Consumerism, Entertainment and Worship

Before I was ordained, and still in seminary, a minister I knew and respected confided to me that he was afraid, at times, that he was becoming an entertainer, putting on a good show. I am aware of that in myself, as well. Certainly, I am aware that leading worship is a performance, and that people in the pews can like it, or not like it, and that they will let you know.

I also remembering preaching a sermon in a class at seminary, in which I "made 'em squirm" by being provocative and confrontational. One of my fellow students remarked that his folks "liked it when I beat em up a little" before preaching the gospel. So, there is an entertainment value even in making the congregation uncomfortable.

These anecdotes from years ago are only meant to say that some ministers have been aware of the temptation of entertaining the congregation for a while.

Recently, I hear this critique of the temptation faced by the minister sliding into a critique of the shallowness of the congregation. They view worship as consumers. They "shop" for churches. They are looking to be entertained.

Tsk, Tsk and Tut, Tut!

O Lord, if Thou has called me to be a minister, then why hast Thou not supplied me with a congregation worthy of my ministering?

Isn't our task to meet people where they are?

There is also the obvious irony in the smallest and most highly educated religious movement in the country becoming concerned that it might be attracting the wrong sorts of people, who are coming for the wrong reasons.

I beleive that the cause of this confusion on our part is that we have our priorities backwards. Unitarian Universalism seems to believe that our principle task is to build religious communities, which we define as being the active members of our church/congregation. The worship service is the way that we explain and enact the religious community in the hopes that people will be attracted through the service into joining the religious community. The service is the show that we put on to get them to join. So, if people come and participate in the worship service, but don't become active in the religious community, then it means that there is either something wrong with the service, or something wrong with them. If they just want to partake of the worship service, then it must be that they are consumers.

In fact, the reason why we see them as consumers is because we have conceived of worship as a form of advertising.

To take worship seriously means that we have to be willing to see it as an end in itself. That what matters is that people come and worship with you and yours, and find it an occasion of reflection and redirection in their lives. Even if you don't know their names, and they never join the church, or make a pledge. It would be better to have a weekly attendence of 800 people, with 100 pledging members than to have 300 pledging members and only 200 there on Sunday morning. That scenario might be one part of the future.


  1. Having only skimmed the "entertainment" discussion, I had another take on it, which was ministers reflecting on the temptation to do more comforting of the comfortable (entertaining, soothing, reinforcing self-righteousness) than aflicting the comfortable. (challenging people with new perspectives and inconvenient truths)

    Of course, it's a balance. Too much challenge not only keeps the comfortable away, it makes their ears ring and they can't hear you when they come.

    I believe in worship for the sake of worship; in creating space for people to exercise their spiritual muscles and to sense the reward of quiet and connection in their lives.

    And to some extent, in our nitch market, that interesting sermon is what entices people to come to church and have that experience.

    But I guess I think that corporate worship is only one kind of spirituality, and if it is the only kind the church is making available to people (the 100 member church with 800 attending on Sundays) I'd say that's not a well-rounded spiritual community, focusing too much on one spiritual discipline.

    As to the 800 member church with 100 in attendance on Sunday...that suggests too little focus on corporate worship. But if 400 of those 800 were involved in a small group ministry or ministries in the community, I might revise my opinion.

  2. Great post. As to the attendance/member ratio, I think you are being kind and generous to put it at 3-2 membership and attendance. I suspect the disparity in many of our congregations, generally of 150 members or less, would be actually much higher, indicating more a concern for clubbiness than conversion/transformation. I would love to "entertain" the possibility that members who don't worship are fulfilling their passions out in the world, as Christine suggests, and would also be not too concerned if that is the case for then they are being the church in a different way than those in worship, though of course like her I expect I think that kind of congregation would be way atypical.

    But you have helped me to see or remember that worship can be as transformative and disciple-making as small group experiences (at least for some I expect). That too does seem a problem in trying to discuss whether or how worship is entertainment: what any five people find entertaining seems hard to capture. I'd hate to try to figure out how to meet the entertainment needs of people arriving to worship.

    I used to talk about worship and go first to Conrad Wright and his emphasis on it as a kind of broadcast of identity and tradition and unique message from the gathered people to the ungathered world (to paraphrase). Not sure what to make of that metaphor in today's world and will have to think more and read him again in light of this conversation. But then it does come down, right?, to where is God in the worship. That theological exploration seems often lacking when we get into consumerist/entertainment tsk tsk back and forths.


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