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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Worship or Entertainment?

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, United Church of Christ pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald argues that the primary source of clergy stress is a consumer-driven religious marketplace that rewards clergy who entertain and comfort their congregants. He notes that his own church's advisory committee told him to keep his sermons to ten minutes, tell funny stories and help people feel good about themselves: "Give us the comforting amusing fare we want or we'll get our spiritual leadership from someone else." However, as MacDonald points out the pastoral vocation is not to entertain but "to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways."

MacDonald's remarks capture part of the reason I refuse to clap after choir anthems or special music performed by the numerous talented individuals in our congregation: the primary purpose of worship is to worship God, not to be entertained. It isn't that the performances aren't worthy of applause; they almost always are. But if worship becomes just another form of entertainment, then the harder aspects of the Gospel will almost surely be lost. It is true that the Gospel offers comfort to those who are suffering, but it also calls us to step out of our comfort zone, to go places and do things that we otherwise would not do, which is why MacDonald calls on congregations to recognize that
Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression.
Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.
When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

1 comment:

  1. I understand your frustration and that of McDonald as well. Pastors, like teachers, are expected these days to do it all, and that's not fair. But I have some difficulty with the suggestion that worship and entertainment are, or should be, mutually exclusive. Would it also follow that joy and worship are mutually exclusive? I hope not.

    At least in the earliest gospels, which I take to be most true to the original intentions of Jesus, he seems to be more interested in exposition than in exhortation. He stands conventional wisdom on its head and uses his vision of the Kingdom of God to explain what really works in life. I am not sure helping people to "resist their lowest impulses" was very high on his agenda, and some of his parables seem to suggest that he was not above having some fun with his followers. For me, he was mostly teacher, not preacher.