The Church is not a Circus

Okay, I need to confess something up front…I never much cared for the circus as a kid. It just wasn’t my schtick. Sorry. And if you are a lover of the circus, more power to you, though it seems that there are fewer and fewer traveling circuses going around. But, never mind you that…if you are desperate for the circus to come around, there are plenty of churches that are trying to fill the bill and put on the “greatest show on earth” all for your viewing enjoyment. 

Am I being sarcastic? Yes. And then, in a sense, no. Churches, especially the big ones, do some pretty loony things to get people to come in the door. For example, over the years, I have seen stories where the staff dressed up as professional wrestlers and ran around, well, doing what those folks do. I have read accounts where churches have hired designers from Disney to create interactive kids’ spaces and programs. Many use sound and lights and pyrotechnics and I have witnessed churches bringing in strong-men to “bend bars for Jesus.” Shall we mention the old, let’s throw a pie in the face of the preacher to increase attendance model? Gimmicks. 

And, while all of these are extremes, sometime the residual effect is that people in our congregations want to grasp a little of that excitement. For example, while I have no objection to contemporary hymnody and “praise songs” being used in church (at least those that are scripturally sound), I do have a problem with the “praise team” putting on a rock-n-roll concert as part of the service. In doing so, they draw attention to themselves and not toward Christ. The same can be said for the “cool” pastors who give a basic moralistic, feel-good message that is theologically and exegetically shallow. We worship an infinite God who has revealed himself in his word, shall we not expect that word to go deeper than we ever imagined? If we are mature, do we really need the pastor to hold our hand on personal application? Would it not be better for him to focus on digging out new treasures from the depths of this Word that help us appreciate the character of our God even more?

And that gets me to my point. What do you come to worship expecting it to be? If you expect entertainment, you are in the wrong place. True, there ought to be much about worship that should be enjoyable to you, but you are there to draw near to God by carefully attending to His word. The sermon should not tickle your ears, but should instruct you on the character of God and exhort you to repent of your sins and live in a way that honors that character. My grandfather (a Methodist minister) used to say, “If you have not stepped on toes in the sermon you have not preached.” There is great truth to that. Entertainment tends to leave you as you are — just perhaps more at ease from the stresses of life. The worship of God’s people is designed to be a tool to conform you into the image of Christ.

Yet, I look at the landscape of the “church” around us and I scratch my head. Exhortation and instruction seem to be only secondary and occasional byproducts of their approach. I see those praise bands practicing for hours to get their “set” down pat. I know of many pastors who practice their sermons with an audience repeatedly during the week to make it come across just so when it is delivered. In fact, many of them purchase sermon outlines that are pre-prepared. All they have to do is to personalize them and adapt them to their context — their job then largely is that of an actor performing a role and not as the shepherd-teacher of Christ’s church. Of course, many of these places have long ceased trying to be Christ’s church in anything but name and have imbibed of health-wealth and word-faith heresies to tickle those itching ears.

Pastors, you are teachers and exhorters, not performers. We need to be prepared but not polished. And we need to do our grunt-work in the Text of God’s word. It needs to work on us and get into our souls before we can ever expect that it will get into the souls of our people. Musicians, like the pastor, be prepared for what it is that you will play on Sunday morning; you are leading God’s people in worship. That said, it is not a performance and errors will be forgiven by Christians who have any sort of spiritual maturity. 

And folks in the pews — parishioners as some denominations would refer to you  — do not sit passively expecting to be entertained. You are not there to be entertained. You are there to actively engage in the worship of the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ. That does not mean that you need to put on a show…in fact, just the opposite. But it does mean you must participate. You must sing with the people of God — do not just stand there reading the words out of the hymnal and praying that the hymn is done soon — and do not bawl over the people around you as to draw attention to yourself. Sing with the people of God in their worship.

In times of corporate prayer, pray with the one leading the prayer. Ask yourself, “Do I really agree with the petitions of this prayer and if I don’t, in what ought I repent?” In times when the scripture is being read, ask yourself, “Do I understand what has been read and what can I learn about God and my relationship to him, from these words?” And when the sermon is being preached, pay careful attention. If you tend to get lost, take notes and think of questions that you might ask the pastor afterwards. And, before you come to worship, read over the passage your pastor will be preaching from, pray for him (and you), and again, formulate questions that you would like to have answers to from the passage — there is a good chance that he will address many if not most of these things…listen for them. And if he does not answer all of your questions, ask him afterwards, he will find it a thrill and a joy to engage in this kind of dialogue.

Oh, and if I have a pet peeve, it can be found in one of two complaints…either: “I am not being fed in worship” or “everything the pastor says goes over my head.” First of all, it is only the small children at the table that need to be fed; older children and adults feed themselves — Christians should strive to do that when the table has been set in the pastor’s sermon. Second of all, while that is typically meant as a complaint against the pastor, it speaks far more about the character of the one who is complaining…clearly they have not prepared themselves for worship nor have they actively engaged in worship during the service. In other words, those who say such things have imbibed some bad ideas about what worship is to be somewhere along the lines and unless they are open to correction, we will see them drift toward those who will tickle their ears instead of convicting their hearts. Sad.

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