Worship or entertainment?

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As a Christian living in our increasingly secular and pluralistic nation, I am finding it ever more difficult to distinguish between worship and entertainment. The difference between the two seems increasingly fuzzy, and I believe the church is falling ever more captive to politically correct societal norms. I wonder if you, my Christian reader, suspect something similar. Christmas is a special case.

In rural Ontario, where I was raised decades ago, we would anticipate and be entertained by the Christmas pageant held at the local community centre. Regardless of denomination, most everyone from town attended and enjoyed seeing Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

Come the special day, we would worship in our own respective congregations. Few confused the civic activity with the religious festival, even though the message was essentially the same.

Today, however, community Christmas pageants are a rarity. If there is a seasonal festive event at the local school or community centre, it is a pleasant but rather innocuous activity emphasizing holiday greetings and little more. We Canadians are particularly sensitive about creating religious or social offence. Christianity has essentially lost its role as a cultural moderator.

At the same time, many of our churches seem to offer little by way of Christian uniqueness. The wide range of beliefs represented and respected in most of our congregations makes it almost impossible for the leadership to offer Christian distinctives, and what many hear amounts to little more than a bouquet of peace, joy and goodwill to all.

If these developments even vaguely disturb you, and if you tend to agree with me about our current situation, let me offer a suggestion. I propose that those of us who are convinced of the special significance of the gospel message in the Christmas story and our need for responsive worship are going to have to be more venturesome and discriminating in the way we experience Good News today.

Much of what takes place in our churches, often followed by audience applause, is actually entertainment, not worship. On the other hand, many of our nation’s choral societies and their programs contribute much to enable worship.

This suggests to me that, while I continue to believe the church has a unique contribution to make in terms of gospel proclamation, some of the most worshipful experiences can take place outside it.

Recently, my partner and I attended an annual event we enjoy. It was presented by the Festival Chorus, a well-established choral society in our city. The theme this year was “Christmas in Paris,” and it featured a lovely program of French carols and organ solos, as well as larger works by Berlioz and Charpentier. It took place in a downtown church, which served on this occasion as a concert hall. The event was a worship experience for me.

I heard the Good News through the words and music of the choir. The audience was respectful. When we had the opportunity to join in the singing of several familiar carols, there was a palpable reverence in the house.

Performance was transformed into worship. Too often, our worship degenerates into performance.

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Wayne Holst

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