Let Me Entertain You?

Last month, I attended the bat mitzvah service for the daughter of a close friend. As we were assembling at the synagogue, another good friend came in and sat down with us. I noticed that she was alone, so I asked about her spouse. Well, the spouse wasn’t coming. The last visit to a synagogue (a different synagogue, for a bar mitzvah service of the son of yet another friend in our circle about six months ago) had been a real disappointment. It was too long and boring, she said.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard such a complaint. Religious services can be long, and on the dull side. I’ll admit that I myself was taken aback by that bar mitzvah service six months ago, when we received advance “warning” from the family to expect the service to last up to three hours.  A three-hour service does seem like a lot—though, on the plus side, it gave me something to say to my own congregation when they grumble when worship goes over an hour.

But, still, I found myself thinking about that “long and boring” remark. Is it okay to criticize a religious service—especially a kind of a service that one rarely attends—because it’s not entertaining enough?

And, I’ve wondering about the “entertainment” angle for worship at Old South as well. Does our dwindling attendance have something to do with our lack of entertainment value?

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a parishioner who told me that his adult daughter is now regularly attending another church in the area. More precisely, she’s attending one of those churches where the minister leads the service while dressed in very casual clothing and there’s a band that plays the music—mostly rock and praise music—and there’s a big screen to display various visuals.

It’s more entertaining than worship at Old South.

“That’s what the young people want,” my parishioner shared with me. But, in even beginning to suggest that we at Old South try something similar, a frown and worried look appeared—and not just for this one particular parishioner. Whenever someone asks me about why we can’t have a full parking lot like that “other” church in town, I suggest that we try what they do. I can start wearing jeans to lead worship. We can gather up a band and have some Christian rock and praise music. We can invest in a big screen for visuals (though it’s hard to know where we would put it).

I don’t get very far before I’m shut down. You’re not really suggesting we do that, the look on their faces suggests. I must admit that I don’t really want to do that either, but those churches in our area that focus more attention on the entertainment angle of worship do appear to have more people in worship on a regular basis—and younger people too.

In a culture and society where entertainment is everywhere, where people are almost constantly able to tap into some form of diversion, it’s no wonder that people look for the same in worship. Those of us who wish to focus differently may certainly do so—there’s nothing biblical about the rightness of one way over the other—but we must also be aware that our choices have consequences.

It’s highly unlikely that we are going to convince people, especially younger people, that our way is a better way, and that there’s more to worship than entertainment. We cannot continue to do what we do, and think that somehow everyone else will change. So, continuing to do worship in our own way, the way that has value to us, is completely fine—just as long as we recognize that there are consequences. And, those consequences likely involve even more shrinking. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it could be something else, like a happy Hollywood ending.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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