Okay, so maybe I made up a word — a neologism. It popped into my head the other day while I was driving and thinking about what contemporary church has more and more become. However, the term ecclesitainment may have been coined by someone prior and just floated to the surface in my unconscious ocean of detritus.
Can you imagine?
Of course, many have heard of infotainment. I think that’s what conspiracy theorist turned spiritual guru Glenn Beck calls his shtick. But ecclesitainment or religitainment is what we find at your average nondenominational wannabe megachurch — a storefront sanctuary with a hip name like “Ignite” or “Real Life” or “Discovery.” No more prosaic St. John’s or St. Luke’s or heaven forbid a name with “Grace” or “Emmaus” in its moniker.
For the past 25-years I’ve attended Northland, A Church Distributed. It’s in Longwood, one of the northern suburbs of Orlando. It was once just Northland Community Church but over a decade ago Pastor Joel Hunter added the “A Church Distributed” coda. He said it reflected Northland’s mission in the world — but it was also a clever type of branding. However Northland, more than most any other evangelical megachurch, does give its resources away and so it tends to validate its name. Northland’s generous outreach into the local community and greater world have made a difference in many lives. Of that I am convinced.
And For the first 15 years that I attended Northland I was in love with our church’s music. I imagined that our worship team of a dozen or more very talented vocalists and musicians would surely win the battle of the megachurch bands. And I naively thought that music was worship.
However, as I became a more seasoned Christian I came to accept something which both Pastor Joel and Rick Warren advocated — that is, that true worship is a lifestyle. And so quite obviously worship is far more than standing in a sanctuary with hands raised swaying to the music. One of my favorite Rick Warren quotes: “Bringing pleasure to God is called worship.” In other words, echoing another Warren quote, “It’s not about you.”
Then around seven years ago I discovered home church — sometimes called organic church or simple church. At the time I was searching for something to counterbalance a staleness I was beginning to feel at Northland. There was something about it’s casualness and often lack of a “holy” focus that was pushing me in another direction. It culminated in a circus themed “worship” with acrobats dangling on ropes coming down from the ceiling of the sanctuary, and I thought, “These people have completely lost their minds.”
That is not to say that the church had changed that much — Northland had often done innovative things that “stretched” its congregants. What had changed was me, and so for about two years I concurrently attended St. Andrew’s Chapel, Dr. R.C. Sproul’s iteration of high church with its traditional liturgy driven services. I went to St. Andrew’s in the morning and Northland in the evening and for a while all was good.
Then around the same time via a friend I discovered home church and I thought I’d attend once just out of curiosity. However, I was immediately captured. The paradigm in a home-based church is for participation in creating worship by all of its 10 to 20 or so members. It’s biblical mandate is found in I Cor. 14:26 when Paul writes: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
In other words it’s very participatory by all of its members. It is kind of the antithesis of an ordained clergy giving a prepared 20-min sermon and a well-rehearsed worship team or choir performing in front of an often fairly passive congregation/audience.
So, for most of the past seven years I’ve been attending a home church plus Northland. Even though I find the home church experience more real, more spiritual and more satisfying I continue to attend Northland for the teaching — and for fellowship with my friends who still attend there. The men who preach at Northland, pastors Matt and Vernon (and Pastor Joel previously) are all good teachers and communicators and their professional exegesis supplements what I learn at home church from talented Spirit-filled laymen.
What I appreciate less and less is the show presented by the worship team. It has become for me a marathon of ennui — an ordeal of increasing boredom. I have nothing against contemporary Christian music. I love many inspired contemporary songs like Mercy Me’s I Can Only Imagine or Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons or Redeemed by Big Daddy Weave — but it feels like Northland’s current worship team more and more favor songs with no memorable content, lyrics or melody — and an awful lot of it seems repetitive and hackneyed — and whiney is not an acceptable substitute for sublime and inspired.
However, I get it. They are marketing to and for the young. And the worship team has gotten progressively younger. Only a couple of them might recognize Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor or Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing — two of my faves. Marketing to the young: That’s all well and good. I suppose they see that as the future of the church, but Northland still has plenty of old fogies and they’re the ones who attend every week and pay the bills.
In a recent service a few verses from the book of Lamentations formed part of the text, and I thought what a great lead-in for one of my favorite old hymns Great Is Thy Faithfulness. In one of the very first services I attended at Northland back in 1993, those same verses from Lamentations 3:22-24 were a prelude for that great traditional hymn. In 1993 it brought me to tears. But no, in 2018, the worship team chose some song with horribly repetitive lyrics about demons fleeing before Jesus’ name. Anyway, while I’m standing there amidst the blazing amps and the superfluous light show I’m wanting to scream, “Enough!” — but I don’t because I do understand that many in the congregation are worshipping. It’s just less and less meaningful for me personally. For me, it’s ecclesitainment, and I’m overwhelmed by a growing sense of ennui.
But then, when you least expect it, the Holy Spirit shows up. This past weekend’s service was led by the children’s choir. Around 20 kiddoes in the age range of about 7 to 12 did a magnificent job — and I thought they could do this every week as far as I’m concerned. They sang This Is My Father’s World a hymn that’s over a century old and then they followed that up with the secular song What A Wonderful World made famous by Louis Armstrong. They led us in the Lord’s Prayer in both Spanish and English. Overall, it was quite refreshing and for me a “holy” experience.
It was wonderful. However, I’m sure by next week we’ll be back to overproduced contemporary music with hackneyed lyrics — and I’ll go ho hum.
Another aspect of my ecclesitainment ennui are movies specifically marketed to Christians. Movies devoid of subtlety. Over the past decade the budgets and production values of Christian movies have steadily improved — but the plots and dialogue not so much. They still kind of hammer the audience with a message. I want to see movies so stunningly artistic that even the secular critics are impressed. Certainly Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ qualifies. Also, the Lee Strobel true quest The Case for Christ was impressive. A personal favorite of mine that didn’t get much acclaim was the quirky Little Boy — and the current Paul the Apostle of Christ was good enough to instill hope for more. I still haven’t seen the third God’s Not Dead film but I read enough in the reviews to put it well down my list of movies to see.
Oh, and another irritant is what I call religiporn. There are links to articles on my Facebook stream with clickbait titles like “Three Signs Christ’s Return is Near” or “Five Churches Experiencing Miracle Revival” or “The Megachurch Leader’s Deal with Satan” etc. Pornography is what titillates and I’m weary of the marketing of “Christian” magazines and websites designed to titillate.
Actually, anything that smacks of “Christian” marketing is a turn-off. I was always unnerved knowing that Pastor Joel read books about business models and marketing.
Anyway, the ennui, or perhaps acedia, of my current spiritual state brings me no joy in encounters with the generally wannabe hip plus heavily marketed contemporary nondenominational wannebe megachurch worship experience. Per St Paul, what I once counted as gain I now count as loss.
But somehow I think that’s part of the Lord’s plan. I do not think the Lord approves of any form of idolatry — even church.
He leads us into progressively deeper waters and not everyone’s journey is the same.