THE PASTOR: Here We Are Now, Entertain Us–Not!

A number of years back, I was called to be pastor of a church in the Buffalo area.  (I turned the call down).  While visiting the congregation, I attended a barbecue.  The congregational president introduced me to his teenaged daughter, then commented: “She doesn’t go to church.”

And then the young lady said: “Church is boring.”

I responded by saying: “Maybe it is.  But a lot of the things that make life stable and worthwhile aren’t terribly exciting–like working, having a family, being a responsible citizen. Life isn’t always going to be as electrifying as a TV show.  The best things in life actually are pretty boring.”

I don’t know if that answer impressed her.  I doubt it.  I’m not even sure if that answer impresses me as I think back on it (I was thinking on my feet!)  But if somebody told me today, “Church is boring”, I think I’d probably have the same answer.  By the standards of our fast-paced, MTV-driven society, the best things in life are going to appear pretty dull.

You may have heard me tell the story about the ambulance crew who were called to a church one morning because one of the worshipers had collapsed and become unconscious.  Upon arriving at the church, they ended up taking the entire congregation to the hospital–because they couldn’t tell which one was unconscious!  Obviously, worship in that church was not entertaining.

Most churches struggle with the question: Should worship be entertaining?  In our television-oriented society, everything is expected to be entertaining.  News people, political commentators, public officials–all are expected to be entertainers.  (There’s a great book about this by Neil Postman–Amusing Ourselves to Death.  As you might gather from the title, Postman does not think the everything-is-entertainment phenomenon is very healthy).  The motto of our society is a line from a song by Nirvana: “Here we are now, entertain us”.  In this supercharged atmosphere where everything is supposed to be entertaining, churches often wonder where–or if–they fit in.

often wonder where–or if–they fit in.

I do not regard traditional Lutheran liturgical worship as boring.  I think it well captures the reverence implied in a verse like: “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Habakkuk 2:20).  And certainly an event where God Himself shows up cannot be boring!  Here at St. Paul’s we try to make it as dynamic an experience as possible: our vocal and handbell choirs and the various types of music bring a great deal of enjoyment to our services. 

Still, by television standards, our worship  probably doesn’t qualify as “entertainment”.

However, maybe we’re  looking at it all wrong.  Entertainment is something you watch.  Entertainment is a totally passive experience.  Worship is not something you simply watch.  Worship is something you participate in.   This is why the choir does not sing the entire service–the congregation does most of the singing.  This is why we do our “Lutheran calesthenics”–standing up and sitting down during worship.    This shows we’re not observers–we’re participants.  When was the last time you stood up during a television show (except to go for a soda)?  A worship service is a different kind of event from a televison show.

Worship is not an event that is staged for me; it’s an event that I’m part of.  I sing.  I pray.  I lift my heart to Jesus.  And He comes to me–comes to me with His love, His mercy, His forgiveness.  There’s a wondrous interaction between Jesus and us–something that goes beyond the category of “entertainment”.

If I compare having breakfast with my family to going to an action flick, the breakfast may come off as boring.  But I need to remember: these are two different kinds of events.  In the action flick, I’m sitting there passively, being entertained.  At the breakfast, I’m interacting with people, building relationships.  One event is more “boring” than the other.  But which one is more worthwhile?  Which one has a longer-lasting, deeper impact on my life?

Compared to a high-voltage film, the entertainment value of worship may seem small.  But everything isn’t supposed to be entertaining.  I go back to my comment to the young lady in Buffalo–the best things in life (like work, family, responsible citizenship, and worship) can seem boring if you expect them to be “entertainment”.

But if you see them as things that bring stability and joy into life...if you see them as things that build relationships and bond people to one another...then you wouldn’t trade them for all the entertainment in the world!

When we enter the sanctuary, we aren’t saying, “Here we are now, entertain us.”  Rather, we are saying: “Speak to me, Lord, in the Word...and I will sing to you and pray to You.  We’ll spend time together and grow closer!”  The time in God’s house does more than entertain us.  It binds us to Him!

NOTE ON THE NEW POPE: I have long regarded Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as one of the greatest living theologians, and was absolutely delighted at his election to the papacy.  He has been stereotyped as a “Jurassic arch conservative” in the press,  but that is unfair slander against a good and devoted man.  (Compared to the folks in our denomination who brought charges against Dr. Benke a few years ago, Benedict XVI looks like a wild-eyed liberal!)

Benedict XVI has expressed some sympathy for Lutheranism in the past (he saved the Lutheran/Catholic agreement on Justification by Faith from being derailed in the late 1990s).  I pray that

his papacy will bring the lifting of Martin Luther’s excommunication, something the Vatican has considered but never acted upon.  (In fact, since the new Pope has an e-mail address, I plan on writing him to suggest that very thing).

The differences between our churches remain serious, but we can still celebrate the many things we have in common, and we can pray that God would draw all Christians closer together in truth and love.

God loves you and so do I!