Friday, May 29, 2009


The Sights, Sounds, and Spectacles of Spurious Spirituality

Part 1

"We reject all shameful and underhanded methods.
We do not try to trick anyone,
and we do not distort the word of God.
We tell the truth before God,
and all who are honest know that."

(The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:2, NLT)

Along with other Americans, I am a sports fan, especially of football and basketball. I grew up loving, playing, and watching both sports, especially basketball. After shoveling the snow off his driveway in the dead of winter, for hours at a time I used to shoot the round ball at a goal attached to my neighbor's garage. During cold and snowy winter months, my father would drive me to Godwin Field House to watch our local semi-pro team, the Grand Rapids (Michigan) "Tackers," play on Saturday evenings. (In that day, my hometown was known as the furniture capital of the world; hence the name "Tackers.") Although the players were not nationally known, watching big and skilled men play a finesse game was an awesome experience for a young boy. In my late teens, I regularly played pick-up games on public courts around the city. Because I was more force than finesse, I earned the nickname "junk man." Today, as a half-season ticket holder of the Indiana Pacers, I still enjoy watching the biggest-best athletes in the world compete in the NBA.

But there's a world of difference between having attended a Tackers' game in the early 1960s, and going to a Pacers' game in the 2000s!

Upon entering Indy's Conseco Field House, and climbing the steps to the concourse where free programs and gifts are distributed, a rock or pep band can usually be heard playing in the background. In the countdown before the game, rock and rap music blare constantly over the PA system as the players warm-up shooting and stretching on the court below. Then, as coaches and players stand in lines facing one another, there comes the singing of our national anthem, often by a well-known recording artist. Then, after introducing the opposing team in an ordinary way, the public announcer introduces the Pacers' starting lineup in a darkened arena accompanied by pulsating music, a cheering crowd, flashing strobe lights, and a mini fireworks display.

During timeouts, the PA system plays music as cheerleaders dance on the playing floor below, as Boomer--the team mascot--and his friends shoot and hurl T-shirts into the stands. And from the catwalks above, arena workers drop parachutes with hanging gift cards or yellow mini-balls to the crowd below. On the giant four-sided TV screens situated above center court, there is the constant visage of replays, live pictures of the crowd behaving out of themselves, and sports news casts. At half-time, entertaining and flamboyant juggling, magic, balancing, gymnastic, etc., acts, imported from Las Vegas or wherever, perform.

Between the third and fourth quarters Boomer and his acrobatic entourage put on an exciting dunk show as they propel themselves off from mini-trampolines, fly and somersault through the air, slam the ball through the basket, and finally crash on the landing mats below. If the game is close at the end, the PA announcer, accompanied by pulsating music that heightens the excitement, exhorts the cheering and screaming crowd into greater and greater fervor and frenzy.

All the while, expensive drinks and food are sold by vendors on the lower and upper concourses surrounding the arena. From the time a fan enters the arena until the final horn ends the game, there's wall-to-wall excitement to be found in the Pacer experience. This is why, I guess, they call the NBA franchise, "Pacers Sports and Entertainment."

But amidst the goings-on, the game remains. That's what the fans come to watch . . . or, do they?

How Can We Make Our Services More Exciting?

As I reflect upon all this business, I cannot help but think of how like the corporation of Pacers Sports and Entertainment, many American churches have become, as they provide their congregations with excitements and experiences. A congregant once asked me how we might make our worship services more exciting. These days it seems, religion must be made "fun," or else.

So, like sports marketers, churches try to spin the sensual into the spiritual. If the spiritual blessing of worship does not descend from above, religious entrepreneurs will attempt to compensate for that lack of reality by ginning up excitement below. After all, to be believed in, the crowd needs to feel God doing something, and excitements give the impression that He's at work.

So, church leadership designs worship services to be an experience akin to attending a Pacer game. A pervasive "need" seems to exist amongst congregants to get excited over excitement. I presume that's why churches call their Sunday morning services, "celebrations" (Remember the tune, "Celebration," by Kool and the Gang?).

But I often wonder how the attendance numbers would fare if the Pacers did away with all the extra-curricular excitements? What if the atmosphere became like that of those old semi-pro Tacker games I attended as a kid. How many people attend games to just watch the game? Or, must there be other inducements?

Similarly, how many people really attend church to worship God? I remember reading where A.W. Tozer once questioned how many people would attend church if the only attraction was God. Seemingly, vast numbers of Christians want to attend "The Church of What's Happening Now." For any too young to remember, during the early 1970s this was the comedic church pastored by a con-artist named Reverend Leroy, who was played by the comedian Flip Wilson (1933-1998) on a TV program named after him.

To be continued. . . .

The Truth:

"But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." (1 Peter 4:7)