What’s wrong with church today? Are we in danger of turning worship into a flashy concert? Of watering down the message so nobody is offended? Of forgetting the simplicity of the Gospel?
I grew up with a preacher’s kid. He was a fake following in the footsteps of his flimflamming father who did a great Vegas-style act at the grand piano. Both papa and son could turn on the tears and put on a fantastic show. The boy did a spectacular display of repentance and sorrow each year at our summer camp’s final-night altar call. He craved the spotlight. Moments after his public mea culpas he’d be back to his crass self, wanting to know if I’d scored with my girlfriend, claiming he was going to sneak away with his latest blonde during the baptismal service.
Privately, he and his dad were cynical and profane. But my childhood buddy has gone on to minister to a glittery mega-church much applauded in his denomination, a church distinguished by flash and showmanship and big attendance numbers – very much in the footsteps of his late father.
A few weeks ago, my friend’s son took his own life. It didn’t make the headlines like another mega-church preacher’s son’s suicide out in California. But I wish I had taken time with my friend’s boy. I wondered if he was ever exposed to the true gospel of Christ’s self-denying love.
As I sat in a local church with its multiple video screens, kids on guitars silhouetted by stage lights, and overpowering music that defies congregational singalong, I remembered my old hypocritical buddy. Annoyed by all the noise of the day’s service, I pulled out my iPhone and to the consternation of my wife began surfing the Internet. I glanced around and noticed I was not alone. And when I googled “church” and ”gimmicks,” I was not surprised to find a number of Christian leaders are just as puzzled as I with church that has turned into spectator entertainment.
“We have had gospel rock and praise dancing in worship services,” writes Samuel Koranteng-Pipim on the website Affirm, “gospel puppets, gospel clowns, gospel cafés/discos and gospel theatrics/dramas for our outreach to youth, young adults, and the ‘unchurched.’ Now, it seems, we must have gospel magicians for our church services and weeks of prayer. By resorting to these ‘gospel gimmicks,’ are we in danger?”
“What is the true definition of ‘church’?” asks Stewart Wilkerson. “Big screens? Best logo design? The newest technology? The more I think about church, the more I see how astray church has become. Church isn’t about hymnals. Church isn’t about singing the latest song that has the most hits on iTunes. Church is about Jesus…and Jesus only.””
“‘World’s Largest Church,’ ‘World’s Fastest Growing Church,’ ‘America’s Fastest Growing Sunday School,’ ‘Fastest Growing Church in the State.’ These are frequently heard and seen slogans in these modern days,” writes W.F. Bell in The Gimmick Gospel. “But, isn’t it a little silly to brag or boast about numbers? Where in all of God’s Word does it tell us to gimmick people into attending church services or Sunday School?’
“Millennials’ intolerance of hypocrisy necessitates that those of us in leadership do more than preach about values that this demographic holds dear,” writes writes Dorothy Greco in Christianity Today magazine.
Megachurch pastor Ray Kollbocker says today’s young adults “want Christianity to be more than information. They want to see how Christianity actually changes the world, not just talk about the change.”
“Because millennials have such an intense hunger for transparent relationships and truth,” writes Greco, “churches could foster intergenerational mentoring within their communities rather than depending upon the more impersonal leadership classes.”