Friday, February 12, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Performance-Church

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: You sent me a horrible parody of a contemporary evangelical church service, IC. You’ve got to know I couldn’t leave that alone. I’m still brushing my teeth to get the taste out of my mouth.

But when they’re snarking the modern eleven o’clock church meeting on YouTube, and especially when it looks horribly familiar to most of your audience, you’ve almost got to concede we evangelicals are done like dinner. And it appears we cooked ourselves.

Does this travesty seem familiar to you?

Immanuel Can: You seem more shocked about it than I. There’s a reason why the piece is funny so many people; it’s recognition. The jokes reflect the current reality of many, many evangelical-type churches.

A Bar Set Woefully Low

Tom: You know, I have seen this sort of thing at the “cooler” youth conferences years ago, and I do recognize the tropes from visiting the occasional larger modern evangelical churches; not quite megachurch size, but five hundred-ish. And I’ve seen some smaller local churches try to imitate it with the badly out of tune youth group guitarist, his mother on piano and a drum machine. But even the scale of the parody tells me that what they’re making fun of is big bucks and way more common than I’m likely to regretfully concede. This is the new reality, is it?

Care to describe the video for those reluctant to click through, IC?

IC: Yes, it’s the new reality; but not all that new, actually. It’s megachurch programming circa the 1980s, just pulled up to the present day ... unsingable, performance-based music, non-worshiping “worship”, the continuous “cough-up-the-cash” subtext, the all-too-hip twenty-something “pastor” guy in jeans, and so on. Above all, it’s the passive audience instead of the living local body.

Tom: And all super self-consciously delivered. As you say, a performance.

IC: Really, what they’re doing in the video is what many present-day evangelical churches are attempting to do, hoping to do, longing to do. As you say, many are not very good at it, but in their fondest dreams, they would aspire to achieve a performance just that cheesy, and with all those elements in place — but this time, taking them all seriously.

And quite sad it is for all of us that the bar is set so woefully low.

“Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That”

Tom: Now, I’m sure the argument can be made, and IS made, that “There’s nothing anti-biblical about that.” I mean, sure, it’s not to our taste. It seems corny to us, and mannered, and trivial, and cringe-inducing to be associated with. It panders to a single, very narrow church demographic of mainstream middle-agers. It leaves the elderly out in the cold and the young, genuinely hip kids crawling under their seats in embarrassment. I mean, as performances go, there’s absolutely nothing here that the world doesn’t do better.

But, you know, it’s not outright, glaringly wicked or anything. It has that going for it.

Still, I don’t get why exactly we are competing with the entertainment world at its own game. This is not our strong suit.

IC: I’m not so sure there’s nothing wrong with it. For one thing, it means that so long as we’re producing that sort of nonsense, we won’t be focusing on producing anything that IS biblical — like edification, discipleship, giftedness, fellowship or worship. We are often too casual about the morally-bland stuff, forgetting that even morally-bland stuff holds down the position of something more important that ought to be there. The wicked is the first enemy of the good: but its second enemy is the trivial.

Tom: Oh, I agree, but I wanted you to come out and say it. I have been hearing an argument my entire life that goes something like: “There’s room for a great deal of autonomy in the local church”, and it’s not untrue. The New Testament gives us a great deal of room to maneuver in tailoring what we are doing to the culture and times in which we live, so as to meet people where they are. But that latitude is not unlimited: the fact that we are free, for instance, to do the things a church is supposed to do (teaching, prayer, breaking bread, fellowship) in a different order, or at different times, or with a different emphasis, does not mean we are free to alter the essential character of what we are doing, which is what happens when you turn communal participation into professional performance.

What We Lose

IC: Yes, it really is. So what would you say gets lost if a church goes performance-based?

Tom: Well, to be fair, the various gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the members of the audience we used to call a congregation are not “lost” per se. But it’s clear they are not utilized when the saints are gathered. They would only be in use during the week at home. But it seems to me that such gifts are likely to be used less there too — if only because hiring professionals to do everything in your church setting cannot fail to send everyone else the message that professionals are required for spiritual things that matter.

And then there’s the matter of lost time. Every guitar solo or musical interlude is lost time. Every song that’s performed rather than participated in is lost time. Every minute that’s spent on attracting new paying customers to the spectacle (which is a costly undertaking, folks) is lost, lost, lost time … and money.

IC: Yes, it is. And I really wonder how many of the people who attend these performance-focused churches are spiritually full, satisfied and growing? I suspect the numbers are not high. I’ve been a member of such a church, and I can tell you that behind the scenes it’s a spiritual desert for anyone who has moved beyond the very early stages of Christian development. There are limited leadership and service opportunities, no focus on higher knowledge, and little emphasis on the importance of individual-believer growth. In short, very little to sustain the soul. The whole focus is really on keeping the leaders in leadership … not much else.

Tom: Well, let’s talk about leadership opportunities: Every message from the same paid guy is a message no other gifted man in that church will ever have the opportunity to prepare. And having the same pastor message after message, week after week, is like coming here every morning for your entire spiritual diet. It gets old pretty quickly, no matter how spiritual the writer is. No one man was ever intended to provide all the spiritual nourishment for our spirits.

IC: I totally agree. Once the “professionals” start doing it, most other people end up sitting back.

Tom: And service opportunities? Oy. Handing out pamphlets at the balcony door does not require a spiritual gift. Sure, you’re “serving” after a manner of speaking, but not in any way that requires a special giftedness from the Spirit of God.

IC: Anything else?

Pastoral Pet Peeve of the Week

Tom: I wanted to come back to your point about a lack of focus on higher knowledge. I think that’s true, not least because the introductory and musical portions of the gathering take up so much of the allotted time. To get into anything more serious than the pastor’s Pet Peeve of the Week seems outside their purview. And from the YouTube clips I’ve seen of these sorts of video-friendly pastors in action, they’re long on application and very thin on explaining the reasons why we should be behaving or thinking this way or that way, which are fundamental to acting from spiritual conviction.

You’ve lived this: is that a fair characterization?

IC: Yes. Part of the problem is that their experience is very limited, and very weird. What I mean is that often they have gone pretty much straight from high school to seminary, and after that into the Twilight Zone that is the life of the average “pastor”. They’ve rarely made a paycheque, have always been paid for, and know very little of the real world. So they’re poorly positioned to do the kind of teaching you’re talking about. They tend to be strong on things like literary structure and rote doctrine, but weak on practice and real-world discipleship challenges. At least, that’s what I’ve noticed.

Tom: Rote doctrine? Really? It’s these very guys that seem to be caving on rote doctrine all over North America.

IC: Well, the role of a pastor is a political one, and their “practice” is all a matter of keeping various groups of people — local leaders and religious-program consumers, really — happy. Such doctrine as they have was handed to them by other people and then studied academically. It was not discovered by them in the flow of real life, and they don’t know how it applies because of that. So imagine this: if you’re a man who finds he’s got every practical daily use for politicking, and no practical use for doctrine, then if the two ever conflict, which one is likely to win?

Conflicts Not Easy to Resolve

Tom: I agree. They are presented with conflicts that are not easy to resolve. My mother once told me I could be a little rough on pastors, and that some of them are good people. This is not always wrong. When you actually meet one of these young eager beavers out of seminar, they don’t necessarily appear to be bad guys. I doubt very much they are the “fierce wolves” about which Paul warned the Ephesian elders, primarily because they’re not fierce enough to qualify. But whatever their conflicts, they are a product of passively accepting and then willingly perpetuating a system that was never the Lord’s intention.

Unfortunately, the sort of intellectual contortions that enable them to choose the life of a cog in the “pastoral” machine despite significant time in the scripture also make them both predictable and easy to parody, as we’ve been watching here. There are exceptions, of course, but if you watch this video, you may well recognize some of the technique.

IC: Absolutely. The reason the patterns of mannerism and style exist is that they are playing a role, not acting out of the truth of their personalities. You see, when you act out of your own personality, you manifest individual traits. But they don’t do that … instead they’re caught up in role-playing: in re-enacting the media persona of John MacArthur, or Matt Chandler, or Andy Stanley, perhaps. Or maybe they’re digging up their own imagined modern version of Spurgeon or Finney. But it’s not them. It’s a role. Get them off the platform, and they instantly talk like real human beings again. Put them up there, and they turn into an actor. And that makes them easy to mimic.

Tom: Now, I’m sure that can happen to anyone who preaches or teaches, not just men who are paid to do it full-time …

IC: Yes, it can. But there’s a special danger when you see yourself as a public figure or figurehead. Unfortunately, that’s what a “pastor” has come to be, in our thinking — the church figurehead, the guy it’s all about.

Failing On All Fronts

Tom: At any rate, if this video is any indication, the stereotypical pastor is easy to parody — not to mention the stereotypical leader of the “worship team”, which back in less pretentious days we used to refer to as a “lead vocalist”.

Because I lack your direct experience with this format, before we wrap this up, let me ask: How do you find the unsaved feel about this sort of thing? Does it “work”, or do they see right through it? Are there any positives to be said for it?

IC: You’ll know that few unbelievers ever come to a church service these days. But in the few cases I know of, it’s the love of the Christians that they notice, not the slickness of the program. I’ve actually never heard of an unsaved person bothering to admire that. And I’m not surprised: for as you say, the world always has better in that department.

Tom: The question I’ve got then, is why? This stuff doesn’t make for greater edification, or better worship, or even a better testimony. It doesn’t serve the purposes of God or man. What’s the point then?

IC: Right. The church is not a variety show. Because of our overexposure to media, performance-church has been normalized for us; but it’s not normal. It’s not healthy. It’s not edifying, and it’s not biblical. The parodies should be teaching us something, namely that there’s something quite “funny” — in both senses of that word — about what we are now so used to doing.

And maybe we should take the hint and quit it.

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