It is popular these days in the evangelical blogosphere to disparage “entertainment church” or “worshiptainment.” Using modern technology and music instruments and styles offends certain Christians. Recently I read a blog post by Jonathan Aigner at a Patheos blog, called Dear Youth ( For Young People Who Loathe Entertainment Church). Aigner is not alone in this condemnation of “worshiptainment.” See for example, here and here and a more moderate take here. This post will focus on Aigner’s article but a lot of what Aigner has to say is similar to what others in this “genre” of liturgical criticism have to say.
The blog article is written as a letter to a hypothetical young person who doesn’t like contemporary worship and liturgy. He begins:
I’m with you.
Not very long ago, I was one of you. Sitting in the
pewstadium-style seating, trying to pass the time in the darkness, wondering how many more times they can sing this same, inane refrains. Counting the the times the spotlight-loving, mic-hogging, hot shot pastor says the word “just” in each prayer.
“Why does every sermon end with the same cliches?”
“Why does he take so long to say basically nothing?”
“Why must he talk about sex so much? His mind must be in the gutter…”
“If this is what church is all about, I don’t want anything to do with it.”
What’s notable here is that Aigner uncharitably interprets the actions of people just because he dislikes the liturgy of the church. He says that the pastor is a “spotlight-loving, mic-hogging, hot shot pastor” who says “just” a lot. How does Aigner know that the pastor is in it for self-aggrandizement? Can he see into the heart of the person on stage like God can? Perhaps Aigner doesn’t like pastors who are animated and extroverted. Perhaps he prefers his pastors to be more reserved and measured. But that doesn’t mean that the extroverted, animated pastor must be in it for self-aggrandizement. Also, what is wrong with saying “just” a lot in prayers? I’ve heard it as well. It is a filler word, used for people to collect their thoughts while they think about what they’re going to say next, or a word that helps to formulate a request. What’s wrong with it? Or is Aigner just venting about a habit that annoys him? Is that constructive criticism? No it is not. He points out harmless habits that shouldn’t be something to complain about.
Also, he does not provide any examples or evidence that these types of churches say or engage in these practices. Does every sermon end in the same cliches in churches with contemporary worship practices? Probably not, since there are many churches like these with many different pastors. Sometimes truths are truths, and they become cliches because they are said a lot, and they do need to be said a lot. Every sermon does not need to be original. Also, are all churches with contemporary worship practices obsessed with sex? He should provide some evidence or examples if he is going to make such sweeping judgments about a worship movement that includes many different churches and worship groups.
“But you don’t see or hear Jesus in this space. And if he is here, nobody would know it in this clamor and darkness. Then when they leave, the noise still rings in their deafened ears, their eyes squint at the noonday sun, and nothing of substance seems to stick. It’s back to the same life, the same grind, and the same escapist role of religion in their lives.”
It is difficult to argue whether or not the presence of God is in a worship service. Let us instead use the Bible to consider liturgy. And the mere fact that some individual doesn’t see or experience Jesus in a church service doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Aigner’s argument here is completely short on actual theological or Biblical reasons why this modern liturgy is wrong. He says that nobody would notice Jesus in the “clamor and darkness.” By “clamor” I suppose he means people singing loudly, the music playing loudly, and people lifting their hands and dancing and jumping. Perhaps Aigner should read about David dancing with abandon before the ark of God and his wife’s contempt for him as a result ( 2 Samuel 6:14). Perhaps he should read Psalm 150, that everything that breathes and can make a sound praise the Lord, with every instrument. Perhaps he should read about making a joyful noise to the Lord (Psalm 98:4). What does he mean by “darkness”? Does he refer to the practice of dimming the lights. Why would Jesus not be present because the lights aren’t on the audience? I don’t know and Aigner provides no reason, Biblical or otherwise. Does he expect Jesus to be something you will physically see, so that physical darkness in the audience will impair your vision of him? I don’t presume to mock or denigrate in any way the experience of those who have physical visions of Jesus. But I suspect that that is not what Aigner is referring to, which is why his argument seems incoherent here. Why would physical darkness impair the presence of Jesus?
He then claims that nothing of substance remains in people’s lives after such a service. This is an extremely sweeping judgment about a lot of churches. Even if only made about one church, it would be difficult to properly support. But Aigner doesn’t even attempt to give evidence for this claim. As with all other churches, there are those who go to the church and for whom it means little to nothing. There are those who go for whom it means everything. The same is true of churches with more traditional liturgies. Later on in the article, Aigner claims that even those who seem emotional are not really buying into it and that they will apostatize or perhaps abandon what was never true faith in the first place. But I think the claim that all or most of the people who go to churches with contemporary worship practices leave without being changed, or without learning anything substantial about God, is indefensible. Aigner doesn’t even attempt to defend it. Once again, can he see into the hearts of all the people who attends that service? Has he followed them around to know that nothing has changed in their lives?
“Let me be perhaps the first adult to affirm your thoughts, your gut reaction: you’re right. No matter what those youth “experts” say, church isn’t cool, it isn’t interesting, and it’s really not applicable to much of anything. The whole spectacle sucks. It’s usually shallow, hollow, and too focused on music. And what remains of any substance is disconnected, isolated, and awkward.
See, a few generations ago, some silly baby boomers, much like some of the silly people in your peer group, decided they wanted church to be fun.”
This seems to be just Aigner’s subjective experience. You need more than that if you are going make these serious accusations against your brothers and sisters in Christ. Aigner is accusing the worship services of his fellow Christians of being shallow and hollow, of not changing anything in anybody’s life and of not teaching anyone anything substantial. You need at least some solid Biblical reasons and you need specific examples. Yet, Aigner doesn’t quote the Bible or refer to the Bible even once in his criticism of this modern liturgy.
But the last sentence in the last quote stood out to me especially: “See, a few generations ago, some silly baby boomers, much like some of the silly people in your peer group, decided they wanted church to be fun.” This is the strange motivation to criticize. Many of the criticisms of contemporary worship are focused on the idea that it is more focused on entertainment or “fun” than on God. Again, no argument is made from the Bible that worship services should not be fun. (At this point, the lack of theological and Biblical support in criticizing contemporary worship is ironic when one of Aigner’s primary points is that contemporary worship lacks theological substance). Most basically, all that these churches are doing is using modern music and technology in their church services. There is no reason why this is wrong. Let’s read from Psalm 150:
“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”
Praising God with everything that has breath and with dancing and with the “clash of cymbals” describes contemporary worship better than traditional liturgy. But the onus is on critics like Aigner to say why one cannot worship God with modern musical styles and with differences in lighting. I’m not sure what Aigner believes the solution is. Does he, and other critics like him, believe that worship services should not be fun? How little fun must there be in church in order to qualify as “deep” and spiritual? Why don’t we just remove instrumental music altogether, and just sing? Instrumental music is generally entertaining, so we should do away with it completely. We should start forcing people to sing out of tune. That way it will really not be fun and entertaining. Won’t we be super spiritual then! But singing is still fun and entertaining for a lot of people. So why not stop singing in worship altogether! Instead of singing we will make grating guttural noises instead, or just scream randomly and out of tempo every now and again. Always our worship practices must be carefully crafted and researched to make people as miserable as possible. Because it’s only when we’ve sucked out all the fun in the church service that we can truly be certain people are focused on God and not on “fun”, as though the two are mutually exclusive.
Clearly, there may be some people who come to a church only for the music and not for God, but that is a matter of the heart. And those people will not be changed because of a change in liturgy. There are people who go to traditional churches for similarly shallow reasons, perhaps because they like the ritual and the routine of it, or because they like the beautiful buildings. That doesn’t necessarily mean the liturgy is wrong. It just means people’s hearts aren’t right and some people will always be there for the wrong reasons no matter what your liturgical style is. So there is a danger for worship bands and churches to become too focused on the the excellence of the music and not on worshiping God through excellent music. However, a danger like this is present in every liturgy or church style. What doesn’t make sense is that critics like Aigner think that because a church uses modern music and fancy lighting that it must be motivated only by the entertainment. But you can make the same argument with more traditional liturgies. You can say that they’re only it for the ritual, for the formal beauty of the church buildings and priestly robes, the candles and the incense, for the poetic language of the older confessions, for majestic full pipe organ music and old English hymns etc. etc.
Ironically, Aigner identifies a good reason why people would go to traditional churches for the wrong reasons ( in speaking of Baby Boomers):
“But they were the weak link between the riches of church history and us. When they came of age, when they entered adulthood, they found themselves stewards of timeless biblical, liturgical, architectural beauty. And they chucked it out almost entirely. In the decades since, they’re replaced it with ad hoc pseudo-liturgies, weekly rock concerts, and nondescript warehouses that look more like converted Wal-Marts than anything sacred.”
Going to church for “architectural beauty” is definitely a wrong reason to go. Or it is wrong to go only or primarily for architectural beauty. That doesn’t mean architectural beauty of churches is wrong, obviously. So why is entertaining worship practices wrong because people could come to church only for the entertainment and not for God? Also, Aigner provides no defense, Biblical or otherwise, for his dislike of having “nondescript warehouses” as churches. He also provides no defense for the implicit idea that there is anything sacred in the building itself, rather than in what happens there. Should we force every pastor to erect a small Sacred Heart Cathedral before they can have the audacity to host a church service? Churches are not temples. We are not building a place for the Spirit of God to dwell. He dwells within our hearts.
But the very claim that people who go to a church with contemporary worship are there for entertainment seems badly supported to me. If they were really motivated only by entertainment, why would they go to that church instead of a secular live music show, or simply watch live music shows on YouTube where the focus really is only the music? It seems implausible that they would go to such a church just for music and entertainment.
So not only does Aigner not provide any theological or Biblical reason why contemporary worship is hollow or shallow or spiritually insubstantial, his writing about it reveals theological falsehoods. One of these is that God and fun are mutually exclusive in a worship service ( or anywhere else). This is a thoroughly unbiblical idea. It is definitely possible, more than possible, to be focused on God and have fun at the same time. The second theological falsehood is that there is anything sacred about the building or the “liturgical tradition” in themselves, rather than in the heart’s communion with God. He also makes a number of very uncharitable claims about the motivations and lives of the people who attend such services that he gives no evidence for and which he could not possibly know.