Church Worship:
Circus or the Real World?

When was the last time you went to an old-fashioned circus? One where there were rings in which animal acts were conducted and daring aerial demonstrations were carried on high in the arena. For many of us that is at best a very old memory, and for a huge percentage of Americans that is something they have seen on a TV movie, but have never experienced. People went to the circus because it was great entertainment. The performers were skilled and they put on a good show. When you left the circus you were a happier person because you had been entertained royally and everything always turned out well and was positive. The lions roared and pawed, but they never ate the trainer. The aerial artists seemed to defy death, but they always came out alive. It always seemed the elephant would crush the performers around them, but they never did. In addition to the skilled performers in the ring, there were wonderful clowns who joked and played pranks on everyone and made everyone laugh. The circus was a wonderful escape from the problems of everyday life. You could forget your troubles and for a short time live in a fantasy world.

As we enter the twenty-first century, many of us in and out of the church see the church in very much the same way we saw the circus in the old days. Skilled performers are paid to entertain us. Some of them tell us wonderful stories that take our minds off of the problems we face. Some of them sing to us and do it so beautifully that we are taken to a fantasy world by the beauty and quality of their song. Some amaze us with their acting ability as they take us to a fictitious place away from the challenges we face. Some use clever psychological methods to charge us emotionally and free us from our melancholy and depression. Some make us laugh with funny jokes of all kinds that make us forget our problems. We are massaged with great special effects of both a visual and a sound nature in all kinds of ways. The ultimate objective of all of this is the same as it was with the old circus. We hope to leave church feeling better--relaxed, relieved by our temporary freedom from life's problems, and ready to go out and face life again.

The question that we need to ask ourselves in this discussion is whether this is what God wants us to experience and do? Critics of the church have long maintained that religion is a crutch. Their understanding of what the church is about is totally what I have first described, and their response is "I don't need it." I have to agree. For me personally, the best way to get my batteries charged is to get to an island by myself where no one can touch me--free of TV, expensive gasoline, newspapers, and crabby people. That time with God's beautiful creation around me, a Bible to study, and no distractions from humans is sacred. Jesus frequently separated Himself and withdrew from even the closest of His disciples. It was this special time in prayer and closeness to God that seemed to fuel Jesus in His work.

As we look at what the first century church did in its religious practices we see activities of involvement. Singing was an activity that everyone was encouraged to engage in. History tells us that much of this singing was what we would call chants. Psalms and other familiar verses were used and chanted. There was no entertainment quality in this action, but rather a participation. The communion was another participatory activity that everyone engaged in. The consideration of the death of Christ and the breaking of His body and spilling of His blood was a regular part of worship. Reading of scripture and preaching was not done to entertain. Paul tells Timothy "Preach the Word;...reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering" (2 Timothy 4:2).

The emphasized words are not words of entertainment, but a motivation of action. It is important to note that many of the techniques described in the second paragraph of this article can be used to motivate and to teach and admonish. The use of technology and of drama and stories is not the issue; the issue is what the objective of these tools and devices is.

Church worship is not a time of fantasy and escape. The world needs to see that we come together to serve, not to be served. James tells us "Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this, to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction and keep one's self unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). When Jesus describes the judgment scene to His followers in Matthew 25:32-46 the basis of judgment is clear, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me."

Heaven is not the direct goal of our worship. Whether we go to heaven or not is not determined by how well we do our worship on Sunday morning. Passages like this one do not base judgment on how well we preached, sang, prayed, or directed worship. What preaching, singing, praying, and the rest of our worship activities should do is to motivate us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the prisons.

As a person raised in a home where there was no church attendance, I can testify that attending a church as a nonmember is almost always a negative experience. When I realized that there was good scientific evidence that there was a God and that Christianity, as it was presented in the Bible, made a lot of sense I started looking for a church that practiced what I read about in the Bible. Walking into most churches was like walking into a circus tent. There were lots of entertaining things to look at and worship leaders frequently put on quite a show. It was an alien world to me as an outsider, and I saw nothing happening in the lives of most participants that indicated that they were doing any of the things that I saw the Bible describing. Eventually I stumbled into a group of Christians who did make their worship a launching point to making real change in the real world with Jesus Christ being the focus of their motivation to serve. It was this action in the real world that motivated me to give my life to the Lord.

The world in which we live is in desperate need of Christians whose worship and lives glorify God and radiate Christ. The most eloquent description of this is what Jesus demonstrated as He washed His disciples' feet in John 13:5-17. After washing their feet Jesus says, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord; and you speak well for I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you should wash one another's feet. I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you" (vs. 12-15). Let us strive to serve, glorify, and worship God by our service--not by creating a circus atmosphere in our worship.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JanFeb05.