This fall, a film documenting the rise of Australia’s Hillsong, and the multiplatinum-selling band United, finally hits theaters. Early looks at the film are stunning.
United is one of a handful of modern worship bands who regularly draw tens of thousands to massive services, complete with intricate light shows, rock ‘n’ roll style stadium anthems and professional musicians who write songs that are sung by millions of people every week.
Bands like United, Jesus Culture, Planetshakers, Desperation and others bring worship music to audiences around the globe, exposing millions to songs centered on devotion to Jesus and His message.
But, just like any large movement in modern evangelicalism, the explosion in popularity of modern worship isn’t without its critics.
The common refrain from critics of modern worship is essentially this: Many modern church-goers have conflated entertainment and worship. They are unable to separate their desire to be entertained—by good music, fancy services, funny sermons, cool church settings—and the spiritual disciplines, many of which are predicated on denying yourself of comfort and earthly pleasures.
These are valid concerns. The New Testament regularly talks about the importance of “dying” to yourself and relying on God. The concept of fasting is grounded in this principle: By denying our most primal desire—eating—we can tap into something deeper spiritually.
In Hebrews, we are even told that God desires “a sacrifice of praise.” A sacrifice is, after all, something that costs us something.
So, does that mean that worship music shouldn’t also be entertaining, or at least contain elements associated with “entertainment value”? If not, where’s the line? How stripped down do our corporate expressions of worship need to be? Do they really need to be void of any “entertainment value” to be raw, sacrificial expressions of devotion?
If worship music is made with the sole intention of entertaining others without focusing on God, obviously there is an issue. But there are times when the culmination of talents and creative expression in response to God will be captivating to others.
Maybe the question isn’t if worship be allowed to be entertaining. Maybe the real question is whether we have the proper view of worship in the first place.
A Time for Everything
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Bible describes the idea of different seasons of life—a “season for every activity under the heavens.”
These are patterns of life and death, joy and grief, planting and reaping, that are built into creation itself. Among the poetic juxtapositions (“a time for kill and a time to heal,” “a time for keep and a time to throw away,” “a time for war and a time for peace”) are these lines:
A time to weep and a time to laugh
A time to mourn and a time to dance
Israel’s King David was a man familiar with both sides of this spectrum. His Psalms of weeping, grieving, humility and crying out in times of sorrow are a major part of his writings; but, alongside them, are calls to dance and sing.
A talented musician himself, his Psalms are filled with calls to make great music that drive people to dance in joy at the glory of God and His promises:
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing, and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.
For David, often times, worship music sounded like a good time.
Even Jesus himself understood the power of engaging followers through non-traditional “teaching-methods.” He didn’t just preach sermons; Jesus was a storyteller. He drew massive audiences with parables that taught deeper truths, while also crafting interesting, complicated narratives. The Bible itself isn’t just an academic book of instructions and details about God; God’s word is told through harrowing stories, real-life adventures and drama so rich that Hollywood regularly uses it as source material.
Is Entertainment Wrong?
We live in a culture that is driven by entertainment. Our phones have turned into gaming devices. Our commutes and workouts are filled with music and podcasts. Our evenings with binge-watching. Our free time with movies, TV, music, concerts and video games.
It’s only natural that our desire to be entertained—essentially to enjoy what we’re doing—would creep into our external expressions of spiritual devotion.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Spirituality—particularly Christianity—has long been one of the most important cultural forces in the arts. From Renaissance paintings to classic literature and some of the most recognized music ever written, Christian thought leaders and artists have been key figures in cultural innovation.
But, in all of these cases, the artists and writers fused excellence with their spiritual passions: Michelangelo’s “David” or Sistine Chapel Ceiling aren’t popular just because they are based on Christian imagery; it’s because they are aesthetically awe-inspiring. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress or C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia novels aren’t just timeless works of fiction because of their spiritual messages; it’s because they are well-written, smartly paced, enduring adventure stories that have captivated generations.
We typically don’t have an issue with other forms of art and culture combining aesthetic beauty and entertaining elements into their worshipful expressions of devotion. Why should we hold worship music to a different standard?
The real danger doesn’t lie with worship music that also happens to be “entertaining” in its composure and performance; it’s in our need to always be entertained in the first place. We still need to maintain a balance: Silence and celebration, joy and grief, dancing and kneeling. After all, it’s not about the activity or always what we want. It’s about God.
Back in Ecclesiastes, the Bible says that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh … a time to be silent and a time to speak.” We must not become so dependent on laughing, speaking and dancing that we forget that we must also find times to be silent, to weep and to mourn.
Jesus spent times in the desert alone. He also spent time feasting with friends. We are called to celebrate and foster community. But we are also called to be reverent and silent.
“Worship” isn’t a singular activity. There’s nothing wrong with engaging well-produced, large-scale, corporate music services—these can be powerful times of expressing our wonder at the glory and power of God. Their point isn’t to be “entertainment,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t be captivated by them. But they shouldn’t serve as a replacement for times of quiet prayer, solitude reverence, reflecting and studying his word—even if it isn’t “entertaining.”
Worship isn’t about meeting our own needs; it’s about finding ways to express our wonder at God’s holiness and bring Him glory.
We shouldn’t demand to be entertained. But we shouldn’t always feel like we must deny our natural, God-created impulses to make a “joyful noise” in response to the wonder of God. And we shouldn’t feel like there are certain technical limits (lights, film, music, drama or other artistic expression) that must be placed on “worshipful” expression. This too, is part of a balanced spiritual life, just like quiet devotion and careful study.
Just because something has elements associated with “entertainment,” doesn’t disqualify it from being worshipful. Game fans have reported weeping in response to God’s mercy while playing a video game. I’ve reflected in awe at God’s power while watching a nature documentary.
These types of worship experiences don’t replace times of humble reflection and reverent praise. But provide another way to incorporate worship into our lives.
If you are an artist using your talents and creativity to express awe at the glory of God, there’s a good chance what you create is going to be captivating to others. The most important element isn’t our means of expression, but the focus of that expression. Is it ourselves and our desire to be entertained? Or is it on God, and His majesty?
Through him then let us continually offer up ta sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:15–16).
Our mission is to bring God glory—through our words, our expressions of adoration, our commitment to serving others and to making disciples.
Ultimately, “worship”—the kind that God says He desires most—happens outside of a music service or the walls of a church building: It’s how we live our lives.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.