August 12, 2020

American Idolatry: What’s Entertainment?

jrosck.jpgIn this series, Michael briefly examines the idolatries that have infected evangelicalism, especially the Southern Baptist Convention.

Previous Posts: American Idolatry: With God On Our Side

A previous IM essay on a similar topic is “Christianity: Silly or Serious?”

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?

For example, I once spent an evening listening to the comedy of Dennis Swanson. He’s a remarkably gifted comedian, and extremely entertaining. God’s gifts of laughter and humor are well-used by Swanson to make excellent points about marriage, family life and the life of faith. I have no doubt that Swanson’s ministry is used powerfully by the Holy Spirit, and it is very entertaining.

In fact, given the opportunity to hear an exposition of scripture on marriage, or to hear Swanson’s stories of the hilarity of home life, which would we rather hear? Which will communicate the most to contemporary Americans?

Tonight, one of my favorite Christian bands is playing a concert nearby. Their overall sound is modeled after Coldplay, and Coldplay is quite entertaining. But this music is used to communicate simple truths of scripture, much of it from the Psalms. In fact, given the choice of hearing the psalms played like Coldplay, or just reading them, I’ll put on the CD most of the time.

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.

There 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 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. I believe, with Michael Horton, that worship- especially liturgical, covenant-renewing worship- is dramatic, and needs to entertainment additives. I believe, as did the Reformers and the best of the modern reformation Christians- that the Word of God and the glory of God are compelling, and do not need our assistance to be interesting.

I would plead with my Southern Baptist 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. CaldoniaSun says

    Excellent and insightful post, IM.

    Lord, have mercy.

  2. Umm, should I feel bad because I am excited about going to see Superman Returns tonight?

  3. I would !!!HIGHLY!!! recommend “On Earth As It Is In Advertising? Moving From Commercial Hype To Gospel Hope” by Sam Van Eman. It came out last year from Baker (yeah, I know, I’m shilling here. But hey, this one’s better than most. When we publish crap, I’ll tell ya!). I’ve recommended it to a professor friend of mine at Hope College to use in his communications classes. It speaks elloquently of how many “Sim-gospels” are being sold to us every day. It truly is the air we breathe. And sadly, the “evangelical” church in America has imbibed deeply of this diet. Technique is everything, even (and sometimes especially) infecting our so called “conservative” churches. We’ve gone way beyond the “seven helpful hints for a happy household” type of preaching that was yesteryear’s technique. Now we fully reflect our absorption by the larger culture, not only in what we say, but in how we say it. Our paradigm is completely subsumed to the present tense situation. And that’s not good. The “Church” true and universal will prevail, but it will only prevail insomuch as it transcends each culture it happens to inhabit at the moment. But that’s hard work. But it’s also good work. Thanks Michael for being a kindred spirit. I appreciate it.

  4. I’m beginning to feel bad that I look forward to checking this blog every night.

  5. Great post.

    IMO it is the combinination of marketing and entertainment that has given rise to the constant 24/7 laugh track and thrill ride. Great music, genuine wit and humor, interesting visual arts, and even recreation have always been wonderfully used to the glory of God. But they were ‘organic’, not forced. True entertainment ‘value’ springs from the natures, passions, and talents of the artists, writers, and speakers, not from somebody sitting down and thinking “How can I make this entertaining (i.e. marketable)?”

  6. steve yates says

    Definitely true…however, one thing that scares me about this, and especially pushes towards being “careful as to how far to take entertainment”, is that our culture is more and more integrating entertainment into EVERYTHING that has to do with learning. The “destructive influence” of some culture already permeates everything. Think about it – years ago people got sports information from SportsCenter, now, it’s in debate/gameshow formats such as PTI and Around the Horn. The thing that scares me about this is that perhaps the waves of culture and idolatry in the church have alredy washed over us ants, and we are sending warnings out now about the droplets still on our leaves.

  7. pdpreach says

    Not just Southern Baptists, Michael, we United Methodists are trying to beat the band to create the coolest mall atmostphere so that our kids will be spiritually nourished. God help us all.

    Here’s my problem: the band that is modeled after Coldplay? Given a choice, I might rather hear the Psalm singing youth group band. But, given the same choice, I promise you my own kids would despise what they would consider a poor wannabe knockoff. They’ll go for Coldplay, Radio Head and Kings of Leon. I know that is not true for most church youth group kids. I’m talking about my own parsonage grown rebellious preecherkids. They will be sold on ‘contemporary’ youth stuff when it is truly original and contemporary to the church. In the mean time, these rockstar wannabees are content to sing from the hymnal.

    Truly, I struggle with this. Twentyfirst century church folks don’t have the attention span of those from the the first century. Standing in front of the people reading long passages from Romans is just not as sexy as blasting media blips off the powerpoint screen. But, we can’t stop standing in front of the people and reading the transforming words from Romans. What’s a preachermom to do?


  8. I have a theory. The entertainment saturation of the church is part of what has given rise to the savage behavior on internet blogs. I believe that the whole “discernment blogger” phenomena flows quite naturally out of the entertainment culture of the church. The vituperative bile that flows is possible because it’s all part of the entertainment.

    It’s not unlike the illegal dogfights, cockfights, or even coliseum events in first century Rome. The Discernment crowd will argue that this is REAL….and for the fighting dogs or slashing roosters or lion-mauled Christians, it is/was real too. But it was part of the entertainment.

    The conversations that slander and discount brothers and sisters in Christ aren’t really REAL LIFE. I know that several of the most outspoken Discerners claim adamantly that they would behave and speak no differently in real life than they do in the comment sections of blogs. I simply don’t believe it. If all the Discerners were engaging in real life, in proximity to the people that they are so quick to accuse and so quick to pronounce apostate, I believe that the interactions would be far different. It would be much harder to make sweeping, pejorative generalizations about Mark Driscoll’s unfitness for ministry if he was sitting across the table, drinking coffee, laughing, crying, struggling, speaking face to face. He would be a real person…

    Realistically, posting on, reading, and commenting on blogs is part of the entertainment portion of our lives. We’re not doing real life with the Body of Christ when we’re sitting at the keyboard. We’re not living out the Great Commission–preaching the Gospel of Grace, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, doing unto “the least of these”,etc. We’re not even really making disciples.

    Virtual reality is NOT reality, no matter how rewarding the interactions. Penpals or email-pals only ever get a two-dimensional view of each other. The people who really know us live with us, work with us, ring up our groceries in the supermarket, sit next to us in Sunday school, watch us mow our lawns, repair our cars for us, and wait for us to come and tuck them in at bedtime. THAT is real life. Not the little people who live in our computers.

    Now my confession. I READ those blogs and comments. I find myself drawn to watch the dogfight, even though I’m repelled by it. Every day, I find myself reading with traffic-accident-so-awful-I-can’t-look-away morbid fascination. The ugliness and UNlove makes my stomach churn, feelings of helplessness overwhelm. Frustration with posters who clearly are not listening to each other, commenters who seem to be deliberately MIS-hearing each other, all make me feel physically ill. I am grieved that Christians rush to believe the worst about each other. I am saddened and disillusioned with leaders who write brutal responses to honest questions. I am outraged that the salvation of people who love and follow Jesus is called into question or outright disparaged.

    But still, I read. It’s entertainment. So was the coliseum. God help us all.

  9. Wow! That last post was devastating. All I can say is that the brutal honesty is both illuminating and chilling. Thank you, even though it hurts.

  10. Couple of comments.

    First, an interesting view of the phenomenon of the entertainment culture infecting the church, but really nothing new to any of us. The why is the interesting, and perhaps illusive issue. On the very same day this article was posted, I proposed a different cause: The reduction of the Gospel to “Accept Jesus in your heart so you can go to heaven when you die” may have left many wondering just what to inbetween. With nothing really solid to answer except maybe “be a good American,” the church was left with nothing to offer except to entertain us until that glorious moment. Maybe the entertainment emphasis is nothing more than a way to kill time in a holy way (as opposed to eat, drink, and be merry) until Jesus comes or we die.

    Morbid, but I have been in a morbid mood lately.

    On the second point, one of the comments above noted that the blog-sphere was part of the entertainment syndrome as well, something like cock-fights and lion-feasts. Well maybe. But I see it as a grass-roots way to protest exactly what is happening in the Church. Very often, more often than we may like to admit, the pastor insulates himself from any valid criticism. In my own church, we are basically on a “go along or shut up” phase. Some people, many of them originating founders of the church, are trying to switch the direction from entertainment to discipleship programs but are being told to be quiet or leave. Having no real alternative in where to go (believe me, church searching is a sport for the young), they comply and shut up. Having seen my website, some are asking me how I did it so they can start one.

    When I ask “why” they respond, “so I can have a voice again.”

    Sounds like a good enough reason to me.

  11. chrisstiles says

    In my opinion, (Christian) blogs work best when they are adopt the ideal of “inform and be informed”. I think it is fair to say that in the UK we still don’t have quite the same sort of ‘Discernment blogging’ that is being described above – and on the occasions where I have ended up following some thread of argument or another I’ve often had the uneasy sensation that it’s basically the online equivalent of rubbernecking. I’d also be uneasy with churches where all debate was carried out blog to blog. OTOH – to go from there to a position that states that all blogs are anathema is something I wouldn’t agree with, I have often been informed – and I’m sure the same is true of lots of Christians who find blogs useful as a pointer to other resources.

    In this as in other issues I think we are called to live in tension. In tension between an enjoyment of the good things in life that doesn’t end in hedonism, and a grace steeped urgency that doesn’t end in asceticism.

  12. This post reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about lately. You had a post not too long ago about “yelling preachers.” Well, I’ve got one of those. He will get excited and yell, hit the pulpit, dance around sometimes, lots of dramatic stuff.

    Now, our church is rather large. According to my pastor, and others at the church, the reason for this is that he “preaches the truth” and is “not afraid to offend people.” He “says it as it is” and so on.

    To be fair, I do not doubt his sincerity, either in what he preaches or how. Of course, I disagree with him on increasing more doctrines, but I believe that he is acting in sincerity as much as any man can.

    However, I have another theory: so many people come to hear him preach because he is entertaining. I think it’s sort of the same philosophy as listening to Rush Limbaugh or Neal Boortz or some other talking head. The people who agree with them listen because it’s always fun to be reminded of how superior one’s view is. In addition, for some people, just the passionate delivery is entertaining.

    Not that I think God has nothing to do with my church. Granted, it does seem like fewer young people (like myself) are sticking around, which has the older folk confused…

  13. Michael, I’m a little confused on something. I absolutly agree with you that entertainment can become an idol. But are you saying that all entertainment is idolatry (I don’t think you are but I’m not sure). For example, if I decide to spend and hour reading a secular novel or watching a TV show I am choosing to be entertained, but would that qualify as idolatry?