Is this what Dominic Erdozain was fearing when he wrote: “The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion.”?
Have we become so relevant in our technique, so polished in our market share, so savy in our attractional model that we have left our center, our identity of being a ‘set apart’ people? Where is the line? At what point are we an industruous production and at what point are we ekklesia? “British and American evangelicalism is now increasingly seen as modern religion par excellence, enabling it to fuse so effectively (and controversially) with the structures and sentiments of industrial society.” (53)
In an attractional model of church, the glaring question is “If we don’t entertain, will they come?”. Our measureables are in counting the coming, the giving and the structures. These are the ABC’s of modern industrial church, Attendance, Building and Cash. This sounds crass but this is also the tension. Would we be stewards at all, would we be faithful to proclamation, would our feet not be beautiful if we did not do everything within our power to bring good news to the people?
Erdozain points out that in church history, we have tended towards polar opposites in our grappling with the problem of pleasure. The Holiness movement attacked the surface vices with an unparalleled zeal. Cards, drink, dancing, practices of sensuality, gaming and hanging out with those who do. With fervor they celebrated and amplified a new aesceticism believing that the avoidance of these practices would lead us towards a rennovation of our hearts and the mortification of our sinful nature and impulses. The avoidance of these practices, particulary in the teaching of John Wesley, would be an indication of an inward working out of salvation. Wesley noted to be a part of the Methodist society requires “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from their sins. . . wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits” (avoidance of vices in holiness). (68)
The Methodist response under Wesley was to raise the stakes. If the people he was so determined to reach with the Good News were responsive to pleasureable impulses, he would replace them with sanctifying versions. This marks somewhat the beginning of the Christian subculture industry we see today in the evangelical west. Religion would become recreation.
“The result was a permanent battle with the traditional customs and pastimes of the British people which, despite claims to the contrary, started to dominate both the theology and mentality of the evangelical movement. Secular pleasure seemed to be at the heart of all that the evangelicals opposed, and increasingly it defined them.” (68)
“Methodists declared holy war on drink, hurling, wrestling, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and folk superstitions, but replaced them with revivals, Love Feasts, watch-nights, hymn sinigng, providential interventions and colourful local versions of the cosmic drama bewteen god and the devil.” (69)
The philsophical, pastoral and theological question then becomes: Is the ‘impulse’ for pleasure the sin, or is it the external ‘practice’ of the pleasure?
Is our bond with sin an unholy physical endorphin rush and if the endorphin rush can be replaced with a sensory worship experience then we are rightly Christian? Or is the need for the endorphin rush the root cause of our sinful nature? If the need is the root problem, then if our churches are designed to attract based on pleasureable principles, are we in fact enablers of the sinful nature as opposed to setting captives free? These are the ecclesiological questions I find myself asking, in our effort to address sin, do we in fact create palaces in practice that fester the bacteria to grow, though unintentioned? Do our churches lead us to freedom in Christ or do they offer safe places for cultural and carnal bondage?
“What is remarkable about the ecclesiastical history of the period is how far churches themselves followed the pattern – emerging as multi-pronged leisure providers . . . The result was a religion of safety rather than salvation: secularisation by stealth.” (231)
“The church has gone into the amusement business largely. The discovery has been made that the church, in order to hold its young people to its altars, must provide for the natural craving for amusements.” (233)
“The church was now largely agreed ‘that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for the people with a view to winning them into her ranks’ and ‘the human nature that lies in every heart has risen to the bait’.” (242)
To be fair, I have been in and around American mega-churches for the past 20 years and have paid attention to the charismatic surgence of revivals such as the Toronto Blessing, Brownsville Revival and the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. I have witnessed spiritual fruit with my own eyes from the people involved and the outpouring of the Spirit in those communities and their ripple effects around the world. I celebrate the increased mission but I also discern caution in terms of the worship of the sensory experience to have to “feel” God and somewhat get “high” on him, as if he wasn’t omnipotent or omnipresent if not emotionally felt. My friends within the mega-church phenomenon are sincere, immensely talented, thoughtful, Kingdom-minded leaders. They too struggle with the realization that the theater experience of church creates a consumer relationship of the exchange of entertaining goods and services and how challenging it is for the people to abandon the cultural values for a life of freedom in Christ. They fear they may have created a monster, a people who want a ‘happy hour’ church that they have become accustomed to and comfortable in, as opposed to a gospel of the cross. They cast a large net to catch the people, but pulling them in the boat has been a puzzling ecclesiastical and organizational problem.
In the name of mission, perhaps an echoing of the Apostle Paul “becoming all things to all men” is applicable here. If we understand marketing better, if we understand human nature, if we understand corporate techniques for attraction, should we not use them? I suppose the answer goes back to our center, our identity. Are we a spiritual people or are we an industrial organization?
“Historians praise the late-Victorian churches for rolling their sleeves up and demonstrating their ‘relevance’ and practicality; the reality is that a religion is in dangerous territory when its professed ideals can be achieved without recourse to the supernatual.” (272)
“R.W. Dale meant something similar in 1880 when he alluded to the danger of cultivating ‘religious sentiment of a kind which makes God unnecessary.” (274)
If we remove Yahweh from the people, what kind of people are we? Perhaps a better question is, whose people are we?
I long for and am called to leading and proclaiming ekklesia as a people who are called to die to ourselves, not seek out our daily pleasures as our gospel center. The cross announces a Kingdom that has come and a Kingdom that is coming, it is not for our personal amusement, but for the salvation of the world. Without God, such things are not possible.
“The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism, which has only in common with the cold and uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time men and women banded together to do this.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer