The following article, "The Day the Circus Came to Church" was originally published in the summer of 2009 by Dr. Don Hattaway, current pastor of First Baptist Church, Douglas, Georgia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth!”
These are the words enthusiastically announced to the crowds that attend the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Excitement fills the air as the entertainers enter the arena. Clowns, jugglers, tumblers, bicyclists, and animals of all sorts march before the cheering fans. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy waft their way through the onlookers.The music is festive and exciting.
Suddenly, the ringmaster captivates everyone’s attention by introducing one of the many acts that the spectators have come to enjoy. One amusing show after the other is dramatically performed before the captivated audience. The crescendo of excitement continues to build as each spectacle proves to be more thrilling than the last.
Finally, the big finale brings the crowd to its feet. As the people rush for the exits, they stop long enough to buy souvenirs to remind them of how much fun the circus can be.
In many ways, some modern churches have come to resemble a circus. Billboards, postcards, and newspaper advertisements promise fun for all who attend. No more boring sermons, unpopular music, or doctrines that divide. Instead, expect short talks, worldly music, and a laidback setting. Attendees can wear short pants and flip flops while drinking their favorite beverage and watching video clips from some late night television shows. All this comes with a guarantee to provide more fun than any church in town.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not in favor of boring church services and I am certainly not against having good clean fun. My concern is that our churches are becoming more “man centered” and less “God centered.” This trend poses a grave danger for our churches.
Attracting the crowd
The temptation of using worldly amusements to entice people to attend church can be motivated by a healthy desire to reach people. Certainly encouraging others to come to services, events, or ministries conducted by a church is a good thing. The problem is, some assume that the end justifies the means. In other words, any action that succeeds in getting more people to attend church is viewed as good. This pragmatic approach to outreach is being practiced by a growing number of churches across America.
For example, some pastors have attempted to draw people to their services by using provocative advertisements about sex. One postcard I saw recently used racy photos of a man and woman in bed with the words, “The naked truth about sex, god, [sic] and you.”
I agree that the subject of sex needs to be addressed from the Bible, but only in good taste. Using pictures of practically naked couples kissing in bed for the purpose of attracting people to church is, in essence, applying the concept that “sex sells” to church marketing. Like water and oil, the two simply do not mix.
Another advertisement that used the pragmatic approach pictured two young men drinking beer and watching television. The caption below read, “Church for the Rest of Us.” On the back of the card the statement was made, “Now, offering 71% more fun than anything else you have planned Sunday!” Not only was pragmatism the driving approach of the postcard, but it also implied that other churches are boring and attended by people who think they are perfect.
Perhaps the people who use these and similar practices to fill their churches have good motives. I cannot judge what is in a person’s heart. However, I can say that the methods we use must be consistent with the message we share.
Amusing the crowd
“Brethren, we have met to worship” has been replaced with “Welcome to the show.” The prayer room has been turned into the green room. The platform that once was the center for Bible preaching has been converted into a performance stage. The cross, our most sacred symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice, has been removed and replaced with a stage curtain.
Music that used to communicate sound theology has given way to vague lyrics overpowered by the pulsating beat of a rock band. Stained glass windows have been covered so flashing lights and smoke machines can set the atmosphere. Even the preacher has been transformed into a “life coach.” The primary objective seems to be to increase attendance by amusing the crowd. In an effort to attract people to God, it appears that God has been forgotten in the process.
There are at least three theological flaws found in this approach. First, it misses the point of the Great Commission, which tells us to go and make disciples. The reason some are using amusement to attract people to church services is because of a failure to practice personal evangelism. It is much easier to invite lost people to hear a comedian, listen to a rock concert, or watch a staff mud-wrestling match than it is to share the gospel. Instead of evangelizing the lost in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and markets, unbelievers are being enticed to come see the show at church. They are told the message will be light and the music will be heavy. They are promised to have more fun than other churches that offer services that merely preach the Bible and sing praises to God.
The truth is that people are not going to experience salvation because they think Christianity is cool; they will only be saved when someone shares the simple gospel in the power of the Spirit. The gospel does not need to be disguised by the trappings of our fleshly culture in order to be effective; it needs to be proclaimed in word and deed by Spirit-filled believers.
Another theological flaw of this approach is the misuse of the worship service. The primary purpose for the Church to gather is to worship the one true and living God. When worship services are designed to attract and amuse people, God ceases to be the focus. In an effort to please the crowd, some pastors have even resorted to using secular music, video clips from immoral programs and movies, crude humor, provocative sermons, and antics that are customized to shock the crowds.
These practices may draw people to come see the show, but they do not bring honor and glory to God. Stunts such as these trivialize the gospel and grieve the Holy Spirit. The message seems to be, “We dress like you, we use crude language like you, we drink beer like you, we listen to the same worldly music as you, and we laugh at the same dirty jokes. Look, we are real people just like you.”
Therein lies the problem. We are not called to be like the world. We are called to be like Christ. Some argue, “These methods work. People are being reached.” The question is, “Being reached by what and for whom?” Others insist, “We need to broaden our tent to include more people.”
I’m concerned that some have broadened their tent so much that perhaps they have turned the church service into a circus show. Planning worship services that are welcoming to the lost is important, but not at the expense of distorting the real reason for the services which is to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Underestimating the power of the gospel is also a theological flaw of this approach. We need to remember the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:16. He said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The gospel is good news, but you would not know it by the behavior of some pastors and denominational leaders. Some act as if the gospel is a bitter pill that needs to be sweetened with the taste of our pagan culture to make it easier to swallow. For example, consider the music and musicians being used in many of our churches and conferences. Choirs and orchestras have been disbanded and replaced with rock bands. These musicians often appear with tattoos, piercings, black-dyed hair, t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops.
This new image for worship leaders looks more fitting for MTV rather that the local church. I even heard about one youth pastor who recently invited a group to sing for his summer camp that wears guyliner. (In case you are wondering, guyliner is women’s make-up worn by men.)
We have come a long way from the time Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Television would only show him from the waist up because his hip gyrations were too offensive. What is happening in some worship services these days makes Elvis look like George Beverly Shea. Much of today’s church music is heavy on style and light on substance. No theological training necessary, just the ability to play loud and look cool.
Why are a growing number of conservative pastors and denominational leaders embracing this unorthodox approach? I believe one reason is because of a weakened confidence in the power of the gospel. Some believe that in order for the gospel to be accepted by our pagan culture, it needs human assistance to make it more appealing.
At this point proponents of this approach will quote I Corinthians 9:22b where Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” Is Paul saying that he would use vulgar language, dress effeminately, drink beer, and smoke cigars to win the lost? No! He is making the point that he was willing to suffer any personal loss in order to lead others to Christ. Paul never diluted the gospel in order to make it more palatable because he knew that only the gospel had the power to save. This is a lesson we need to remember and follow in this modern era.
Accommodating the crowd
There is much talk these days about the need to increase baptisms and grow our churches. Much of the conversation is focused on strategy as if the problem is merely organizational. Without question, we can and must become more effective at communicating the gospel. However, there is a big difference in gathering a crowd and growing a church. If we are not careful in our effort to improve our baptisms and attendance, we will be tempted to accommodate the crowd rather than faithfully preach the truth.
For example, Noah preached for 120 years and only had eight passengers on the ark when the flood came. If Noah lived in our day, his name would not be mentioned on the list of fastest growing churches. However, he would have numerous church growth experts helping him to develop a strategy to get more people on the boat.
I can hear them now – “Noah, what you need to do is change the way you communicate. Rather than preaching on judgment all the time, teach some carpentry classes to some of the locals. Have your sons build some long tables and get Mrs. Noah and your daughters-in-law to fix a giant buffet. Enlist some of the local talent to come entertain the crowds with the kind of music they play down at the tavern. Noah, one final thing, don’t call your vessel an “ark of safety,” call it the “love boat.” If you do these things, you will see people coming aboard from everywhere.”
I suspect that Noah would simply say, “No thanks. I’m just going to preach the truth and leave the results up to God.” Strategies are fine as long as they do not come at the expense of the gospel. More than new strategies, our churches desperately need revival. No strategy will ever accomplish what only can be done in the power of the Spirit.
Closing down the circus
After Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before His crucifixion, He visited the temple and was disgusted at what He saw. His response is recorded in Matthew 21:12-13, “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.’”
When Jesus looks at our churches, what does He see? We must objectively ask, “Are our methods distorting our message? Have we allowed our churches to become circuses that look more like the world than the kingdom?” If the answer to these questions is yes, then we have some cleaning to do. The time has come for us to close down the circus and get back to church.