Remember the literaries Pa Ingalls helped organize during that mild winter (the one that followed the Long Winter) in De Smet? If I were to stumble across a time machine, I’d certainly have to attend one of those programs—probably the one where Pa and his friends covered their faces with black grease and clowned around. I just don’t think today’s entertainment could hold a candle to that. Not because we haven’t gotten any better at entertaining, but because we’ve gotten too much better.
Take, for example, Gatorland. My husband and I first went there as newlyweds. We arrived just before the gator jumping show and were immediately impressed as a park employee explained how alligators jump and spent most of the time getting them to jump. This quickly became the highlight of our vacation to Orlando, and Gatorland became one of our favorite attractions. But over the years, things have changed. Now, if you go to the gator jumping show, you’ll be lucky to see a jump or two, but there’s quite a clever little skit that leads up to the jumping. The entertainment has become more elaborate, but we seem to have lost the point of the show.
The same thing happened with the Sea World dolphin show. As someone who loves dolphins, this used to be one of my favorite shows at Sea World. Before the show started, we would be treated with some tropical music by a friendly guy on the guitar. Then when it was time for the show, the dolphins would perform all kinds of tricks. Our favorite part was always the part of the show where a trainer would pretend to be a park visitor falling into the water and come up skiing on the backs of two dolphins. But go there today, and you won’t enjoy the happy music, the skiing trainer, or many dolphin tricks. There’s now an elaborate story line with bird-costumed performers doing acrobatics and trapeze work and a few jumping dolphins thrown into the mix. The show has gotten more polished, but now we are fine with skipping that part of the park. In all the entertainment, the dolphins seem to have been almost forgotten.
This weekend, I had an experience that made me wonder if we are in danger of the same thing happening in our churches. My family visited a church where we were members up until several years ago. This church has always had a reputation for its compelling music. I remember many weeks going to church after a particularly tough week and just closing my eyes and losing myself in the songs. Though we had an amazingly talented music leader who came all the way from Nashville, he would use just about anybody who had an interest in using their talent for the Lord. I believe there might have even been a few times when a microphone was turned down a little so that someone whose musical gift was still a work in progress wouldn’t drown out the rest of the band. Every week, rotating teams of singers, ranging from youth to grandmas, would lead out, and the entire congregation would join in. The words were put on the screen for us to follow. And although the occasional typos would irk the editor in me, I always enjoyed being able to focus on the words and lose sight of everything else around me.
During the time we were gone, members would encourage us to visit. “The music has gotten better,” they would say. But the reports from first-time visitors were different. “No one there sings,” someone said to my surprise. “It feels like a show,” someone else summarized. I figured they just weren’t used to that style of worship.
So we settled down in the familiar auditorium and waited to see for ourselves what would unfold. Both my husband and I were looking forward to singing praise songs again, something we’ve been missing since having moved on to another church. I pictured myself closing my eyes or staring at the words on the screen and getting lost in the message of the songs. It had been one of those weeks where such a rejuvenating connection would have been more than welcome.
Shortly before the praise team came on, a professionally done video reminded us that the worship was about God, not the singers, not the people around us, not even about us. “Good,” I thought. “That’s what I want to focus on.” But then I found it hard to do just that. In fact, after the first song, I stopped singing. Almost expecting my musician husband to get an itching to visit the church more often, I was surprised when he echoed my thoughts of disappointment.
As we unpacked what had happened, we decided that the program, like Gatorland and Sea World, had gotten too polished. The musicians were all young and beautiful (“hipsters” I called them as I wondered aloud if my husband would even be invited to play in the band as he had done for so many years during our time there), and since their images were also beamed to the screen where the words were, there wasn’t any way to avoid looking at them while trying to sing to God. There were only two singers, and their voices were amazing—and intimidating. The music leaders didn’t speak to the congregation much, in sharp contrast to the music leader who always shared how he was doing with the congregation and gave his own reflective thoughts on what the songs meant to him. The songs were unfamiliar. At first I figured it was just because we hadn’t been there in a while, but my husband noted that as he looked around, even long-term members weren’t singing along. And, yes there was the light show we had been warned about, and even a little smoke at the end. (“I sure hope there isn’t actually a fire backstage,” I thought.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with any of these elements. I, myself, have even used a fog machine in the sanctuary to create smoke (it was for a play that finished with a scene of the ascension). What I do have a problem with is when something becomes so polished that the point of the program is lost.
The point of a gator jumping show is jumping gators. The point of a dolphin show is dolphins. And the point of congregational singing is to give church goers a chance to become involved in worshiping God. But when nobody in the congregation is singing, maybe it’s time to step back and ask ourselves, “is the show getting in the way of the meaning?”