Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Sermon: Worship in an Age of Entertainment

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This is the second in a series, loosely derived from Joseph Small’s new book To Be Reformed: Living the Tradition, published in 2010 by Witherspoon Press.  Ted preached the first week, and I will preach next week.

 1 Chronicles 16:8-32

8 O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
   make known his deeds among the peoples.
9 Sing to him, sing praises to him,
   tell of all his wonderful works.
10 Glory in his holy name;
   let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
11 Seek the Lord and his strength,
   seek his presence continually.
12 Remember the wonderful works he has done,
   his miracles, and the judgements he uttered,
13 O offspring of his servant Israel,*
   children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
14 He is the Lord our God;
   his judgements are in all the earth.
15 Remember his covenant for ever,
   the word that he commanded for a thousand generations,
16 the covenant that he made with Abraham,
   his sworn promise to Isaac,
17 which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,
   to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
18 saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan
   as your portion for an inheritance.’
19 When they were few in number,
   of little account, and strangers in the land,*
20 wandering from nation to nation,
   from one kingdom to another people,
21 he allowed no one to oppress them;
   he rebuked kings on their account,
22 saying, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones;
   do my prophets no harm.’
23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
   Tell of his salvation from day to day.
24 Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvellous works among all the peoples.
25 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
   he is to be revered above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
   but the Lord made the heavens.
27 Honour and majesty are before him;
   strength and joy are in his place.
28 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
   ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
29 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
   bring an offering, and come before him.
Worship the Lord in holy splendour;
30   tremble before him, all the earth.
   The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
   and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’
32 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.

33 Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
   before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.
34 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.

35Say also:
‘Save us, O God of our salvation,
   and gather and rescue us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
   and glory in your praise.
36 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
   from everlasting to everlasting.’
Then all the people said ‘Amen!’ and praised the Lord.

Worship in an Age of Entertainment

During the month of June, Ted and I are examining how we confess our faith in a contemporary age.  How does our faith inform the way we live in these times – these times when now, more than ever, it seems that the values of the secular world run contrary to the values we hold as Christians.  Today we are looking at how the value we as Christians place on worship can be swallowed by the ways contemporary society competes for our attention in an age that values entertainment.  How placing the worship of God at the center of our devotion runs contrary to the idea that we must be tuned in, plugged in, and entertained at every moment of our lives.

Do you remember when you went to the movies as a child?  I remember when I went to the moves, it was a big deal.  And the hardest part was always waiting for the movie to start.  I like the previews, so I arrive before the movie starts to make sure I don’t miss them.  When I was a child and arrived early, the screen was black and the lights were on.  There was nothing there to entertain you while you waited for the previews to start – you had to talk to the people you came with.  If the movie was supposed to start at 7:00, the screen stayed black until 7:00 and then the ads ran for candy and popcorn and the previews began.  Now, it seems like there is something on the screen all the time – we can’t just be quiet and still while we wait.  We need to be entertained while we are waiting for our entertainment.  Though at the movies, it is more like we need to be advertised to – there are still slides of ads for local businesses, trivia for upcoming movies or other shows – but the idea is to keep patrons from becoming bored while they wait.  One cell phone company tells us how many people are texting while they wait.  In case the information on the big screen is not enough, many if not most of us carry small screens to keep us entertained.  We may say it is to keep us connected, but as technology has advanced, our phones have become small TV’s and game consoles with slick graphics and a constant source of things to amuse us. 

Entertainment is not all electronic – books, art, plays, playing outside – that is all entertainment too.  Encouraging children to actively use their imaginations to entertain themselves is good parenting.  We entertain ourselves with sports and other activities.  Entertainment is defined as activities that offer amusement or diversion, something diverting or engaging.  Often it involves performers, but not always[1].  When we seek entertainment, we seek to be removed from our lives, an escape, a chance to be diverted from the world around us for a while, a way to be occupied beyond what is right in front of us.  This is not to say that entertainment is bad – it is not.  However, we can become all consumed by what is on the screen and looking for distractions rather than living our lives as our own lives.  In an age where the book becomes the movie and then the movie becomes the theme park experience, the lines between fantasy and reality can be blurred.

            Entertainment is not something to be scorned or disdained – we all need diversion in our livesEntertainment can bring laughter and opportunities for us to spend time in community.   I think about the group of us who went to see the midnight premiere of Twilight last summer, or Harry Potter – both were chances for us to spend time in an alternate world, but also to laugh and have fun as a group.  In fact, I’m waiting for the e-mails planning this summer’s adventures when the sequels are released.  Concerts, plays, parties – -all offer us opportunities to enjoy ourselves for a time.  The focus of entertainment is ourselves – what we want out of the experience, and how we want to feel when it is over – -we want to have laughed, been made to feel better about a situation, have enjoyed ourselves or the company of others.  With entertainment, it is all about us as an audience and a recipient of a performance or experience.

Looking at our text for today, we can see that worship is the opposite.  Our passage is from 1 Chronicles and these 36 verses are a Psalm of Thanksgiving sung by David to the Lord when the Ark of the Covenant finally reached Jerusalem.  The ark was believed to be the presence of God on earth, and was identified with God.  Those who desecrated the ark were struck down.  The Ark was captured by the Philistines and then returned to Israel and hidden for 20 years of Philistine occupation.  David defeated the Philistines and brought the ark back to Jerusalem from its hiding place as part of his policy to unite the tribes of Israel under his rule.[2]  Our text for today is the long awaited arrival of the Ark into Jerusalem.  David had constructed a specially built tent, and furnished it.  He appointed ministers to “invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord God of Israel.” (1 Chronicles 16:4).  The ark would be worshipped.  When it arrived, David appointed the singing of praises to the lord – our scripture for today.  He established worship as part of the pattern and priority of life of this community in honor of God.

            This Psalm of Thanksgiving weaves together several of the other Psalms we know – -notably the 105th, 96th and 106th.  It tells the story of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites, the covenant God made with Abraham and God’s promise to Isaac.  It proclaims the story of wandering in the wilderness and praises the Lord for bringing them to this time and place.  David calls the people to worship the Lord, to proclaim the honor and majesty that are Gods.  Verses 28-36 describe some ways in which we can worship the Lord – rejoicing, remembering that the Lord is constant, giving thanks to the Lord who is good, and whose steadfast love endures forever.  David tells those gathered to call upon the Lord for salvation while offering the Lord praise and blessings.

            I wonder what it looked like in that tent.  The Israelites had been battling and fighting a long time  -the ark had been hidden away for 20 years.  They had been on a journey through the barren desert with the ark for days, maybe longer.  And now their most sacred being was housed in a tent.  I picture it as somber, solemn.  Perhaps a recitation of the psalm.  However, if we look just a few verses before where our reading for today begins, the picture is different.  When David appointed the ministers, he also told them how to worship. In verses 4-6 he says, “ He appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel. 5Asaph was the chief, and second to him Zechariah, Jeiel, (She mir a moth), Jehiel, (Matt I thi ah), Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, with harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, 6and the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel were to blow trumpets regularly, before the ark of the covenant of God.” Now that, that sounds like a great worship service!  Lots of music, lots of praise and prayer, probably a little chaotic, but all directed at God and for God.  David worshipped because he could not do anything else.  It was not from a sense of wondering what he would get out of the experience, but from the sense of gratitude to God, and from wanting to offer praise and prayer to God.

            Our worship services probably look very different than those held under the tent of the Ark of the Covenant.  We have electricity, for one thing.  For another, we have a set hymnal or set of songs we draw from, and a set order of worship that we follow weekly.  Even in our less formal, middle service, we are pretty well behaved and reverent.  We have an organ and pianos, drums and guitars, and lots of singers…but no harp or lyre or trumpet.  I wonder if David wandered in, if he would recognize what we do here on any Sunday as worship.  Well, we would have to catch him up on a little church history first and explain the cross and Jesus…  but I think he would recognize it.  He would recognize our gathering each week and lifting our voices in songs and prayer to the same God that he did as worship.

            Why do we come to worship every week?  As I have said before, I have a favorite part of the book of order – it is the Directory For Worship.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter, that question is answered for us:  “In worship, the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives.  As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed.  In worship the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world” (W-1-1.000).  Nowhere does it say in worship we come to perform, to be entertained, or to be fulfilled.  We come because we are called by God to be renewed and transformed, to offer ourselves, and to be equipped to serve.

            That makes worship very different than entertainment.  These two can be set apart as opposing values in our society today because of one phrase that keeps popping up, “worship experience.”  Yes, we participate in an experience when we come to worship.  Yes we can experience worship.  But the words “worship experience” make me, as a pastor and worship leader shudder a little bit.  As author and theologian Joseph Small puts it, “the phrase worship experience reflects a shift away from glorifying God, toward what worship can do to fulfill us.  It directs us away from God’s gracious action in the world and toward our feelings.   Because American culture encourages us to view life as a succession of experiences designed to bring us satisfaction, worship may become just one in an array of potentially fulfilling experiences.  In a market-oriented consumer society, the “value” of worship is measured by its ability to satisfy.  The need to satisfy may lead to hymns, prayers, calls to worship, and sermons that are more about ourselves than the triune God who creates and sustains all things…”[3]  People centered worship – worship designed to entertain and be a “worship experience” is different from God-centered worship – designed to focus our lives around God.

            It’s that word “experience” that makes me pause.  Have you been to the zoo lately?   The last time I went was when I was in Philadelphia.  It was a great day – -not too hot, not too crowded.  I had gone with a family from church, and the mom explained to me that their family had the deluxe pass – it allowed access to everything at the zoo.  “Besides the animals?”  I asked, a little confused.  Well, yes.  If you ever go to the Philadelphia Zoo, I highly recommend purchasing the tickets for the Zoo Balloon.  It is a hot air balloon that is tethered to the ground and floats 10 stories up in the air to allow a view of the cityscape and surrounding neighborhoods.  I love skylines and seeing cities from up high, so I loved the ride and wished it was longer.  But our passes also got us into so much more.  In the monkey house was something called the Safari Experience – the eldest daughter, who was in kindergarten, and I got into a Jeep simulator and pretended to drive across the African savannah chasing a herd of elephants and trying to escape from lions.  We raced up and down the hills, passing zebras and impala and giraffes while splashing past hippos – all digital, and all designed to evoke emotions that we could not get from simply being at the zoo – in case we needed to be diverted from the real thing.  At the end of the ride, there was the obligatory chance to buy the picture of you driving the Jeep during your safari experience.  We had come to the zoo to see the animals, and yet there was an opportunity to have an “entertainment experience” while we were there.  Later, when I asked the child what her favorite part of the day was, she said “the giraffes.  Not the fake ones, but the real ones.”  That, said her mother, was worth the price of admission alone.

            Do we come to worship to be entertained or transformed by God?  Are we looking for the best musicians and choirs and slick production videos or a place where we can be authentic both as worship leaders and participants?  Good music and preaching and speaking are part of authentic worship, but it can be a fast moving slippery slope if we get caught up in the trappings of worship rather than worshipping God.  One minister tells the story of when she went to interview for a position at a church in a big New York City church.  During worship, the choir performed a stunning choral piece as an anthem, and afterwards someone bragged to her that all of their music had to be not only excellent, but “New York quality.”  The pastor did not take the job, partly because she realized that the congregation valued the music not for the gifts they had been given by God, but because they associated excellence with high art and then valued the art for the art’s sake.  The music was not appreciated because God moved through it, worked through it, spoke to people, or encouraged a community – such as we strive to do with our worship participant– but because it was an excellent performance.[4]  It is a fine line we walk between being authentic and excellent.  We can be both – as long as we are worshipping God, not coming to church to entertain, or be entertained.

            I think I might have liked that worship service with David and his priests.  I’ve never heard a lyre before…the harps and the trumpets and the cymbals – -all to give thanks and to worship God.  I’ll bet it was a sight to see – loud and ceremonial and authentic all at the same time.  David had danced with such joy the night before – -I wonder if he danced that day too?  Calvin, our favorite strict and stodgy reformed theologian once critiqued the excesses of Catholic worship —  remembering that Catholic worship in that time was very different than it is now.  He was asked if his critique meant that no ceremonies in worship were appropriate, and he responded, “I do not say that.  For I feel that this kind of help is very useful to them.  I only contend that the means used ought to show Christ, not hide him.”[5]

            Do you see Christ each week in your worship life?  Where does he peek out to you from among the liturgy and prayers?  How does weekly worship show Christ to you?  Can we, when we come to worship ask God to allow us to see Christ through the worship of the day – -to see and hear him in music that is authentic, in prayers that are real, in ways that lift God above all else.  Worship here is not a “worship experience”, but a way for each and every one of us to grow deeper in our faith and connection to God and to Christ, whether we lead from the front, or participate from the pews.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen

First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA

June 12, 2011


[1]. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entertainment  accessed June 8, 2011.  a : amusement or diversion provided especially by performers <hired a band to provide entertainment> b : something diverting or engaging: as (1) : a public performance (2) : a usually light comic or adventure novel

[2] Achtemier, Paul J., General Editor, Harper’s Bible Dictionary.  Porter, Joshua R.  “Ark”.   64-65.  Harper SanFranciso, 1985.

[3] Small, Joseph D, To Be Reformed.  (Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 2010).  102.

[4] Reinstra, D and Ron Reinstra, Worship Words.  (Grand Rapids: 2009).  24.

[5] Small, Joseph D, To Be Reformed.  (Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 2010). 

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2 thoughts on “Sermon: Worship in an Age of Entertainment

  1. This sermon strikes me where I live this week in particular, Julie. Just went through an unpleasant experience with the ever present liturgical pleasure seekers. Thanks so much for these wonderful words.

    Tom

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