January 16, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: May 31, 2015


From June 2006, edited.

Entertainment. Entertainment is an idolatry that has become so much a part of evangelicalism that you almost can’t talk about it. Unlike “God and Country” patriotism, which is something you can point at and say “There it is. Let’s discuss it,” entertainment has become part of everything evangelicals do.

Separating entertainment from evangelical Christianity is like separating conjoined twins sharing a heart. The disease has become so much a part of the organism that few can see it differentiated from the organism it has invaded. Like a disease, unchecked and untreated, the idolatry of entertainment has the potential to destroy the health — or even the life — of evangelicalism.

Getting our bearings on the idolatry of entertainment is difficult. There is no doubt that American culture is addicted to entertainment, and that this addiction is now in a stage of consuming almost all aspects of our culture. For evangelicalism to exist in American culture, it will breath the air of this entertainment addiction. It is language, thought, the content of vast tracts of our cultural, family and individual lives.

This addiction is so deeply and completely part of our culture, that we are largely unable to talk about anything without judging it by its entertainment value or to conceive of improving it without causing whatever is being improved to become more and more “entertaining.” Our lives are empty, and entertainment promises to provide something- some feeling, some stimulation- that makes us real and alive. The promises of the Gospel to give us living bread and thirst-quenching water are covered over by bells, songs, lights and big screens.

Work must be entertaining. Education must be entertaining. Marriage must be entertaining. Family life must be entertaining. Children must be entertained. Our lives must be full of more and more entertainment. Entertainment will save our economy. Entertainment is the ultimate judge of talent, worth and value. We are entertained from cradle to grave. Leaders provide it, and the mob insists upon it. Of course, religion, church and God must all be entertaining, or we will have nothing to do with them.

We do not, however, say this to one another. We talk about worship, or church growth, or evangelism or youth ministry, but what we are actually doing is more and more entertainment. We call it ministry, but it is increasingly merely entertainment. Preachers have been traded for comedians and vaudvillians. Specialized ministries for children, youth, students, music and senior adults must be entertaining, but we are quite skilled at saying they are actually about fellowship or discipleship.

Because this is the addiction of our culture, it is also the language and communication medium of our culture. And therein lies the problem. At what point does entertainment end and meaningful communication begin? Can we even begin to separate the two? Is there anything wrong with using the communication potential of entertainment to communicate the Gospel and the truth of Christianity?

…I am not a Spurgeon scholar, but I strongly suspect — and there is evidence to back this up — that a good bit of Spurgeon’s ability to draw a crowd was due to his use of humor. He knew how to be witty and entertaining, and compared to the typical minister of the day, he was a daring communicator willing to use jokes, wit and colloquialisms to speak to the common person. We would never “blame” Spurgeon for infecting the church with entertainment, but we need to be reminded that many of the preachers that have brought us contemporary evangelicalism has been impactful because of some use of entertainment- even if only comparatively- to draw in an audience.

I have no doubt that Jesus was, in his way, entertaining. I can’t imagine Luther not being entertaining. I am sure Whitefield was entertaining. At the same time, I can’t picture Paul, or Calvin, or Lloyd-Jones being the least bit entertaining. So perhaps the argument has been there all along, and will never be resolved.

21778_fullThere is a point at which entertainment is used rightly to the glory of God. And there is a point at which it consumes us, our thoughts, our faith and our lives. Where are we on that line? Much closer to the end, I suspect, than to the beginning.

Whatever the legitimate uses of entertainment as part of the cultural language we must speak at times (though not all the time by any means,) we are now long past such issues of communication and innovation. We are now at the point where the cultural addiction to entertainment is loose in evangelicalism unchecked and unexamined, draining the content from whatever we do and communicate, leaving nothing but the entertainment shell. Sermons, pastors, ministries, worship: the entertainment idolatry of evangelicals shows no signs of abatement in changing all of these things to resemble entertainment within the culture far more than the Gospel of Christ.

As a value found within scripture, entertainment is almost non-existent. Our faith is true, real, incarnational, beautiful, ultimately relevant, deeply practical, serious and of eternal consequence. When we combine it with the transitory entertainment fetishes of our culture, and believe that there is no cross-contamination, we are deluding ourselves. Look. Look at the presence of entertainment in every corner of the contemporary evangelical church’s life. Listen. Listen to the justification that it puts people in the pews and brings young people to church. Think. Think about whether there is, as we are told, no dilution, no absorption of the Gospel by the addiction of the culture.

I am not suggesting that we become the dusty museum of idealized Puritanism that so many reformed leaders idolize (and that is the right word.) Humor, beauty, insight — all these are good gifts of God, and they sometimes come to us in a skit or a song or a humorous story. Right understanding of the Puritans would remind us they were not opposed to all we assume they would have rejected. But if we live in a culture of massive idolatry and addiction to entertainment; if we recognize its power to trivialise, to make the serious ridiculous, to render us passive and unthinking rather than engaged and serious — if we live in such a world, can we practice our faith without constant self-criticism in this area? Do we have any choice but to require leaders- from elders to parents to denominational executives — to be able to discern when the marketers and entertainers and idolaters are attempting to prevail in the household of faith.

…I would plead with my evangelical friends to be creative, relevant and missional. Recover the arts. Do things creatively to the glory of God. Do plays. Perform music. Encourage every possible cultural expression of the Gospel. At the same time, I would plead with these same evangelicals to know the difference between the use of the language and forms of the culture and the destructive influence of the idolatry of entertainment in the church and the Christian life. If we can simply acknowledge the water we are swimming in, and be able to say “there it is,” we will have made significant progress.


  1. How much of the typical ”worship service” actually comes down to ”entertainment” as opposed to genuine leading people into God’s presence? Do we even recognize the difference anymore? Is it all about creating a ”feeling” of holiness and awe instead of the real thing? And most importantly, is anyone even asking these questions?

    • Valid point Oscar.

    • Rick Ro. says

      30-40%. Yes. No. You are.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      At the time of the Apostles, there WAS an established Entertainment industry, whose Can-You-Top-This spectacle and hordes of fanatical fans could easily match today:


      • Christiane says

        Yes. But gladiators weren’t the ONLY entertainment.

        Today it does seem like many Christians have to be ‘entertained’, but 2000 years ago, they WERE the entertainment. Roman coliseums were settings for ‘ wild animals versus Christians’
        . . . that was very popular in the days of Nero . . .

        • I think context is incredibly important in explaining Nero’s fascination with killing Christians, the gladiator pits, the anti-Roman rhetoric so predominant in the NT, etc. Once you read the history and politics and motives and things going on at the time, it all sort of makes sense, albeit in a sick and twisted perspective. But it certainly does not lend credence to any persecution complex narrative that Christians were killed simply because they were “different” and “loved Christ”, because the world “hates Christ”.

          Or some such.

          History: it makes you realize things aren’t quite as you’ve been led to believe.

          • lol, Paul the Jew just so happened to have very convenient Roman citizenship when he needed it…

            Not that, in the end, it mattered much.

          • IF portions of the NT were fabricated, Paul’s Roman citizenship would make a good story of:

            “but just when things were at their darkest, it’s revealed that God’s true missionary to the Gentiles was also…a Roman citizen!”

            Like revealing the pauper to be a prince at the 11th hour…

          • Robert F says

            StuartB, History indicates that you’re right. The persecutions, for the most part, were episodic and local, and didn’t last long. There were long expanses, entire lifetimes, during which no Christians were martyred. Far more Christians were killed by other Christians during the time of inter-church violence after the Reformation than were killed during the several hundred years when Christians lived in a pagan Empire.

            But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, the time of the martyrs was magnified in legend far beyond its actual extent.

          • Robert F says

            And there is no historical evidence of any Christian ever being martyred for their faith in the Flavian Amphitheater, the Roman Colosseum, despite the movie Quo Vadis.

          • Robert F says

            I agree with you, StuartB, that the age of the martyrs has been greatly exaggerated by the Church, but I disagree with your idea that the NT is anti-Roman. In fact, the Romans are routinely depicted in a better light than the Jews by the NT, and parts of Acts are almost fawning in their attempt to find extenuating circumstances for any Roman actions against the Church. The Romans are frequently depicted in the NT as the only barrier between the helpless Christians and the hostile Jews; indeed, Roman law in the NT often is shown to protect the vulnerable Christian community.

          • If you read a bit on the history of anti-semitism and anti-Judaism, it quickly becomes clear that many Romans were *very* biased against Jewish people and Judaism prior to the time of Jesus’ ministry, so that prejudice seems to have carried over to the early xtians. Maybe part of it had to do with the sheer incomprehensibility of there being gentile converts, too. (Am speculating on that one.)

          • Robert, i have to wonder how much of that bias has to do with later editing by gentile xtians. Seriously. Though it is mild in comparison with a lot of the things that gentile xtians began writing/preaching about Judaism and Jewish people, ver early on.

          • Robert F says

            “Let his blood be on us and on our children” is at the root of the worst of historic Christian antisemitism. Christian religious festivals, with shrines and parades, celebrating one or another slaughter of Jews during the Middle Ages have found theological justification in this one NT sentence alone.

          • Robert – i know.

            There is an interesting new book by historian David Nirenberg that deals with anti-Judaism (as opposed to anti-semitism) from ancient times forward. I’ve read bits of it, but not the whole thing, and am hoping to be able to get a used copy eventually.

            Might be up your alley.

          • Christiane says

            Perhaps being ‘lion-food’ is not the current fate of Christians, no. But I am seeing two entirely different ‘persecution’ scenarios in the modern world:

            1. REAL persecution: ISIS beheadings, etc., where there is NO DOUBT that the victims are martyrs for their faith.

            and then, we have:

            2. FAUX persecution: here I would place the ‘whiney’ Christians who cry ‘foul’ when someone challenges their activities to promote homophobia, gay-bashing, trans-baiting, Islamophobia, misogyny, and cult-like abuse of women (and young girls) . . .
            these people can dish it out but they can’t handle it when people say
            ” ‘no, stop, that is NOT ‘Christian’, that is instead abusive treatment of those who are ‘different'”
            For this category, we have those who stirred the pot politically and sought to use politics and the laws to restrict the rights given to all Americans . . .
            in short, they are not ‘martyrs’ so much as persecutors of those for whom they have open contempt in spite of the mantra: ‘truth in love’, which no one believes anymore.

            For me, the ‘contrast’ is vivid and meaningful. I cannot give the same honor to a whiney group of ‘Christians’ who have experienced push-back for their treatment of trans people
            as I would give to a Christian who is being beheaded by an ISIS terrorist and whose last words are about Christ as Lord. No comparison. Not even close. To honor the push-back given to a trans-baiter as ‘persecution’ equivalent to the suffering of the Coptic Christian martyr seems to me an insult to all Christianity for all time. If anything, the contrast speaks for itself. And the whiners look even worse by comparison.

  2. Which meaning of entertain/entertainment are we critiquing?

    The first definition in my dictionary. and the etymology of “entertain”, is to hold the attention. I want the service to hold my attention, and the attention of everyone else! Otherwise there is no point in being there.

    The second definition is for entertain is “to extend hospitality toward”. Both Paul and Peter write of being hospitable as something Christians should do. Hospitality shouldn’t be a main focus of the Sunday service – but there should be some hospitality towards outsiders.

    The third definition is “to consider” and the fourth is “to hold in mind”. Nothing wrong here, and both the old and new testaments tell us to do this, using words and phrases like “think upon”, “meditate”, “these words which I command you today … you … shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk in the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up”.

    The problem, I think, is that the first definition is coming to be understood as synonymous with “amuse”, which means “to occupy in an agreeable or pleasing way”. A sinner in need of repentance (who is not one?) doesn’t need a service that pleases him, he needs a service that makes him aware of his need to repent. And entertainment has come to be viewed as the antonym of work, and since work means “to use physical or mental effort to accomplish something”, we all should be working in the service.

    • It also means “to engage, redirect or hold one’s attention”. This is, by nature a passive effect. But what is the purpose of meeting together in church? To actively worship, as a body, our Lord. In that respect passive entertainment falls short of the stated purpose of why we meet.

    • That was my first impression. Define the terms.

      There is an element of culture which has always been addressed by the church. Even in the Catholic church, there were allowances for cultural elements which do not detract from the official rubrics. I partially agree that Paul was not entertaining, because he describes himself a poor communicator compared to the super preachers mentioned in First Corinthians. But he did adapt his style to his audience, as in his message at the Aereopagus. I don’t consider that entertainment.

      Giving the people what itches their ears is the epitome of entertainment. When the media becomes the message, something is wrong.

    • I know when I entertain angels, I usually run out of jokes within the first 5 minutes. Tough crowd, they’ve heard them all before.

      • What do you call an angel with a can of WD-40?

        A greased wheel.

        *ruffles of feathers*

        Hold the applause.

        • Ah, Stuart. I’ve been mentally beating my brains for the last 10 hours or so and…

          I don’t get it. (blush) Please explain to this numb-skull.

  3. Rick Ro. says

    I had a discussion a few years ago with a gentleman in church about America’s shifting from an industrial nation (based around manufacturing and production) to a service nation (based around the provision of goods and services, with little production). I said, “An industrial nation can sustain itself, but when your nation becomes one of restaurants and shopping stores, that’s ultimately unsustainable.”

    He went on to argue that it was worse than that, that we’d become an entertainment nation, where our industry is based around performance and celebrity and being entertained 24/7.

    If that’s true, then it’s no wonder a shift has occurred within the church to mirror what’s happening outside the walls.

  4. Nothing much to add except to stress how complicit the people are in this. All these wounds are self-inflicted.

    An addendum to Friday’s post about trends in religious affiliation-


  5. Rick Ro. says

    As a creative type, I’ve always appreciated that Michael never took the stance “evangelicals, throw out all the creative stuff!” He understood the value of plugging creative types into worship settings, and that creative elements can be done so that it’s not just about “entertainment,” but actually adds value to the service.

    I’ve always appreciated, too, at my home church when I’ve been asked to help craft short skits to help highlight some aspect of God or Jesus. I don’t view these as “entertainment,” but as helping congregants view things a bit differently than just straight sermon or Bible reading or liturgy or whatever. Just this past Easter, I helped write three short skits based around the idea “He is my KIng.” I loved doing them, and I loved how they came off.

    Our worship leader just formed a small team to help formulate different worship ideas, and I love how humble he is in his approach. One of the things he wants us to key on is that we are to be “foot washers” is our attitude, that we are here to serve Him and the people, not receive from the people. A great mindset that I think will help avoid being just “entertainment.”

    • As you (and Michael) suggest, there’s nothing wrong with appropriately employing the elements of entertainment–artistry, humor, pathos, etc.–in the service of corporate worship or preaching. But it’s easy for entertainment to become an end in itself, which is idolatry when it happens in the context of the Church. Your worship leader seems to have an approach that will guard against this possibility.

      • Rick Ro. says

        “Your worship leader seems to have an approach that will guard against this possibility.”

        I was actually impressed with, and encouraged by, his “mission statement” and list of values/intent/groundrules/etc. Extremely humble in nature.

  6. A deeper problem is that the symbols of the faith have lost their power or have taken on very negative connotations. What’s left is merely show. The emperor has no clothes.

    • I don’t think the symbols of faith have lost their power at all. They have been neglected and abandoned. In our fixation on the next shiny thing we have allowed their meaning to be co-opted by those who never knew their power. Because the task seemed daunting, our teachers have failed to pass on their meaning and embed them like seeds in the hearts of new disciples. We have bought the line that if it can’t be quantified and expressed in a solvable equation, then it doesn’t matter — and so given up on trying to express the inexpressible through shared the shared action and shared vision that the symbols of the faith give us.

      We have traded the enduring power of eternal meaning for the fleeting frisson of the ultimately meaningless. I suspect that is somewhat thicker way of repeating Michael’s thesis.

  7. I suspect it’s an age-old problem, one that arose in the earliest days of the faith. One of the influences might have been the legalistic incorporating the outward trappings of ritual Judaism, or certainly as she gained acceptance, and then power, and adopted the structures of Imperial Rome, both in terms of power, as well as competing with the spectacle of the Roman ‘circus’ in the Coliseum by creating her own spectacle and pageantry, that of the ritual ‘enactments’ that replaced the simple “Agape love feasts/shared meals” of the early church.

    I’m not sure of the value of thus sitting in judgment of others, since true worship is birthed in the heart, and can be expressed individually and corporately….whether in prison cells, house churches, or Evangelical Mega-churches too.

    • “true worship is birthed in the heart, and can be expressed individually and corporately….whether in prison cells, house churches, or Evangelical Mega-churches too.”

      I really believe this too, Waltg. Thank you.

  8. “here we are now entertain us”? I consciously try not to approach coming together in the church family with this attitude of “let me passively get from you”, but I know that it colours much of my experience and it takes work to get that mind of Christ that wraps a towel around himself to serve, or ‘entertain’ others. I think practicing hospitality, particularly entertaining those from whom you can receive nothing back of tangible value, can help remedy this spirit of wanting to be catered to.

    This isn’t specifically addressed in the post, but my experience has been those in my local body who naturally consume very little secular entertainment (not dogmatically, it just not being their habit) are often the most refreshingly kind, servant-hearted, and humble people you can meet. They speak frankly, warmly, without feeling the need to entertain others with a witty remark all the time. I don’t fall into this category, and I notice in myself and other brothers and sisters who are more plugged in, we have a tendency to be brasher, more biting, less leaning into that spirit of gentleness and meekness we’re called to.

    I compound this with the fact that in my line of work, I directly produce secular entertainment, specifically, media aimed at children, and I’ve often struggled to figure out where my place in the world could be given my observations on the kinds of effects amusement-saturation can have on one’s walk in Christ (let alone the effect on those who don’t yet believe).

  9. OldProphet says

    Normally I would view this as another angry rant against Evangelicalism by the original Imonk but this time I think Michael Spencer is correctly describing what’s going on in Evangelicalism. The problem is that al least Evans are using contemporary things to reach our culture, and mainline churches are not. You gotta teach em where you reach em! Most young people wouldn’t be caught dead in a liturgical church. No relevance, no attendance.

    • Today at church, during the worship time, we had a group of uni students from Point Loma Nazarene lead. It’s always an “iffy” event because you have kids trying very hard to be “spiritual” and leading when they have no experience in leading. Not their problem, really, it’s just that the congregation is on the end of the team’s chance at experienc e. But today one of the songs included a “rap” as a musical break. I couldn’t understand what the heck the guy was saying, but at least he was rhythmic in his attempt. Later, that same guy did a stand up solo rap that just pushed me over the edge. My bladder called me to minister to the porcelain, so I conveniently missed most of it. But seeing as the sound is piped into most of the church I DID hear a goodly portion. Again, I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the congregation dutifully applauded.

      If this were to be a common occurrence then I would have to find another church. Call me stogey, if you will, but if it is unintelligible then what is the point?

    • I have to wonder at the irony of the piece and its forum OP.

    • OP, that isn’t really true re. liturgical churches, though i do hate seeing us liturgical folks trying on the evangelical mega brandmof church-o-tainment.

  10. OldProphet says

    Blackhawks in 7, Warriors in 6

  11. OldProphet says

    Wait, Blackhawks in 6. Sorry, mathematically challenged!

  12. Robert F says
  13. Over the course of watching for awhile now. I have to wonder what here is bringing me closer to Jesus. In fact I have been the entertainment at times and part of what goes on here. I was hoping that what I could share might be of value. Over the last so many weeks I have thought and even voiced to my son on the way to work that I hope it keeps up because then I would not waste anymore time. In fact wasting time in the morning isn’t a luxury I have.

    Jesus put us here to be what we are. I am this guy who has laid tile and other masonry products my whole life. I have realized that I have done this for the saints. Lord I want to be in that number. No one in my family who has done this work has made it out of their 50’s. I am 55 and I grow tired a lot. I will not quit….ever. I hope to be doing this in Heaven when my time comes I hope people will be a little nicer there. Mostly now I hope they will leave me alone.

  14. Henry Darger says

    “I believe men like John Piper and John Macarthur might be faulted by some for their intensity in pursuing the glory of God in the church, and I am sometimes concerned that we are blind to the potential for fanaticism, but I deeply respect these men and their vigilance in this area of rejecting the idolatry of entertainment from the household of faith.”

    (From the censored portion)

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