Fish in a Barrel

This post is an expansion of a comment I made on Steeples and People in response to a post about communication and rhetoric. You should definitely check out Jenny’s blog to read her thoughts on the subject.

In my experience, the entire upfront Sunday service led by pastors and music pastors is about performance and/or a level of manipulation. There has not been a church I have served in as pastor (from traditional Baptist in Texas to seeker-sensitive evangelical in California) that we did not plan out the services to evoke a response or to try and draw out the people to take action in some form or another. As a speaker, pretty much everything I have done up front has been about me putting on a “good talk” – but I was often under the impression that I was being God’s mouthpiece.

In most services, music was used to support my messages emotionally. I always wanted up beat and lively music before speaking because I wanted people to be engaged and “pumped up” when I got on stage. And then, I would use music either throughout my messages or at the end to drive the point home and allow people to contemplate what had been said. It was very important for me to use music that emphasized what I was speaking on and led people to not only hear what I said, but “feel” it as well.

Looking back on it now, it saddens me to see the way I used my abilities as a communicator to emotionally manipulate people, specifically the teenagers I was leading. That is such a vulnerable age and their emotions are so easily swayed. And then with adults, many who come to church on Sundays emotionally tired, frustrated or depressed… pastors often evoke responses that aren’t so much spiritually based as they are emotionally. Certainly God might use our emotional ups and downs to shape our lives, but must we as pastors and leaders try and seize opportunities to foster emotions or decisions where there may be none?

It’s not so much that performing or evoking responses in people is a good or bad thing. Actually, it’s neutral. Any form of communication can be used for good or for bad. That’s not the point. (Again, check out Jenny’s blog for more on this discussion). The problem when it occurs in church is that there is an “unspoken implication” that since it happens within “these four walls called the church” that God must have somehow inspired it. We often automatically think that if our pastor says it, or our music pastor sings it… and then if I “feel” something, that God must be behind it.

To me, the whole Sunday experience is an area that pastors and leaders need to reevaluate. I became tired and weary of trying to evoke a spiritual response from people in this manner. It’s no accident that most Sunday services in churches around the world are held in buildings where there is a stage that the pastors lead from and the congregation sits in rows and pews like an audience. Sunday morning is a performance and no different than your local community theater (except often the quality isn’t as good). Put simply, if you are a decent speaker and you have a good worship leader you can get people to do almost anything. It’s really like shooting fish in a barrel.

28 thoughts on “Fish in a Barrel”

  1. What about the fact that the listeners are creating the problem – they passively sit there, wanted to be challenged just enough to feel a bit alive.I don’t know, are the ‘professionals’ catering for a need or creating it, maybe its a bit of both, and maybe ultimately its God giving both just what they want, sending a delusion because they refuse to believe the truth.

  2. I think the felt need to evoke a response comes from something I read from people in this culture wanting an “experience of God”. This drive could explain why “church producers” are trying to manufacture an experience of God artificially in the hopes of an actual experience happening. Its almost like the feeling is, if we create an atmosphere for worship then true worship will happen all the time.

  3. Dorsey, what about all the guys going around as church consultants and selling expensive a/v equipment? Are you trying to damage the economy?

  4. Fascinating discussion. Certainly, pulpits and microphones can be and are used to manipulate. However, perhaps the problem lies not in the venue, but at the heart of it. If pastors/worship leaders/spiritual leaders are attempting to evoke a “spiritual response” it’s not really a spiritual response, it’s an emotional response. Isn’t there a difference between true teaching/modeling versus manipulation?I’d love to hear more thoughts on this…

  5. I’ve stopped attending the bigger services at my church. Not because I don’t want to be there, but because every time I am there I feel that the whole service is just an emotional experience crafted to create a response. There is nothing genuine or sincere at all. I’m beginning to prefer smaller groups for spiritual community.

  6. I’ve found that the music selection is indicative of the type of sermon that will be preached, if not of the church’s beliefs itself. When I was in the Evangelical church way back when, the music was always upbeat and taken right from Christian Top 40 stations. Since I had just returned to the church after a ten year absence I was surprised by the music, but I figured ‘hey this is church. They must know what they’re doing.’The music did exactly what Steve has said it did, it pumped you up! It got you excited! It made you feel alive and powerful. The sad thing was that alot of time this feeling was the main focus of the service. We had to keep it going! I didn’t really hear about Jesus as Lord and Savior who died to take the punishment my evil deeds had earned me. No. I heard about a personal Jesus who was my friend and wanted to fix all my problems. I heard about “personal assitant” Jesus and the Jesus who is my power source. I listened to a sermon this past weekend online in a game called Second Life, where the worship director actually said, that when we raise our hands up in worship, that we are extending our jumper cables and are plugigng into our power source, who is God in Heaven. I almost walked out, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But why was I so shocked? This is typically the kind of message that follows songs like: Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord and If We Are the Body and Word of God Speak.Music can be an effective tool, but you have to decide beforehand what kind of response you want from your audience. You also have to determine what state you want them to be in before the sermon. If you use upbeat, energy-filled music that lifts people up, you’re gonna have a church full of people who want to do anything, except listen to what you have to say! Now, I personally like hymns and songs that evoke a feeling of revernece for God and His word. Those songs put me in a mindset where I am focused on God and all He has done for me through His Son Jesus Christ. I agree that worship leaders need to rethink what they are doing and are ultimately saying to the people sitting in the pews. Just which God are people at church following? The one revealed in the Bible or the one of man’s own creation?

  7. You can see something similar at rock concerts. Every once in a while, the lead singer will sit down during a break and talk about whatever the hell he wants to, and the audience will cheer for him because they’re caught up in the moment. …reminds me of that Ross/Marshall’s/Whatever commercial, actually, with the guy cheering after the singer explains where she got her outfit…

  8. <>What I mean is that you can walk into a typical evangelical church and ask 20 people, “What is this place about?” and hear 20 different sets of expectations. And it seems that there’s a guy at the front who’s either trying to meet ALL of those expectations (and meeting none in the process), or who says, “Your expectations are wrong. Look at things the way I do if you want God (aka me) to be happy with you.”<>For some reason the church is averse to/ignorant of the concept of consensus-building. Groups of people can function, with common goals and values. But everyone’s too obsessed with hierarchy and following outmoded systems of organization.

  9. Hi all,I stumbled upon this post and am confused whether it is accusatory of confessional?It seems that while the final thrust of the post is to provoke churches to recognize the self-absorbed nature of their Sunday services.However, if you (Steve) historically misused your God-given communications gifts to try to evoke responses from those you led, then is the problem the “Sunday morning experience” or your inability to properly steward the gifts/talents God has given you? In other words: who needs the rebuke? It sounds like for some time you saw the “Sunday morning experience” as self-focus (YOU tried to evoke, music was a set-up for YOU, etc.). If this is the case, I think it’s basic psychological projection to accuse “the church” of the dysfunction and spiritual immaturity you exhibited.I am currently part of a church where Sunday morning times together are special and important (not Important ;D ). However, we clearly and repeatedly set the expectation that Sunday is not enough,and that we (leadership) simply create spaces (of which our Sunday service is one) for people to come together and worship and learn and take “next steps” as follows or disciples of Jesus. We have a projector (*insert pomo gasp here* ;D ), but because neither myself or my leadership team assumes that because we have a projector (or great music or great speaker or…, etc.) God is going to be provoked (evoked?) to move (on account of our “modern” awesomeness), we are free to bring our best and leave it at God’s feet every week.Ultimately I guess I felt sad for you that you’ve felt that it’s your responsibility to give to people (on Sunday especially) what only God can. A lesson for all of us: Try to relax and let God do His thing when and where and how He chooses (even if that includes a (healthy) “modern” Sunday service!)I also hold great reservations in centering the “essential” (or only) purpose for community gathering around “being”, but maybe I’ll save those reflections until later.

  10. Steve and Jenny (there is a great picture of you on Dylan’s fridge by the way), I’ll give you a sort of counter argument. The problem is not that there is a teacher and listeners – how else would you describe how Jesus taught people (or how anyone teaches for that matter). There is absolutely nothing wrong with a trained minister studying and praying about a biblical passage all week long and then sharing its context or subtleties with faithful worshipers who seek to know more about their scriptures. In my mind, there are hundreds of problems with the kinds of services/shows that you are writing about. But these are not universal issues. In mainline churches the reading from the Lectern is the heart of the service. The bible is unmoved and is higher than the pulpit. It is also in the exact center (or the pinnacle) of the service suggesting its significance. The Homily (not sermonizing) follows the reading because it is a mere commentary. It is understood to be interpretive and imperfect. A true minister of the Church should never be the center of attention. The pulpit is lower than the Lecture and on the downward end of the service because it is a part of “humiliation”. For this reason the minister is also placed off to the side. The music as well is off to one side or comes from behind where the worshipers go unseen while the people are asked to “pray” along in silence or with like words. My church is not perfect. We have a huge social justice movement and have a lot of other things going for us but we are not perfect. I don’t mean to suggest that we are… but most of the complaints I hear from out-churched or emergent people are complaints that I don’t believe they would have in the vast majority of mainline churches. But that’s just my perspective.

  11. You can certainly make the argument that everything we do and say is rhetoric — communication with the intent to persuade.

  12. so…I guess what we REALLY should do is meet in a field somewhere, sit in a circle, have no instruments, sing every song on one single note with absolutely no influctions or emotions, the lyrics should be printed in “Arial” or “Times New Roman” font using plain black ink on recylced paper-or better yet memorized, and the entire group of ‘some-what believers’ (wouldn’t want to force them to actually commit to anything) should then read from the King James Bible in unison, with no additional commentary from anyone (thus ilimintating the temptation for elevating any one person).I really do not think of myself as some kind of champion for the modern church movement, but I am continually amazed at the amount of negativity-versus ANY kind of positive or constructive input-this community spews forth. As I’ve said many times now…nothing wrong with questioning…always question, but is that really the same as synical cheep shots?*and now I wait in silence for the wrath of SCP to desend upon me*

  13. steve (and all participants to this wonderful little discussion)I’ve left a pretty in-deapth response on jenny’s site, which I would love for you to toss your eyes at. I will attempt at keeping this one shorter (a summary, if you will).Balance. As steve alluded to. Out talents are utlimately from God, so they are not the issue. It is what we do with them where we get all messed up. It’s like the old: “guns don’t kill, people kill.” So, a healthy church must have an extensive set of checks and balances in place, to ensure that all stage participants are constantly being reminded that it’s not about them…it’s about God. It’s not about who is sitting in the pews either…it’s about God. But we are still humans, and therefore we must ‘communicate’ (to use that dangerous word) in an appropriate fashion.The counter part to this, is the non-stage participants state of mind and spirit. Are we really getting that hung up on the song selection? So what if the Fish (Christian radio) makes you want to throw up (and yes, that includes me!). Who’s fault is that? Is that really what’s keeping me from having some meaningful worship with my fellow brethren? Is the speakers whimsical humor or nifty powerpoint really going to get in the way of what God might be trying to show me?I am, and have been for a number of years, envolved in ‘church production’ (reader may interpret freely…), and have as a result become extremely critical of churches that “screw it up”. Be it the ‘sound guy’ behind the mixer, or the ‘quasay punk alternative whogivesafuck’ music (and i use that term loosely), I can EASILY let it drive me up the wall (and it all to often does). But is that really important? Am I leaving room for God/Spirit?As much as we must hold our leaders accountable to their actions, so must we check ourselves…every day. And believe it or not, there are such places that are doing a pretty darn good job at it. (Newsflash, nobody is going to get it perfect…that place is called Heaven!)

  14. I agree with the general point of your post but I don’t believe it has to be that way. I occassionally play guitar or sing at church and there isn’t that kind of planning-for-the-Spirit mentality with our group of believers. It is refreshing because I grew up in the Calvary Chapel movement where your sets always looked like this:ne Fast, one medium, two slow, one medium, [ending depended on coordination with pastor over what mood he wanted to leave everyone in].So I’m with you but there are churches that have the same general Sunday service structure that are also far more organic, relational, intimate, and missionally minded.

  15. Jamie…<>If pastors/worship leaders/spiritual leaders are attempting to evoke a “spiritual response” it’s not really a spiritual response, it’s an emotional response.<>Indeed. “The power of suggestion.”Dorse…<>The only real purpose I can see in scripture for us to get together is that of “being” together. Choose your buzzword; relational, intentional, authentic, organic, whatever. I think the best church happens as we experience the everyday stuff of life together. You don’t need a projector for that.<>Agreed.The early Christians didn’t go to synagogue week after week and listen to a sermon about whatever, sitting in pews where they could see only the back of someone’s head. They went to each other’s homes, interacted with each other, and shared a meal. Sometimes they prayed. Maybe there was some singing. Perhaps someone gave an exhortation.The more I think about it, the more I’m becoming convinced that church as we know it now is just an effed up, bastardized, sanitized version of the above. *sigh*

  16. Well said, Eric. I propose a new kind of church. In it, the congregation will be continually pelted with rotten fruit and soiled beanie babies throughout the service. THen you’d know for sure that any spiritual experience you had was real.Steve, I think this is the kind of church we should have on the SCP compound.

  17. <>“… I am continually amazed at the amount of negativity-versus ANY kind of positive or constructive input-this community spews forth.”<>I don’t think you’re altogether wrong. Steve has noted here many times that we’re long on bitching and short on solutions. So then, what is it you want to construct?

  18. As Ha Kohen sort of suggests, is the manipulation more pronounced in evangelical churches? It seems to me that one of the things that drives the appeal of the emotional, “supernatural” type of gathering is a sort of temptation to seek proof for faith. If I can go to Toronto and get manipulated into a 30-minute laughing fit, well doesn’t that “prove” that God is real? I mean, I wouldn’t do that on my own, so it must have been God, right? Faith is called “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb.11:1, Cheers!). Is all the clamoring for some sort of outward manifestation merely an attempt to short-circuit the need to simply believe? Will goosebumps really help my unbelief? If, indeed, they will, then how many times?I think most of our problems with church boil down to the fact that it didn’t turn out to be what we expected it ought to be. It certainly isn’t what we were promised.

  19. I worked the sound system for a short time about 12 years ago, but during that time I really felt like the whole service was a show.The music was ok but deteriorated as people left the church. My pastor’s sermons were always relevant and incisive. But at the back of my mind, the whole thing was nothing more than a production – any interaction with the Living God was merely coincidental.

  20. What I have a problem with is that all the while there are great programs and catchy songs and big light shows–the people still get left behind. Pastors spend hours making cool-looking powerpoints while their parishoners need counsel and could be falling away. When the focus is on evoking a feeling–you are not in tune to the present feelings of the congregation–it is like pouring wine into an upside down cup–the wine is good and expensive, but it is wasted until you look at the cup and turn it to where it can hold the wine. Personally this is very important. My church had amazing powerpoint, great songs, videos, etc….and I de-converted from the faith this past month. Obviously the program cannot make up for a lack of substance or truth. thanks peace

  21. What I mean is that you can walk into a typical evangelical church and ask 20 people, “What is this place about?” and hear 20 different sets of expectations. And it seems that there’s a guy at the front who’s either trying to meet ALL of those expectations (and meeting none in the process), or who says, “Your expectations are wrong. Look at things the way I do if you want God (aka me) to be happy with you.” Lowend says nobody’s going to get it perfect. I agree, but only because the basis of the idea is screwed up to begin with. The only real purpose I can see in scripture for us to get together is that of “being” together. Choose your buzzword; relational, intentional, authentic, organic, whatever. I think the best church happens as we experience the everyday stuff of life together. You don’t need a projector for that.

  22. Great post!I have to agree with you… I have started to realize the same things over the past couple of years.I grew up in church, and always “assumed” that what happened in church was from God.It’s usually just a big show. Maybe it’s well intentioned, the leaders believe that it’s more than a show, but usually, that’s all it is.Different church = different show.The problem is that we “have” church at all… As Shelley mentioned above, this is not how the early “church” functioned. We are supposed to “be the church”, not “go to church”.

  23. <>“For some reason the church is averse to/ignorant of the concept of consensus-building.”<>In many ways, it is. But, at the same time, there’s no room for dissent. It’s a little schizophrenic.

  24. <>I think most of our problems with church boil down to the fact that it didn’t turn out to be what we expected it ought to be. It certainly isn’t what we were promised.<>Dorsey FTW.

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