Monday, January 17, 2005

Worship vs. Entertainment

Ultimately, this is about preference. The pros and cons weighed between traditional and contemporary worship are not new. And let's bypass the debate about the adequacy of these two terms to begin with (doesn't all worship in some way stem from a tradition and can't all worship currently used in churches be considered contemporary?).

I begin with Curtis White's book The Middle Mind, which goes to great lengths to differentiate between 'entertainment' and 'art.' The latter, he suggests, wishes to make a statement about or counter to the larger culture. In particular he discusses Radiohead's album 'OK Computer' and one particular review which gave it a lower grade due to it not having mass appeal. White's conclusion is that it is a mistake to evaluate art by how entertaining it is.

This past Saturday I attended a workshop on multimedia in worship. We opened with a worship service (the pastor leading us called it 'contemporary,' but not 'contemporary' the way you think of 'contemporary'). The church in which this workshop was held was a smaller church, the sanctuary of modest size in its own right. It was a typical sanctuary you might see anywhere, save for the large screen and projector hanging from the ceiling. This was not my first encounter with this sort of setup by any means, so it didn't shock or surprise me that a church hosting a multimedia workshop would itself be rigged to incorporate multimedia elements.

So onto the service. With one click, we watched the screen for the next 15 minutes as first a few powerpoint slides popped up with messages such as 'Come, let us worship' and the like. Since it was Martin Luther King weekend, there was a rather long montage of scenes from various demonstrations that King had led or inspired with U2's 'In the Name of Love' playing in the background, immediately followed by two 'hymns' we were encouraged to join in singing (The Byrds' 'Turn Turn Turn' and Joan Osborne's 'One of Us') while more scenes flashed by.

So in effect we had this block of time where we watched TV. When the two songs clicked on there was finally an interactive element.

The question in my mind, now that I am far enough removed from a service like this being a Sunday routine, is this: Is it worship or entertainment? And how much weight should mass appeal carry in making the distinction? Megachurches like Ginghamsburg near Dayton, Ohio and St. Louis Family Church attract AT LEAST 1000+ visitors a weekend, offering large screens and full worship bands. At least part of their success (for lack of a better word in describing church attendance) stems from the use of multimedia in worship. It has mass appeal. It attracts the unchurched. It 'speaks to more people' than hymns and reading liturgy off a page. It's 'vibrant, alive' worship.

Now I'll be the first to tell you that a worship band and praise music are not bad things. There are bad praise songs, but praise music is not bad. As there are different genres of 'secular' music (try making that distinction with the pastor of the church I was at this weekend), there are different genres of 'sacred.' We don't do Gregorian Chant in many American churches, but we can find hymns, spirituals, praise choruses, southern gospel, and folk, among others. So praise songs are one genre among many. What's the point of my mentioning that? Well, some legitimately feel 'vibrant and alive' in the Spirit through praise music. Every Sunday the church I serve incorporates praise songs and CDs into what would otherwise be called a 'traditional' service.

Now we must consider that given the population of megachurches and non-denominational churches (who are more prone to use praise music) greatly outweighs the population of mainline churches nowadays, and that some of that trend has to do with the music stylings, can it truly be said that because praise music attracts more people that other forms of worship are inferior or to be discounted due to its mass appeal?

And here we are at worship vs. entertainment. Do more people truly feel moved by multimedia worship, or are they merely blinded by the flash and pop?

I think that to truly begin to answer this question, we need to look beyond the method toward the content. What's being offered besides video montages and electric guitars? What's being offered if 'more appealing' means are being utilized? Are worship leaders content to remain with these items, or does something more get communicated either during or after the service? I think that's how we begin to test whether something is worship or entertainment. The other piece is much more individual: does one come to church to worship or see what cool video the tech team has put together?

God knows what is in our hearts. The best we can do in the meantime is plan and lead worship with integrity and depth, and hope something is sinking in.