Reinhold Niebuhr on Entertainment Driven Churches…in 1927

There has been ample evidence demonstrating the steady decline of the Western church as we continue to push into a post-Christendom society. Many factors have been qualified and quantified as many individuals, organizations, and churches have sought to revitalize the existing Church by calling into question its current ideas and their resulting practices.

One such critique has been the ever-increasing entertainment quality of the today’s church. Surely, this has emerged from both the individualism and consumerism so rampant in the Western church today. Rather than the church being a community living as a family centered on Jesus in all areas, there are many examples of practices that point to the need for distracting entertainment as the unifying factor. Questions like, “Does the preacher give vibrant messages?”, “Is the music contemporary?”, “Is there a chance I’ll win a new car if I show up on Easter?” point to the reality of needing to consume things which will keep my attention above all else, particularly the Spirit.

Here is an extended quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that caught my attention as I was skimming through his book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Keep in mind this was written in 1927.

I wonder why it is that so many of the churches which go in for vaudeville programs and the hip-hip-hooray type of religious services should belong to the Methodist and Baptist denominations. The vulgarities of the stunt preacher are hardly compatible with either the robust spiritual vitality or the puritan traditions of the more evangelistic churches. Perhaps the phenomenon of which I speak is due merely to the size of the two denominations. They may have more showmen simply because they are big enough to have more leaders of all varieties. Certainly no church surpasses the Methodist in the number of men who posses real social passion and imagination. Nor are the old emotionally warm and naively orthodox preachers wanting in either church.

Nevertheless there is a growing tendency toward stunt services in both denominations. Perhaps it represents the strategy of denominational and congregational organisms which are too much alive to accept the fate of innocuous desuetude, which has befallen some other churches. Finding the masses, which they once attracted by genuine religious emotion, less inclined to seek satisfaction in religion, they maintain themselves by offering such goods in entertainment and social life as the people seem to desire.

When the naive enthusiasms of those generations, among whom religion is an emotional experience and not a social tradition, begin to cool, the churches which serve the new generations must either express religious feeling through devotion to moral and aesthetic values or they must substitute a baser emotionalism for the most religious feeling. Perhaps the prevalence of cheap theatricality among the churches of our great democracy is a sign of the fact that the masses in America have lost the capacity for unreflective and exuberant religious feeling before they could acquire the kind of religion which is closely integrated with the values of culture and art.

There is something pathetic about the effort of the churches to capture these spiritually vacuous multitudes by resort to any device which may intrigue their vagrant fancies. But it may not represent a total loss. The entertainment they offer may be vulgar, but it is not vicious, and without them the people might find satisfaction in something even cheaper.

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