Entertainment as Worship--Worship as Entertainment

“We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.” (John Calvin)

Playing at worship

One pundit quipped that Americans “worship their work, work at their play, play at their worship.” I suspect that most Christians would object. Entertainment evangelism “worship,” for them, is the best thing that’s happened to church; the building is full, and look how happy everybody is.

But the numbers may be skewed. According to the Barna Research Group, though five out of six males consider themselves on some level to be Christians, only two out of six regularly go to church. They may be full, but many American churches are two thirds female and one third male.

There are many reasons for this, but changes in music may take center stage. But the debate over worship music, ironically, isn’t very much about worship. Few proponents of entertainment worship music ask what music is appropriate for the worship of God. Instead, with the best of intentions,“They imitate the nations around them” (II Kings 16:10; 17:15-41) in order to be relevant to their tastes and evangelize them.

A leading church-growth expert candidly admits this. “What kind of music do you listen to?” he asked the folks in his community. “I didn't have one person who said, ‘I listen to organ music.’ Not one. It was 96-97% adult contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop. So, we made a strategic decision that we are unapologetically a contemporary music church.”

Well-intentioned Christians have reinvented what goes on at church by shifting the question. Young church planters generally ask: “What does the world like to listen to?” rather than “What music is appropriate to worship God in the splendor of his holiness” (I Chronicles 16: 29b-30a)? Thus, church growth becomes the all-excusing rationale for what people sing in church. And they tell us it’s working. “Right after we made that decision and stopped trying to please everybody,” claimed one church-growth expert, his church “exploded with growth.” End of discussion.

Or is it? Roman emperors packed out arenas by giving entertainment-crazed citizens what they liked. People showed up in droves. We too are a culture that values amusement. We like to feel good. We like to sway and clap. We like rapid images passing before us. We like celebrity. And we’ll pay for it. Church growth proponents argue that cashing in on the postmodern infatuation with entertaining music will fill churches. So give them what they want.

The late Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death cites the executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Associations who seems to agree with the church-growth philosophy: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

Postman, though no Christian, made the perceptive observation: “This is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want. Only what they need.”

When the church fashions worship to entertain the world, to give people what they want, it inevitably creates, as one journalist termed it, “a Christian ghetto watering down the gospel.” Moreover, when the goal is to make Christian worship appealing to a feminized culture we inevitably alter the message and make it less offensive--and less Christian.

Whenever Israel imitated the pagan worship of the nations around them, God became angry and judged them. Thus, John Calvin urged that “all human inventions in worship be removed and driven from us, which God himself justly abominates.” Far from aping the world, Christian men ought to stand against the impulse to reinvent worship so it looks and sounds like the world.

Loud, loud, loud!

In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis described heaven as a region of music and silence. The demon Screwtape is frustrated by this reality: “Music and silence—how I detest them both!” He boasts that in hell:

No moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the great dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards earth. The melodies and silence of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.

But contemporary church growth enthusiasts, however, don’t seem to agree. “We are loud,” says one mega-church pastor. “We are really, really loud. I say, ‘We're not gonna turn it down.’”

Conversely, Lewis sees music and silence as complimentary features of heaven. He gets this, of course, from biblical passages where God calls us to “Be still and know that I am God,” and to “sing for joy.”

But does high-volume rock ‘n’ roll fit with the music and silence that Lewis describes, or does it sound more like the noise and loudness Screwtape and many church growth leaders prefer? This isn’t as hard a question as we’ve made it. Nevertheless, church growth advocates and most musicians agree with pop music expert Don Butler, “Every style and form of music can become gospel, whether it’s jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, or rap” (Inhouse Music, March/April 1991).

Tolkien readers will immediately think of Boromir, who, rather than destroy the ring, urged the fellowship to use the power of the ring--for good ends. Like the post-conservative church, Boromir, too, was certain that he would not be corrupted by it. He was wrong.

Beware. If entertainment evangelism advocates can convince you that music is amoral, merely a matter of taste, then the discussion ends—and so does discernment. Wise young men, however, will be suspicious of conclusion that sweep away moral judgment.

Moral or amoral?

In the preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1545, Calvin wrote of music that “there is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn the morals of men.” Yet Christians today insist that “Music is amoral.” As if to say, “Just use the ring!”

But historically nobody has thought music was amoral. Agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Preface to The English Hymnal wrote, “Good music for worship is a moral issue. The eternal gospel cannot be commended with disposable, fashionable music styles, otherwise there is the implication that the gospel itself is somehow disposable and temporary.” Tragically, well-intentioned Christians, confused by the amoral argument, may be undermining the gospel by making it appear throwaway to the watching world.

Paste in whatever words you want, loud entertainment music already conveys its own message. Certainly it makes people clap and feel exhilarated, but it’s not conducive to careful thinking about the whole counsel of God. Entertainment music creates a feel-good atmosphere, but it doesn’t work well to make men feel bad. It does excitement and infatuation well but is largely bankrupt on conviction and repentance--essentials not only of biblical evangelism but of sanctification and true growth in grace.

Traditionally, music in church was employed to commend the objective message, to play second fiddle to the words. But entertainment evangelism switches this around. Eager to “imitate the nations around them,” musicians force the high objective truths of the Bible into the background. Thus, praise songs repeatedly state adoration but with few if any doctrinal reasons given to biblically support and adorn those statements. And increasingly the object of adoration is vague.

Gene Edward Veith, writing for World Magazine, concluded his review of a wide range of popular Christian materials: “So much of this Christian material says nothing about Jesus Christ.”

How ironic! I thought evangelism was the reason for using entertainment music. So why remove much of the explicit Christian content from the lyrics? Though the Bible is clear, Christ is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (I Peter 2:8), still we’re afraid to offend the world. The Spirit of God only removes the offense through the objective truths of the Word of God--the very thing that many post-conservative Christians are watering down in their music. Little wonder the church looks and sounds and acts like the world--instead of the reverse.

Look at me!

Visiting a church one Sunday morning, I led my family cautiously through a minefield of microphone wires and amp chords to our seats—just beneath a speaker the size of a piano. My kids stared wide-eyed at the bongo drums, the Starbucks coffee in nearly every hand, the female worship leaders and effeminate males on stage in their Hawaiian shirts. One of my young sons leaned over and whispered, “Is this an entertainment show?”

One thing is indisputable: the seeker-friendly service is shaped by the entertainment industry. Of course they’re using entertainment as a means to an end: evangelism. Most church leaders want to get them in the door by entertaining them with a really good band. But is this compatible with the spirit of celebrity seen throughout the entertainment world?

Michael Bloodgood, heavy-metal bassist and Calvary Chapel pastor, thinks it is. “We’re like Billy Graham with guitars. Rock and roll is neutral. It depends on the spirit.”

Check out the album covers on the latest ads from your Christian bookstore if you want to discern the spirit. You’ll discover shameless aping of secular musicians: provocative females, touchy-feely males, and armed-crossing hauteur. Plunk in the CD and you will hear desperate mainstream-wannabes screaming to be noticed by secular record labels.

Late rock musician Keith Green saw all this coming. “It isn’t the beat that offends me, nor the volume—it’s the spirit. It’s the ‘look at me!’ attitude I have seen at concert after concert, and the ‘Can’t you see we are as good as the world!’ syndrome I have heard on record after record.” That was decades ago. Things have not improved.

British pastor, John Blanchard in his little book Pop Goes the Gospel says this worldly exhibitionism sets up Christians to act like “stars instead of servants.” He argues that the entertainment model inevitably leads to a groping for celebrity status and is why entertainment evangelism “so easily encourages worldliness.”

What historian Paul Johnson observed about culture in general the church seems desperate to imitate. “Entertainment [has] displaced traditional culture as the focus of attention, and celebrity has ejected quality as the measure of value.”

I don’t listen to the words

Getting the musical cart before the objective-content horse is not simply a contemporary issue. Calvin faced it in the sixteenth century: “We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.”

Long before Calvin, Augustine wrote approvingly of church singing, but added strong caution. “Nevertheless, when it happens that I am more moved by the song than the thing which is sung, I confess that I sin in a manner deserving punishment.”

What would these saints say about Christian worship today? Their concerns predated the development of instruments and amplification technology designed to create psychological euphoria with loud, penetrating musical noise. A thoughtful young man, a future leader in the church, must ask: “Does entertainment music draw attention to itself and to the performers, or does it aid in making understandable the objective meaning of the words being sung? Does it awaken discernment or distract?” The jury is in. Most Christians, however, refuse to hear the verdict.

What is the universal response when parents ask kids why they listen to secular music with trashy lyrics? “I don’t listen to the words.” Amusement music is produced to affect an emotional response from the music itself rather than an intellectual response to the meaning of the words. Which compels the conclusion that entertainment music is probably a poor choice to “renew the minds” of unbelievers. I wonder how many entertainment-music-loving church goers are too distracted and “don’t listen to the words”?

Who’s evangelism?

J.I. Packer wrote that “When evangelism is not fed, fertilized and controlled by theology it becomes a stylized performance seeking its effect through manipulative skills rather than the power of vision and the force of truth.” John Blanchard exposes the problem of depending on music to do what only the Spirit and Word of God can do: “Musical conditioning is not the same as the Holy Spirit challenging the mind to think, the spirit to be still, and the heart to be humbled in the presence of God.” In this they are only stating what the church has thought and practiced for centuries—until now.

Luther made a clear distinction between worthy and unworthy music. “We know that the devil’s music is distasteful and insufferable.” But many Christians roll their eyes when someone says, “Rock has always been the devil’s music.” But it was rocker David Bowie who said this. He went on. “You can’t convince me that it isn’t. I believe that rock ‘n’ roll is dangerous.” Still the church imagines that by using music styles conceived in the sexual revolution it is plundering the Egyptians. It may prove the reverse.

Burk Parsons, managing editor of Table Talk, and founding member of the Backstreet Boys, quit rock and roll. Why? “The world of show business is the world of man-centered entertainment. The foundational philosophy of man-centered entertainment is to do whatever it takes in order to attract millions of fans and to make millions of dollars.” This requires the “entertainment gurus” to track all the latest cultural fads and follow the “whims and fancies” of the music listening public, like many candidly admit doing. Parsons continues, “This has become the philosophy of many evangelicals [who] have exchanged God-centered worship for man-centered entertainment that is founded upon the ever-changing principles of the culture rather than upon the unchanging principles of the Word of God.” He calls us to worship according to the Word of God, “which transcends the current trends of modern culture.”

Entertainment church-growth experts claim, however, that no church will grow if it does not change over to entertainment music. One wonders how Spurgeon, Calvin, Edwards, or Luther did it before guitars. Church planters are correct about the power of loud entertainment music to change people. Decades ago, rocker Jimi Hendrix understood this. “Music is a spiritual thing of its own. You can hypnotize people with the music and when you get them at their weakest point you can preach into the subconscious what you want to say.”

London preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote concerning music’s power, “We can become drunk on music. Music can have the effect of creating an emotional state in which the mind is no longer functioning as it should be, and no longer discriminating.”

Blinded by a flawed theology of salvation, I wonder if Christians now expect music to do what only the Holy Spirit can do: woo sinners by changing their mind and will, not by first altering their emotions, but by drawing them by the power of the Word to repentance and faith in Christ.

Worship like a man

Examination of entertainment church music exposes a number of problems: over-familiarity and sentimentalism; the tendency to bring God down to man’s understanding; lyrics written by young people who are musicians first, rather than hymn poetry written by experienced, gifted Christians with theological training; the tendency to sing about what we’re singing about; simplistic repetitiveness; lack of biblical progression of thought; in short, the dumbing-down of the message in order to fit it into the entertainment medium.

But let me speak man-to-man with you about the feminization of Christian worship. This has happened in many pernicious ways but perhaps nowhere more uncomfortably for Christian young men than in singing.

In contemporary worship, the girls stand caressing the air with their hands, swaying with the pounding rhythm of the music, their voices hushed and breathy, eyes pinched closed, crooning along with the worship leaders.

What are most guys doing? Shuffling their feet uncomfortably. Embarrassed by the public display of emotions, and embarrassed--or allured--by the provocative outfits and yearning posture of the female worship leaders or soloists.

Christine Rosen in the Wall Street Journal, connected plummeting male church attendance with the growing number of women taking leadership roles in the church. In his recent book, Steve Farrar decries the “feminization of our boys” in contemporary worship. “Am I in a church or a spa?” he asks. “At a deal like that, you don’t bring your Bible, you bring your moisturizer.”

In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow argues that because contemporary worship is “tilted toward the feminine heart, created for sensitive women and soft-hearted men to meet Jesus,” a masculine man feels emasculated, “like he has to check his testosterone at the sanctuary door.”

In the canon of classic hymns, however (see appendix), men for centuries have sung of battles and fighting, of conquest and triumph, in short, of the manly Christian themes found in the Psalms.

“But today’s praise songs are mainly love songs to Jesus,” wrote Murrow, offering the example, Hold me close, let your love surround me… I’m desperate without you… Jesus, I’m so in love with you. Another song a student gave me begins Your love is extravagant; your friendship—mmmm--intimate. These “Jesus-is-my-girlfriend” songs represent a genre choked with songs no Christ-honoring, self-respecting young man can sing.

A serious Christian man is stumped. Women worship leaders and effeminate men make you feel unspiritual if you don’t sing and behave like women. What are you to do? Know for starters that “you don’t have to be a girlie man to be a godly man.”

This is war--culture war. It’s time to break ranks with feminized worship and restore biblical manhood to the church. It begins with you and your generation. Prepare yourself to step up with manly leadership. Worship God in the splendor of his holiness. Cultivate a deep appreciation of what men in the church have sung through the centuries. Then “Rise up [young] men of God; be done with lesser things.”

Excerpt from Bond's 2008 book Stand Fast, the first in his Fathers & Sons series for dads to read with their teen sons. Bond is author of twenty-six books, New Reformation Hymns, and articles in Modern Reformation, Table Talk, and other journals. He is a frequent speaker at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours. He also hosts The Scriptorium, a weekly podcast on Church history, literature, writing, practical theology, art, and life. Subscribe to bondbooks.net to follow

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