44 Entertainment and Church

Entertainment attracts but it does not educate.

It was a passing remark made by Chris in one of our phone conversations that made me think.  He said something along the lines of: ‘If you are being entertained in church, you are not thinking’.  He was in fact talking about Christian music of the kind that fills festivals like Spring Harvest.  Such music fills the brain with its noise and rhythm, banishing any possibility of reflection or rational thought.  But then my thinking about this topic went further and began to sense a conspiracy.  Suppose this driving out of thought and reflection is actually a deliberate ploy.  Christian leaders perhaps don’t want their people to think, so they turn worship times to non-stop entertainment.  It is this link between entertainment and worship that I want to try to explore.

Those of us who are older can remember the church worship of childhood before the advent of modern language or music.  We listened to long prayers interspersed with hymns and readings.  Often our attention wandered but we tried to pray, to absorb atmosphere and ideas that made some sort of sense.  I suspect that none of us would have dreamt that this activity was meant to resemble entertainment.    It was later during the 60s and 70s that modern language crept in at the same time as modern music.  At first the music was gentle and melodious but still it hardly fitted the description of entertainment.  It merely lightened up the atmosphere and made the experience more pleasant.  But then in the 70s something called ‘youth culture’ invaded worship and this was supposed to bring the young people back into church.  This new music, being related to popular music would always have had a strong rhythm.  The rhythm and beat came to be the dominant feature and we found our brains totally mesmerised by the thunder of this beat hammering away inside our minds.  It is in fact impossible to engage in any kind of thought when this primal beat is at work around us.

I suspect that many older people did not in fact survive many exposures to this kind of music.  We retreated either to another church or to an early service totally free of primal music and rhythm.  Many churches up and down the country are indeed divided between a small group of older people who cling to an early service and a younger set who revel in ‘relevant’ worship with its mesmerising music.  The question arises then as to what is going on in such ‘youth’ services.  If, as I would suggest, all rational thought is impossible in this environment , then we have to accept that such music makes the worship at the very least deficient.  The person who enjoys such an experience is not in all probability loving God with the mind, even though he or she might claim to be engaging God with the heart , soul and strength.  The cynic might call it entertainment with a pious wrapping.

Some people would argue that the sorts of service which have modern music attract young people and that we must leave them alone.  But the serious question remains.  If the type of music actually prevents normal thought processes happening, what kind of future in the Christian faith awaits these young people?   Can we really expect any long term evolution of faith if the minds of the participants have never been really engaged?  Entertainment attracts but it does not educate.  Has music been used to suppress rationality and thus growth of understanding?.

These thoughts are meant to be  genuine questions and I stand to be contradicted on my insinuations about the use of Christian ‘pop’.  But the point made by Chris at the beginning that entertainment suppresses thought and by implication rationality has serious consequences for the future of the Church.  My comments probably do not apply to all music in church as I believe that there is a case for the type of reflective music that has grown up in the Anglican tradition and elsewhere that makes mediation and prayer somehow more accessible.  I am well aware of the effect that well-sung Taizé choruses can have on the sense of peace and stillness in a church building lit only by candles.  The thinking test has to be applied.  Does this or that music allow thought or does it banish it out of the brain?  When thought is banished and entertainment dominates during worship, we must question what is really going on.  It may even be that people are drawn to church, to come under the influence of charismatic preachers and listen to catchy entertaining music as a way of being controlled by them.  Readers of this blog will know from several of my earlier posts that I wonder at the motives of some churches and church leaders.     Because the church is an institution that does sometimes exploit and corrupt its members, we must be alert to the means by which this is done.  It may be that music of a particular kind is one such method of drawing in people to become in due course victims of an abusive Christianity.  Let us at least be always alert to this possibility.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

11 thoughts on “44 Entertainment and Church

  1. Thank you Stephen! This is the most important article (Blog) that I have read in over the past forty years. A demonstrative wall of sound has been welcomed into the church in the name of progress. Not only does it overpower thought it pushes a ‘take it or leave it’ mentality. I see this as truly wicked and evil. The cult of Christian celebrity has evolved out of this together with a Christian music industry that rivals that of the secular world. At one point in Christian history the teaching around the ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ left us with people thinking about first and second class Christians. This praise band and music industry hysteria goes a universe further than that! I appeal to all the contributers to this Blog, to seriously consider this one issue, because, I believe it to be of such monumental importance to the future witness of the Church. Unless this is given serious consideration, I repeat, serious consideration, thousands on the outside of the Church will simply shake their heads, point to their temples and walk away. I leave my email address. I have a CD( available free) tracing my time as a convinced Christian rocker and my subsequent rejection of it, together with my booklet (Unpublished) ‘Broken Body’.
    email: chris-mary@skylash.freeserve.co.uk

    Chris Pitts

  2. Just to throw a couple of thoughts into the pot. Some of the modern music is rubbish. It’s very poor quality from a musical point of view, and often theologically dubious. As previously discussed in this forum. But what if it’s theologically dubious but good quality music? Music can touch you in strange ways. Cathedral music is often served up as a Sunday morning concert, no contribution from the congregation, and as for Evensong! The fact that no-one comes when the choir is on holiday tells you that no-one is coming to encounter God. But again, often very beautiful and touching. And what about places where no girls are allowed in the choir? What message does that give? I know exactly what you mean about the noise, but I also remember enjoying listening to my pop music loud! Are you sure that people are really reflecting during an anthem? I adore music, but I sometimes think it stops people really thinking even if it isn’t loud. Think of the rubbish people sing in traditional hymns! Anyway, I’m not disagreeing, but I think there are other issues to do with music.

  3. Of course there is an enormous amount to say about music and church but to be fair the blog was mainly about ‘entertainment’ in which music plays a great part. The issue is about people being attracted to a church merely because it entertains – this could be applied to all sorts of church including cathedrals. If entertainment alone is what the church has to offer, then I suspect that the congregation is being short-changed. It is hard to cover all the aspects of this kind of issue particularly as I have set myself the limit of 1000 words max. With Chris I would see that there is a particular problem with loud rhythmic primal pop. This takes away something from the worshipper and maybe it is a kind of method of mesmerising and softening up people for subtle forms of abuse later on. I am following a conspiracy theory line which may be completely off the wall but would be grateful for any comments!

  4. In America they now have praise band contests. Some time ago, I spoke to a friend who was the Pastor of one of the largest youth fellowships in this area. He told me that he was very very troubled about the negative affects of ‘christian rock’ and praise band music, he said and I quote almost verbatim: “They want mum and dad to buy them the best bass guitar and keyboard” etc. He died shortly after this. He was the only evangelical I ever knew to even question this.
    In the states there is a “Tell em anything its gonna sell” mentality married to the capitalist music industry. How long before it gets here? Let me tell you it IS here! My attempts to regain my faith and find reality integrity and truth have hit a wall of indifference especially, over this one issue. Sadly it seems that Stephen Parsons and I are lone voices crying in the wilderness. Tell me do you think that I would be far off the mark if I were to say ; God is screaming in the silence?


    1. I’m not disagreeing. And there’s no doubt loud music affects people. It’s why I used to like it! Brainwashing is not a million miles away in some cases. But, as Stephen says, it’s complicated.

  5. Thanks English Athena:

    I get very depressed when I see the christian faith dragged through the mud in this way, especially when it is so unnecessary. There are thousands (?Millions) of wonderful pure in heart christians involved with this normalized horrific theatre, I was once one of them. It grieves me to see genuine seeking christians sold short, (it led me to a total betrayal of Jesus). Furthermore, the outsiders, those ‘lookers in’ on the theatre are also being betrayed. I find myself in the present chaos thinking that if you seek reality you have to face reality. I hope I’m not worshipping my own conclusions but, the God I seek seems far removed from the place we call ‘Church’. A hungry homeless boy (Kevin) used to sleep in our shed and have a meal, he once said: ‘Chris, the church’s are trying to build two worlds but, there is only one to live in.’ I believe the spirit of Christ spoke through him that day!


  6. I’m rather late catching up with this important topic. I agree with what’s been written, but I’m not sure it’s just about the primal music. In my experience, the lyrics are also part of the problem. We’re led to believe that these band-led ‘worship songs’ are there to make it easier for those not schooled in church language to ‘access’ them. But I’m not convinced – the words use terms that do not even make sense to me, as a lifelong church-goer. And the repetition, not only within the songs, but coming from the ‘worship leader’ ‘following the Spirit’ and deciding to repeat the same refrains over and over deadens the brain. It is often possible to find highly dodgy theology in some of the ‘old favourite’ hymns, but they do at least challenge us to think – and to reject if we feel we should. Overall, I fear that a combination of the mindless beat of the new ‘worship songs’ and the mindless lyrics imply that the objective is to try to impose some kind of collective brainwashing on the congregation. For fairness, I should add that there are some worship songs that are OK, and there is little doubt that many churches would benefit from the level of enthusiasm that is shown in these churches. I can’t remember who said ‘An excess of joy would not appear to be one of the main problems of the C of E’? A most useful blog, thank you.

  7. I had not really thought about the lyrics side of things. Part of the problem for me is that I can’t always hear the lyrics of praise bands. Repeating words of worship songs over and over again is, I agree,mind deadening and the theology of favourite hymns is dodgy sometimes to say the least. Part of the problem of this discussion is that there is, as Chris would point out, no existing discussion. My attempt to raise this and other issues is bound to get the balance wrong somewhere. James I think we are in basic agreement. If I do overstate my case then I can be forgiven for that as I am developing ideas that are new to me. Whether or not anyone else out there is talking about these things, I am not aware of it and so I can be allowed the occasional hyperbole and exaggeration. Your comments James are much valued.

  8. Even in enlightened churches (and I would describe my current church that way) hymns are often chosen by those who have learned never to challenge the theology of our hymn books. There are many really wonderful hymns with excellent theology, but muddled into most hymn books are also ones that I’m sure confuse and worry our congregations. After all, if we’re singing it, the vicar must think the theology’s all right? I think hymn choices ought to be treated as a very serious ministerial and theological role and not be chosen on the basis of ‘we always sing that on the first Sunday in Lent’ (or whatever).

  9. I once heard Andrew Teal the very excellent Chaplain of Pembroke College Oxford preach at an Ordination in which he said: “Most contemporary worship is for the entertainment of the congregation and the edification of God” which sums it up nicely .Also many of these “worship songs ” are clearly designed to have an hypnotic effect and to encourage conformity.

  10. Well said Robert! Time we had a real discussion in the church about this! Would anyone listen? The thing about counterfeit is that it is so so convincing. Chris Pitts

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