How did church end up becoming so performance-oriented? And is that such a bad thing?
Well, no, it’s not a bad thing at all. The way we collectively worship God reflects a great deal about the time we live in. Of course we bring a great deal of our culture into the way we relate to God and to each other. That’s why church has changed significantly over our lifetimes. My grandmother’s church is a lot different than the church I attended when I was a teenager – and just as well. I would have struggled to grow my faith in a church that wasn’t sensitive to the cultural shifts and communication styles of the time period.
To understand how church became so much about performance in the past few decades, and why it is in the process of shifting away from that today, we need to look at the development of modern media, which impacts on culture, which impacts on how we do church.
First, lets slip right back in time to an age before the printing press was invented. The only printed books were handwritten by monks and not readily available to the general population, who were mostly illiterate and uneducated. The Vatican decreed that the Bible could only be written in Latin, so most people were unable to read or understand the Scriptures for themselves. The best way to communicate to people in a non-literate culture is by using props, rituals and repetition. Churches were built to reflect God’s glory, with symbols designed into the architecture and furnishings. Rituals were developed to teach people spiritual concepts. Creeds and catechism were created to teach people the basics of their faith. The reliance on props as a teaching aid can still be seen in the oldest church traditions still in practise today, such as the high anglican, catholic and orthodox church traditions. My grandmother’s church follows a traditional Lutheran format, and I personally find the rituals, props and readings very foreign to my cultural and church experience. However, I can see the value in them, and appreciate that this tradition has fed and sustained her faith over many years.
The printing press changed the world. Not at first, but gradually, as people were able to publish their own ideas and spread them through a population with rising literacy levels. Books were our only form of mass media, so our culture became very literate and text-based. As people began to have access to the Scriptures, and were able to read them for themselves, the needs for props as a teaching tool decreased. Instead, people needed to learn how to interpret and understand what they were reading. Preaching became the main focus of the church. The protestant movement prioritised the study of Scripture and moved away from the symbols and rituals of the past. My parents have a rock-solid faith in God which has been nurtured and strengthened through Bible-based teaching over many years. Many evangelical churches today still focus on preaching as the only way to connect people with God, and reject the symbols and props of former times.
Over the past century, radio, movies and television became dominant forms of media. Written text was no longer the only way to get the message across. The media came up with new ways to grab people’s attention and interest. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about words anymore. The new forms of media were able to engage the senses and emotions in a way words can’t by themselves. New movements in the church focussed more on the spiritual/emotional experience of the entire performance, not just the preaching. Music became more important than ever before for creating mood and emotional engagement. Churches were losing numbers faster than ever before as Western culture rejected Christian beliefs, so the church responded by become more seeker-friendly, more consumer-conscious and market driven. In my youth, the atmosphere and excitement generated by performance-based church services inspired me and helped me connect emotionally to God, in a way that the preaching-based services of my mother’s home church (and my Grandmother’s Lutheran services) could not.
There is a cultural shift happening right now which most churches aren’t even aware of yet, and it is closely linked to the media of today. The new dominant media tool which is transforming the world in which we live is unquestionably the internet. The cultural changes are so recent that churches haven’t even begun to respond. Well, that’s not quite true. People are trickling out of the established church and starting their own movements. But the church of the future won’t be all about props, or preaching, or performance (although these may still have a place). The church of tomorrow will be about participation.