I included in my sermon.  But the MacArthur commentary surrounding the quote was equally intriguing.

I am not one who is quick to unconditionally quote non-Lutheran sources or to treat confessional Lutheranism as if it were equal to Evangelicalism or conservative Christianity.  A discerning reading may catch a phrase or two in the quotation below that indicates subtle overtones of another theology.  But MacArthur certainly identifies a serious problem in the church today, a problem from which we Lutherans are by no means immune: Attempting to draw people into congregations by entertaining methods alongside or in place of the Word of God.

I’d like to share a lengthy quote from chapter three in MacArthur’s book.  This chapter is titled, “Gimme that Show-Time Religion.”  The quote comes from the beginning of the chapter, but these chapter subtitles should give you an idea of MacArthur’s concerns and train of thought:

  • Driven by Pragmatism
  • It’s Show Time!
  • Is Numerical Growth a Legitimate Goal?
  • The Pragmatic Roots of the Church Growth Movement
  • The Age of Pragmatism
  • A Bankrupt Philosophy
  • The Church as a Pub
  • Good Technique? No, Bad Theology.
  • The Breaking Forth of a Leprosy

Here’s the quote.  It covers the introductory section of the chapter and the first two subheadings.  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts and analysis.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.”

While Charles Spurgeon was doing battle in the Down-Grade Controversy, a worldwide trend was beginning to emerge that would set the course of human affairs for all of the twentieth century. It was the emergence of entertainment at the very center of family and cultural life. This trend saw the decline of what Neil Postman terms “the Age of Exposition”—marked by the thoughtful exchange of ideas through print and verbal means (preaching, debates, lectures). And it gave rise to “the age of Show Business”—in which amusements and entertainment have become the most important and time-consuming aspects of human discourse. Drama, film, and finally television have moved show business into the center of our lives—ultimately right into the middle of our living rooms. 

In show business, truth is irrelevant; what really matters is whether we are entertained. Substance counts for little; style is everything. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking now rules the church as surely as it does the world.

A. W. Tozer wrote these words in 1955:

For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was—a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability. For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God. Many churches these days have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate “producers” peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

By today’s standards, the issues that so inflamed Tozer’s passions seem trifling. For example, churches were attracting people to Sunday evening services by showing Christian films. Young people’s rallies featured up-tempo music and speakers whose specialty was humor. High-energy games and activities were beginning to play a key role in church youth work. Looking back, it may seem difficult to understand Tozer’s distress. Hardly anyone these days would be shocked or concerned about any of the methods that seemed radically innovative in the fifties. Most of them are generally regarded as conventional today.

Tozer, however, was not condemning games, music styles, or movies per se. He was concerned with the philosophy underlying what was happening in the church. He was sounding an alarm about a deadly change of focus. He saw evangelicals using entertainment as a tool for church growth, and he believed that was subverting the church’s priorities. He feared that frivolous diversions and carnal amusements in the church would eventually destroy people’s appetites for real worship and the preaching of God’s Word.

He was right about that. In fact, Tozer’s rebuke is more fitting than ever as the church approaches the end of the century. He—and Spurgeon before him—were identifying a trend that has come into full bloom in our generation. What the church was flirting with in Spurgeon’s time became an infatuation in Tozer’s. It is now an obsession. Worse yet, the forms of entertainment now used in church are often completely secular—devoid of anything Christian.

An article in The Wall Street Journal described one well-known church’s bid “to perk up attendance at Sunday evening services.” The church “staged a wrestling match, featuring church employees. To train for the event, 10 game employees got lessons from Tugboat Taylor, a former professional wrestler, in pulling hair, kicking shins and tossing bodies around without doing real harm.” No harm to the staff members, perhaps, but what is the effect of such an exhibition on the church’s message? Is not the gospel itself clouded and badly caricatured by such tomfoolery? Can you imagine what Spurgeon or Tozer would have thought?

That wrestling match is not an obscure example from some eccentric church on the fringe. It took place in the Sunday evening service of one of America’s five largest churches. Similar examples could be drawn from many of the leading churches supposedly in the mainstream of evangelical orthodoxy.

Some will maintain that if biblical principles are presented, the medium doesn’t matter. That is nonsense. If an entertaining medium is the key to winning people, why not go all out? Why not have a real carnival? A tattooed acrobat on a high wire could juggle chain saws and shout Bible verses while a trick dog balanced on his head. That would draw a crowd. And the content of the message would still be biblical. It’s a bizarre scenario, but one that illustrates how the medium can cheapen and corrupt the message.

And sadly, it’s not terribly different from what is actually being done in some churches. There seems almost no limit to what modern church leaders will do to entice people who aren’t interested in worship and preaching. Too many have bought the notion that the church must win people by offering an alternative form of entertainment.

Just how far will the church go in competing with Hollywood? A large church in the southwestern United States has installed a half-million-dollar special-effects system that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium. The church sent staff members to study live special effects at Bally’s Casino in Las Vegas. The pastor ended one service by ascending to “heaven” via invisible wires that drew him up out of sight while the choir and orchestra added a musical accompaniment to the smoke, fire, and light show. It was just a typical Sunday show for that pastor: “He packs his church with such special effects as … cranking up a chain saw and toppling a tree to make a point … the biggest Fourth of July fireworks display in town and a Christmas service with a rented elephant, kangaroo and zebra. The Christmas show features 100 clowns with gifts for the congregation’s children.”

Shenanigans like that would have been the stuff of Spurgeon’s worst nightmares. And even Tozer could not have foreseen the extreme to which evangelicals would go in paying homage to the great god Entertainment.

Driven by Pragmatism

There is no denying that these antics seem to work—that is, they draw a crowd. Many churches that have experimented with such methods report growing attendance figures. And a handful of megachurches—those that can afford first-class productions, effects, and facilities—have been able to stimulate enormous numerical growth. Some of them fill huge auditoriums with thousands of people several times every week.

A few of these megachurches resemble elegant country clubs or resort hotels. They feature impressive facilities with bowling lanes, movie theaters, health spas, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and state-of-the-art multi-court gymnasiums. Recreation and entertainment are inevitably the most visible aspects of these enterprises. Such churches have become meccas for students of church growth.

Now evangelicals everywhere are frantically seeking new techniques and new forms of entertainment to attract people. Whether a method is biblical or not scarcely seems to matter to the average church leader today. Does it work? That is the new test of legitimacy. And so raw pragmatism has become the driving force in much of the professing church.

It’s Show Time!

When Charles Spurgeon warned about those who “would like to unite church and stage, cards and prayer, dancing and sacraments,” he was belittled as an alarmist. But Spurgeon’s prophecy has been fulfilled before our eyes. Modern church buildings are constructed like theaters (“play-houses,” Spurgeon called them). Instead of a pulpit, the focus is a stage. Churches are hiring full-time media specialists, programming consultants, stage directors, drama coaches, special-effects experts, and choreographers.

This is all the natural extension of a market-driven church philosophy. If the church is only in business to promote a product, church leaders had better pay attention to the methods of Madison Avenue. After all, the church’s chief competition is a world filled with secular amusements and a host of worldly goods and services. Therefore, the marketing experts say, we will never win people until we develop effective alternative forms of entertainment to capture people’s attention and loyalty away from the world’s offerings. That goal thus establishes the nature of the marketing campaign.

What’s wrong with that? For one thing, the church has no business marketing its ministry as an alternative to secular amusements (1 Thess. 3:2–6). That corrupts and cheapens the church’s real mission. We are not carnival barkers, used-car salesmen, or commercial pitchmen. We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). Knowing the terror of the Lord (v. 11), motivated by the love of Christ (v. 14), utterly made new by Him (v. 17), we implore sinners to be reconciled to God (v. 20).

Moreover, instead of confronting the world with the truth of Christ, the market-driven megachurches are enthusiastically promoting the worst trends of secular culture. Feeding people’s appetite for entertainment only exacerbates the problems of mindless emotion, apathy, and materialism. Quite frankly, it is difficult to conceive of a ministry philosophy more contradictory to the pattern our Lord gave us.

Proclaiming and explaining the Word for the maturing and holiness of believers should be the heart of every church’s ministry. If the world looks at the church and sees an entertainment center, we’re sending the wrong message. If Christians view the church as an amusement parlor, the church will die. One dear woman, struggling in a church that has embraced all the modern fads, recently complained, “When is the church going to stop trying to entertain the goats and get back to feeding the sheep?”

Nothing in Scripture indicates the church should lure people to Christ by presenting Christianity as an attractive option. Nothing about the gospel is optional: “There is salvation in no one else … there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Nor is the gospel meant to be attractive in the sense of modern marketing. As we have noted, the message of the gospel is often “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Rom. 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8). It is disturbing, revolting, upsetting, confrontive, convicting, and offensive to human pride. There’s no way to “market” that. Those who try to erase the offense by making it entertaining inevitably corrupt and obscure the crucial aspects of the message. The church must realize that its mission has never been public relations or sales; we are called to live holy lives and declare God’s raw truth—lovingly but uncompromisingly—to an unbelieving world.

John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, 67-72 (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1993).



  1. And, if worship is packaged and marketed like American Idol (or what have you), won’t it be natural for people to eventually want to “see what else is on,” and head off for the next big sensation?


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