I don’t know who invented the phrase “evangelical circus,” but in many ways it describes exactly the Christianity I left behind many years ago.* I can’t speak for all churches, or even many, but the few I have been involved in were certainly circus-like in their unrelenting desire to entertain the audience, with never a wasted moment. As I said, I left that world behind years ago, and I’m now a part of a smaller church that focuses more on worship, community, and holiness than felt needs and Christotainment.
This past month, I went back to the evangelical circus and found myself even more confused than I was 10 years ago. Below you’ll find my thoughts on what I experienced, but please take these observations and criticisms only so far and with a grain of salt. I have different obligations now, and don’t have the context to completely understanding what is going on. I also would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I don’t believe my current tradition is perfect; it certainly has its many flaws and no doubt an evangelical church-goer would be confused by the liturgy and its insistence on the spoken Word.
The first thing I noticed in this particular church was the predominance of the screen. I’m not too far removed from the world to not understand the usefulness of a giant screen, nor do I think it’s the Eye of Sauron in the church (although, admittedly, that’s a pretty cool metaphor), but I find it distracting. The screen, whether intentional or not, becomes the focus of the service and removes the worshipper from what is actually taking place right in front of them. The screen mediates, as it were, the service for us.
I do not believe, however, that all uses of the screen are bad. My grandmother is fond of saying that when a church begins to project the words of the songs on a screen, they are implicitly telling all of the old people to leave. While this may be true in some respects (diminished eyesight), having the entire congregation focus on a single screen instead of individual hymnbooks is certainly preferable. It may be a (60-year-old) tradition, but hymnals are not necessarily the best for congregational music.
Of course, the screen would be nice for congregational singing if churches actually had such a thing. Most of the music in this particular service were performances by the worship team, with the congregation expected to simply sit by and watch. This may be the worst aspect of modern evangelicalism, the old liturgies have been turned into an event one watches, not participates in. This is why the screen is so off-putting to me, the lines between entertainment and worship are so blurred they end up becoming neither.
And part of that entertainment is having young, extremely attractive women sway onstage with a look of ecstasy on their face. They apparently exist to complement the good looking young guy wearing skinny jeans and sporting a scruffy beard who sings like the unnatural child of David Crowder and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). The vapid songs did little to deemphasize how sexualized modern worship has become.
A final note on music: I may be an old fuddy-duddy, but I prefer older songs that have a single meter. The few times we were actually allowed to sing, the songs would change rhythm so much I never knew what to expect. Unless someone knew the song, it was impossible to sing. Why make it so hard on the congregation?
The sermon has become the center of evangelical worship (as opposed to, say, the Eucharist or the Scripture readings). The entire service has been structured to make the sermon the pinnacle, the high point to which all worship is pointing. I’m sure you could blame the Puritans for this, but I doubt they would claim ownership for what passes for evangelical preaching these days.
In this particular service, the sermon was supposed to be an exhortation to fathers (being Father’s Day), but it ended up a rally to save America. The biblical text was read once once, but not referred to after that. Other texts were quoted, but more weight was given to statistics, stories, and clearly false personal anecdotes. There was no indication this was even a Christian sermon; it could have been welcome in a Unitarian church, a VFW hall or a Tea Party rally.
What the preacher was telling the congregation, intentionally or not, is that the Scriptures have no bearing on or meaning for their lives. Meaning in the sermon came from stories and application the preacher devised, not the Bible. Until the invitation, which I found disconcerting and out of place, saving America from liberals seemed more important than proclaiming the Gospel. Again, this conveyed to the listeners that God’s plan is secondary to the GOP’s plan (if they actually have one). I neither expected nor wanted a 60-minute exposition on Ephesians 5 and 6, but a Gospel sermon, it seems to me, should focus more on what God has said than the preacher.
The thing is, there is much to like and learn from in evangelicalism. For many of us, it was the tradition that brought us into the church and one we would like to see reformed. This isn’t about preferences becoming requirements, but rather about Christ being at the center of what we do when we gather as a community of believers. Every time I return to this circus, it seems more and more like a conversation that has cut out the most important participant: God. For those who would like to see reform, this seems like the most obvious starting point.
*The earliest reference I can find is from a 1970 issue of Christian Heritage, which appears to be a Roman Catholic newspaper. There is little doubt, however, that Michael Spencer popularized the phrase in the blogosphere.