The Church of Regal Entertainment: Does Where We Worship Matter?

“I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home….” So begins an old country song. Fed up with her husband perched on a bar stool every evening, drinking away his paycheck, then stumbling home three sheets to the wind, this resourceful wife decides to transform their home into a bar. So she hires an alcoholic to assist with the redecoration. They take out the dining room table to make room for the bar. She hangs a neon sign that points the way to the bathroom. Her husband and his buddies can cash their paychecks at the house, and while they’re sleeping off the booze the next morning she’ll deposit the money in the bank

Her whole strategy is summed in the chorus, “I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home, so you’ll feel more at ease here and you won’t have to roam…” If she erases the boundaries between home and bar, her husband will feel comfortable, his friends will feel welcome, and she’ll have money in the bank. She will make some sacrifices, but since she’ll regain her husband, it’ll all be worth it.

To Decorate or to Destroy?

But will it be worth it? And will she really regain her husband? The truth is that she hasn’t really made the bar and home equal; the bar wears the pants in that family now. The pub culture, which her husband loves, in which he feels comfortable, has much more control over his thinking, his actions, and his heart, than does the culture of his home. She sacrifices the intimacy of their household in a failed attempt to win back her husband. And, yes, she’ll have him there, but in a space that does nothing more than perpetuate the very lifestyle that is wrecking her home and marriage. Her intentions may be golden, but she’s doing nothing more than enabling his beer-guzzling, family-avoiding lifestyle. She hasn’t so much hired a wino to decorate their home as to destroy their home—to destroy any chance it might be a place where that man is transformed back into the husband he needs to be.

I’m Gonna Hire a Theological Wino to Decorate Our Church

The wife in this old country song bears a strong resemblance to lady church in many parts of America. She is motivated by the desire to connect with people who don’t feel at ease sitting in a pew, surrounded by stained glass, the cross of Jesus sitting atop the altar. They’re not comfortable with organ music, sermons preached from pulpits, songs sung from hymnals. Where are they at ease? In a movie theatre, or a sports stadium, or a bar. They are comfortable jamming to a band full of drums and steel guitars, listening to comedians and other entertainers, and hearing soloists or groups sing to them during concerts. They can kick back with a cup of Starbucks in their hands, wearing their favorite blue jeans, reclining in stadium seats with a big screen in front of them. So lady church hires the equivalent of a theological wino to decorate her church home, so these people will feel more at ease.

Worship in a Movie Theatre

Movie Theatre ChurchFor instance, Regal Entertainment Group offers churches the option of renting one of their theatres for worship services. In their ad, they boast that “clients have even said that holding their services in a theatre was a no-brainer for them because they wanted to reach the unchurched and the theatre was in a familiar, culturally relevant place.” Besides the perks of “ample parking, spacious lobbies, plenty of bathrooms” there is the “perfect view of the screen from a comfortable seat (cup holders included!).” And, of course, they add that “there’s no more powerful way to share your message.”

Yes, but what powerful message is really being shared? What message is the church communicating that chooses a movie theatre for its worship space? Or what message, for instance, is Joel Osteen’s congregation communicating when it chooses a former sports stadium for its gathering space? It’s the same type of message that the frustrated wife in our country song is communicating. Only in the case of lady church, it is this: the church does not have a message that is radically different from that of the world. It is not so radically different as to require a radically different space in which to communicate it. It is a comfortable, entertaining, non-life-altering message. The Gospel is as American as apple pie, Chevrolet, and Regal Cinemas.

Only it’s not. The Gospel is a radical message. It is as contrary to the ways and thoughts of the world as a home is to a bar, as a temple is to a theatre. And because of that, the church where this Gospel is preached dare not ape the architecture of the world. If she does, if she transforms the church into a theatre of entertainment, then she will teach the world that the Gospel is about titillation, feeling good, kicking back and being comfortable.

Holy Worship of a Holy God in a Holy Place

As the Old Testament tabernacle and temple were, so the New Testament church is: a holy place where the holy God dwells to meet with His holy people. I want to feel uncomfortable in church. I want my family and friends and fellow worshipers not to feel at ease, but to feel in awe when they enter the sanctuary of God. I want them to exclaim, as did Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” (Gen 28:17). I don’t want them to say, “How cool is this place! This is none other than the theatre where I watched ‘Annabelle’ last week, and here’s the cup holder where I put my Dr. Pepper while I ate popcorn.”

The church is a place of radical transformation. God meets with His people in this place to speak a law to them that reveals their selfishness, the bad man in all of them, the death that lurks within them. And through that law He kills. He puts them to the death of repentance in order that He might resurrect them through the good news of Jesus Christ. In Him they are not made comfortable and at ease, but are changed. They are made alive, truly alive, in the Son of God who loves them, who gave up His life for their own, who burst forth from the grace triumphant over death. That resurrection proclamation is transformative. It makes living saints out of dead sinners. It gives hope and healing to the wounded and bleeding.

Yes, of course, mission congregations often gather in spaces that are less than ideal. But I pray that even then they choose as neutral a space as possible for their temporary sanctuary, and transform that room or building on Sunday morning into as church-like a setting as possible. Why? Because the architecture, the furnishings, and the decorations of the church are not peripheral to this message. They too preach Christ. Stained glass and icons preach in color and symbol the good news of Jesus. Crosses and crucifixes focus the viewer on the heart of the church’s message of Christ crucified for you. The altar and communion rail beckon the worshiper to the feast of Jesus’ forgiving flesh and vivifying blood. Incense proclaims to our sense of smell the pleasing aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice and the rising smoke visually portrays our prayers that rise to heaven’s throne of grace. Pulpits and altars root the believers in the divine Word that comes down from heaven to feed our souls with words of truth. All together, architecture, sacred furnishings, and holy décor proclaim the Christ who radically transforms us into the children of God, citizens not of this world but a divine kingdom, worshipers who experience heaven on earth every Sunday morning.

You like to drink beer? Fine, enjoy a pint at the pub. You like to watch movies? Me too, so let’s go to the theatre. But when we’re meeting God face-to-face, leave the beer and the popcorn outside, for that place of divine encounter is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven, the church of Jesus Christ.

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15 thoughts on “The Church of Regal Entertainment: Does Where We Worship Matter?

  1. Mary Smith on said:

    I feel that this does not fairly represent those looking for what some may consider “contemporary” worship. I am pretty conservative. I prefer a traditional worship setting including the divine worship etc. I do also appreciate a variety of music though. Just because a song does not come from a hymnal doesn’t make it any less pleasing to God when he hears us sing it in worship to Him.

  2. If the song has doctrinal content like the Trinity, Christ’s work of redemption, forgiveness of sins, it might be ok to use in a worship setting. However, Rev. Chad is saying that where we worship matters and so does the music we choose to put words to matter.

  3. The whole point, and problem, is that we are addicted to personal, individualized preference. The historic liturgy and common practices of the church were never mere personal preference, but part of a worldwide church counterculture that deliberately transcended the individual, pointing away from their entertainment “needs” to something bigger than themselves. It does not matter what kind of worship I’m looking for. The very fact that we even speak of worship in this way indicates that we don’t really know what it is anymore.

  4. Thank you [again] Chad. Having been formerly a leader of a so-called praise team, I’ve come back to the, pardon the pun, heart of worship. What so many people couldn’t see was the slippery slope of compromise. Truthfully, we need to slide for a ways before we see it at all. Yes the music was popular and even somewhat compelling, but other elements of great beauty and depth were de-emphasized…at least in my situation. I’m not at all opposed to modern worship music if it has theological depth. What concerns me most are modern iconoclasts who seek to throw out anything people can’t readily relate to. This serves to dumb down the message of the church and make room for the Osteen’s of this world. We need to hold onto what is precious and other-worldly.

  5. Eric Kaelberer on said:

    To my Elders and Brothers in the Holy Office, The following from Chad Bird is good and may be something we will want to discuss at Elders. With Daniel taking the Course: Heaven on Earth, he may have some good things to share in regard to this, and anything he is learning. God bless each of you. Pastor Eric Kaelberer Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church Rialto, California

    I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, because it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe. — Romans 1:16

  6. Chad, I found your blog when a friend shared your post about things you don’t want said at your funeral. LOVED IT! I’ve been following you ever since and am more often than not challenged and blessed by your words. I hear the heart of what you are saying here, and I can’t say I disagree 100%. However, I don’t know of any new testament scripture to support much of what you are saying. Your title question is “Does it matter where we worship?” The Samaritan woman asked this of Jesus in John 4, and his answer to her was “No, it doesn’t matter where you worship. What matters is HOW you worship.” (my paraphrase) Jesus says that true worshipers will worship in spirit and in truth. In fact, (and please correct me if I’m wrong) the only worship location mentioned after the crucifixion is the homes of believers. There is no new testament prescription, that I am aware of, for worship location, style of music, or how the “worship” location should be decorated. I fully agree that many Christians seem quite self-centered and operating from a consumerism mentality. I expect much better from a mature Christian. However, I don’t expect much at all from a non-believer or brand new Christian, and if a movie theater is where that person can find God, then who am I to judge?

    • Kim,
      Thank you for your thoughts and questions. I’m glad to see that I’ve stimulated some conversation about this subject. I’ve written another blog post about sacred space (“Your Church Is Too Sexy”) in which you might find answers to some of your questions. That being said, I think I’ll work on a follow-up article to flesh out more of these issues. So stay tuned. And thank you so much for reading my articles.

  7. As for that song by Frizzell, I must confess – I love it! I think it speaks well to the human condition. As for attending a church with all the “smells and bells” as opposed to a more secular environment, I just don’t know. To me, if the gospel is preached the setting doesn’t seem to be a big issue. Of course, being a Catholic I probably shouldn’t be saying that. As you know we are loaded with all the architecture, but oftentimes that doesn’t seem to be the primary engine for either conversion or worship. But it does seem to enlighten and heighten the worship experience of those who are already in the bosom of the Father. But then again I am sure I have much less experience in assessing all the “alligators” awaiting those who opt for the secular venue for their church experience. At first glance it does seem to limit the opportunity for community, (communio). Thanks Chad!

  8. Devonne on said:

    I think this leaves the door open for so called preachers to preach sermons not from the lord. I believe good can come from these services held in cinemas as well, but I appricate the article. Helping us remember to be in the world not of it. Holding God in reverence and his house.

  9. Chad, I’m always looking for good writing from contemporary Lutheran scholars. The blog on “The Affair was very insightful and scripturally sound. This one here I’m only in about 50% agreement with. As Kim stated, the early church met in peoples homes. The Apostle Paul wrote a few things about when we gather together. There were two things that seemed to be paramount to him were the WORD and the LORDS SUPPER. The thing I see lacking in today’s church is reverence for the WORD itself. The Joel Osteen’s of this world seem to break God’s word into sweet soundbites that tickle the ears. When I joined the LCMS over 20 years ago it was because the one I was part of at the time had become too caught up in the trappings of icon type symbols and traditionalism. I’m not one to condemn any one for their style of worship. However, I choose substance over style any day. I’m afraid that concentrating on style has lent itself to a cold congregation in many places. We the church should focus more on the great commission rather than being turned in on ourselves. An old pastor once made the following statement. “The Ritual is Right when the Heart is Right.” The heart is made right only by the washing of what? The water and the word.

  10. Pingback: The Devil You Know | Living Apologetics

  11. Hot topic in my LCMS household! I think I agree with you. I assume you aren’t claiming that only one architectural style is acceptable for all time, but that we make a mistake to mimic the wordly culture in which we live (however it might be expressed), out of fear that a newcomer might find our non-wordly culture a little strange. But the really BIG question is: Do you think a big screen in a traditional sanctuary is theologically inappropriate?

    • I’m not a fan of screen in church, but not necessarily for theological reasons. Most of us stare at screens all day, from our iPhones to computers to gas pumps. I’m all screened out by the time I go to church. I don’t want to see yet another screen. Give me the Word. In fact, if I could, I wouldn’t even look at a hymnal. I’d sing all the hymns from memory, listen as the lector read the Scriptures, pray the Psalms from memory. As much as I can, I focus upon the Word as word.

      • I dislike the screen aesthetically, but love its convenience. Your ideal sounds good (though I have a lousy memory), but the counter-argument is that it makes worship almost completely inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it. The newcomers (and old-timers with faulty memory) need some help (and preferably not from four different worship materials that must be skillfully juggled). I wonder about your take on that. And would you agree that we at least shouldn’t be tossing technical Latin terms at worshippers in our hymnals? That seems to me to be a completely unnecessary cultural binding.

  12. I was raised traditional baptist w/ hymnals, came back to Lord as a charismatic, and sing my worship to the Lord every am in my bedroom. Isn’t it the heart of worship?

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