Should Worship be Entertaining?

By Debra Dean Murphy 08-17-2011

In recent days I've been thinking through with a friend one of the enduring challenges of pastoral and catechetical ministry: how to dispel the notion that worship should be entertaining. It's not as hard as it used to be -- there are books (and blogs) on the subject; it gets preached on fairly often these days. But it's not as easy as it ought to be. It seems we are a species ever in need of amusement.

One of the most compelling arguments against the persistent idea that worship ought to entertain, dazzle, distract, or otherwise charm us is found in James Alison's insight that true worship is "orchestrated detox."

Rather than mimicking or reproducing experiences that are intended to rivet an "audience," (with drums and synthesizers, say, or maybe PowerPoint on a big screen?), we ought to regard worship as the slow transformation of our desires and our dead-end ways. As Alison says,

True worship is the pattern of lives lived over time, lives which are inhabited stories of leaving the world of principalities and powers, and gradually, over time, giving witness to the true God in the midst of the world by living as if death were not, and thus in a way which is unmoved by death and all the cultural forces which lead to death and depend on death.

This is such good stuff -- I never tire of thinking through all the implications of Alison's rich insights about liturgy. But there's another angle worth pursuing (and one not unrelated): that of beauty in worship. Admittedly, this is hard for many American church-goers, heirs as we are to the Puritan disdain for art and beauty. "Protestant aesthetics" surely seems an oxymoron -- especially in this age of church growth, capital campaigns, and the praise and worship team.

But if we can learn to see that worship-as-entertainment impersonates much that's banal about popular culture (pastors as emcees, for one thing) while it also creates an excessive self-regard in the worshipers ("sentimental solipsism," in Rowan Williams's memorable phrase), then perhaps we can begin to discover beauty in our worship:

  • the divine beauty of the triune God (proportion, perfection, concord) who is the object and enabler of our devotion;
  • the beauty of language -- liturgical and scriptural and homiletical -- and of the eternal Logos that orders all our speech;
  • the broken beauty of our flawed, flailing attempts at worship and of the suffering world the liturgy sends us into.

It's the dual task of receiving beauty and creating it -- the beauty we make ourselves available to and the beauty we make and offer (of) ourselves. In worship, this is the work of the people, and it will look different in different settings. (It's not linked to resources -- to the ability, say, to hire expert musicians; rather, it's linked to a desire for and a commitment to excellence in all things).

And, if we're not consumed with being consumers of entertainment, this work, our worship, in whatever setting we find ourselves, will be a beautiful thing.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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