Theater Church

Spectacles for Spectators

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

And do not become idolaters as were some of them.
As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink,
and rose up to play.”
(1 Corinthians 10:7, NKJV)

“Believers, Beware!” EXODUS-THIRTY-TWO may soon be coming to a theater near you!

Don’t we remember how as Moses was receiving the Law from God on the mount above, the nation of Israel was worshipping gods in the camp below? “Come, make us a god who will go before us” they had demanded of Aaron. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt,” they disdained, “we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). The idolaters, it seems, could not stand a ho-hum waiting in faith for Moses to come down to them. They needed something more, something new, and something “now.” So finding himself to be an accommodating user-friendly and seeker-sensitive leader, Aaron caved in to the demands of the crowd. They needed gods they could reach out and touch, and above all else, feel. So Aaron called for donations. The people, mostly women and children, brought him their “sacrifices of praise.” After smelting the jewelry, Aaron fashioned an idol and then called for a celebration of praise to honor the golden calf the next day. That’s the kind of worship that happened then; and that’s the kind of worship happening now.

Simulating Sinai

Were the accommodating Aaron a leader in a contemporary church, he would have called for the worship team—a drummer, lead singers, and guitarists—to be assembled, the electrical crew to ready the “sanctuary” with the newest audio-visual equipment including multiple giant screens on which to project a fast paced collage of images, and the sound techs to coordinate the flashing strobe lights with the pulse of the drum beat, and to time the release of a fireworks display that would flash, bang, and belch forth smoke as the worship reached a frenzied climax. All of this, and perhaps more, could be employed to recreate the narrative of Israel’s Sinai experience (See Exodus 19:18-19; Exodus 32:17-18.).

“Kicking it up a notch!”

But to what has become a tired and predictable way of doing contemporary church, an even more entertaining way is being proposed. To use the words of a cable TV comedian-chef, The Church of the Spectacle now desires to “kick” the recipe for doing worship up another notch, to add more “bam” to the worship experience.

Believing that the way most pastors communicate the Gospel is too “mummified,” one young Emerging ex-pastor has assembled a cast and crew to present to audiences of church leaders and workers what he calls Story. Note: the title is not The Story, but just Story. Story is just another of the ongoing narratives of the Gospel metanarrative. Used in the formation of compound words (like metanarrative), the word meta is “a learned borrowing from Greek meaning ‘after,’ ‘along with,’ ‘beyond,’ ‘among,’ ‘behind,’ and often denoting change . . .”[1] A key idea in defining the word metanarrative is, “denoting change.” To the Emerging church, it’s all about the synthesizing story below to affect the evolving story above. The narrative on earth–story–influences the metanarrative above–The Story. The comprehensible experiences of the continuing story below mystically contribute to the incomprehensible, but still evolving, metanarrative. The change is necessary for as the emerging pastor states, “story-telling, along with passion, is greatly lacking in churches and ministry today.”[2] But just what is Story?

Inspired by the imaginary tales of C.S. Lewis, emerging ex-pastor Ben Arment remarks of his version of Story, that, “I believe in the power of stories. Stories captivate us. They awaken our hearts and release our imaginations.”[3] So he is assembling a number of “master” communicators to one stage for what he calls a “theatrical conference experience.” Scheduled to debut this fall, Story will, in addition to the master communicators, “feature music, drama, comedy and interactive exchanges with attendees. The goal is to create a place where Gospel communicators can be inspired to be better and more effective at what they do.”[4] Arment explains, “We’re setting it in the context of a theatrical environment to play up the storytelling elements of the Gospel to make it more exciting, more appealing and draw out the essence of what our story is . . . think of it as a dinner theater.”[5]

The “theater” approach to doing church raises questions both to the means and the message whereby the Christian faith is communicated.

The Means

Arment states that, “I think communicators largely have lost the imaginative qualities of the Gospel.”[6] When taken to the excess, human imagination can become spiritually dangerous. Imagination becomes the inspiration for innovation which can end in idolatry. As Paul explains the devolution into pagan idolatry, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. . . . [and they] changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things” (Emphasis mine, Romans 1:21, 23, KJV). It is exactly at this point that the entertainment of “theater” involving the creativity of music, drama, comedy, and image, enters into the realm of idolatry, for as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23). As Hunt warns,

Having left the God as revealed in nature and conscience, one is left with his own imagination to recast God as he pleases. People worship the God of their own mind. The rejecter moves away from light and into darkness. At this stage a person is not searching for God, groping for Him as it were, but rather creating a worldview in which to live so that the weight of guilt does not have to be felt. [7]

To guard against idolatry’s intrusion into the national life of ancient Israel, the Lord gave the first and second of the Ten Commandments to the nation—“Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness that of any thingis in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth . . .” (Exodus 20:3-4). To discourage human creativity from leading to idolatry, the Lord specified exactly what would be allowed in the construction of the Tabernacle to honor His name and house the Shekinah presence (Exodus 26:1 ff.). Presumably His concern was that creativity would lead to idolatry. This explains why altars were to be built with uncut stones—“And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it” (Exodus 20:25, NKJV). As Paul told the Athenian philosophers, “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29). Herein is the foreboding danger for the theater church.

The Message

The name of the production is Story. The ex-pastor and now-producer implies that Story is a continuing narrative of a greater metanarrative. The relationship of Story to the Emerging church’s evolving metanarrative of spirituality, and the implications of it for the authority of Holy Scripture in the church, needs clarification. I offer my take.

To Emergents, the Bible is viewed to be a recorded compilation of various individual’s experiences with God. These story-narratives form part of a greater story that exists beyond human comprehension, the metanarrative. In and by itself, the Bible is not The Story, or metanarrative, though it makes a significant contribution to it. The metanarrative lies above and beyond the Bible, which is comprehensible. Thus the stories in the Bible function as invitations to readers to enter into the spiritual experience of the developing metanarrative which, when entered into, allows persons to experience God in a fresh new way, and like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther and the prophets, make their contributions to the evolving metanarrative. Individual stories don’t necessarily, though they may, carry meaning in isolation from the stories of others. But people from all faith groups–animist, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, etc.–are invited and encouraged to compare and exchange narratives with one another to discover the mutuality of their spirituality, the creative and innovative ways in which God works in their lives. As Eugene Peterson says,

We want a spirituality that is world-embracing, all-experience-encompassing. Our sense of life is huge–we are in touch with Asians and Africans and Slavs, with Native Americans and South Americans. We are finding out about the remarkable spiritualities in Australian bush aborigines and the people of South African Kalahari. How can we be satisfied to be people of one book? [8]

Or as Elaine Pagels puts it,

What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions–and the communities that sustain them–is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery, encouraging us, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek and you shall find’. [9]

To summarize these views: Like a motivational speaker, the biblical narratives serve to inspire and invite persons to experience God, to enter into the narrative to discover if perchance, God might work in them as He did with the biblical characters. Though not inspired, the Bible does serve to be an “existential-inspirational” stimulant for spiritual seekers. The stories of the Bible invite readers to “experience” God in a fresh way, and make their contribution, however small, to the evolving and changing metanarrative, The Story of God’s continuing dealings with spiritual people from all religious groups.

In part, this scheme of spirituality may explain why Emerging Christians speak so adoringly about the narratives of the Scriptures, but do not equally embrace their didactic counterparts; because for them, doctrines, confessions, and creeds imply a fixity and finality to The Story. Thus, two young non-emergent authors write: “Defining the emerging church is like nailing Jell-O to the wall.”[10] Later, they observe: “The emerging church thrives on eschewing definition, of itself and of its theology.”[11] This is to be expected because for the emerging church, doctrines imply definiteness about belief and spirituality which they, in their postmodern bent of mind, disdain. Any claim of “definiteness” would limit and impede their spiritual interchanges with the devout from other faith and religious narratives. For purpose of supplementing the grand metanarrative with their own faith journeys, emergents need their spirituality, as that of others, to be in flux, not final, so that together, all might come to worship at the shrine of their personal and mutual experiences.

Admittedly, the “narrative” form of literature (i.e., the Gospels) comprises the greatest portion of Holy Writ, but it does so as the counterpart of the didactic or teaching form (i.e., Paul’s epistles). Both forms complement each other. For example, the Gospels (narrative) inform us that Jesus died and rose again, while Paul’s letters give theological explanation as to why Christ died and rose again. In other words, the didactic elucidates the narrative. Thus, the Bible is more than just a collection of inspirational “stories.” The Bible really does inform us concerning the culminating salvific work of God in the world (See Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Peter 1:20; Jude 3.). As the record testifies, there is finality regarding the incarnation and the redemption wrought by Christ (John 1:14; 1 John 2:2).

Paul, The ‘Unhip’ Communicator

Paul would have eschewed and avoided doing ministry by incorporating the glitzy pizzazz and cool communication after the manner of a theater church. Upfront, he informed the Corinthians, “For Christ sent me . . . to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (Emphasis mine, 1 Corinthians 1:17, KJV). In this regard, the apostle tells us that, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ . . .” (Emphasis mine, 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, KJV).

Bringing together “master communicators” to Story contradicts the manner of Paul’s ministry, for about his ministry the apostle related

I . . . did not come [to you] with excellence of speech or of wisdom . . . For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. . . . And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom . . . that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (Emphasis mine, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, NKJV)

Then Paul later wrote about “feedback” he received from his audiences—“For his letters,” they say, “are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:9). Thus it can be observed that even in the apostolic age, audiences were more attracted to style than substance. So. with Story and its “master communicators” and theatrics, one must think that the medium will corrupt, if not obstruct the message.


Four decades ago one liberal theologian wrote that the Scriptures were only authoritative

. . . insofar as it provides clarifying images which illuminate experience . . . Theology within this framework articulates the meaning of the inherited tradition of the Christian community in the light of empirical knowledge supplied by the sciences. It makes use of the resources of the philosophical community and of other religious traditions. It seeks to incorporate insights available from literature and the arts. [12]

After stating good theology will use any contemporary source that will assist “in making sense out of the meaning of human life,” the theologian goes on to state that

The Bible . . . is not to be regarded as an arbitrary dictator of dogma, [or] as an infallible source of truth . . . in religion . . . Rather [the Bible] is self-authenticating as an especially rich treasury of ideas, symbols, ideals, and models of God and man. . . . The Bible is to be believed because it actually functions to make sense out of experience . . . The final test . . . of religious truth is the intuition of the individual person. [13]

The issues of spirituality raised by Story could, and perhaps should, ignite a controversy similar to that which besieged the Byzantine church from the middle of eight to the middle of the ninth century (717-843 AD). Then, “The dispute involved church and state over the presence of paintings, mosaics, and statutes in churches . . ..”[14] In those centuries they contended over their images. In this century, we perhaps ought to be contending over the imaginings aroused by theater church which, without conscience, employs “music, drama, comedy,” and much more.

It is impossible to see how the emotiveness of theater church will serve in any way to promote the mind of Christ in believers by reining in our thoughts in to the obedience of Jesus Christ. So “Believers, Beware!” EXODUS THIRTY-TWO may soon be coming to a theater near you!

The Truth:

“Also, thou son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord. And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. And when this cometh to pass (lo, it will come,) then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:30- 33)

1. Laurence Urdang, Editor in Chief, The Random House College Dictionary, Revised (New York: Random House, Inc., 1988) 839.
2. Lillian Kwon, “Improving the Storytelling of the Gospel,” The Christian Post, Fri, Jun. 26, 2009 Posted: 06:46 PM EDT ( “Story” is geared toward anyone who communicates the Gospel, including pastors, children’s leaders, teachers, authors, and those in the creative arts team or worship team.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Arthur W. Hunt III, The Vanishing Word, The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003) 161.
8. Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book, A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006) 44.
9. Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003) Inside flyleaf of the hard cover edition.
10. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We’re not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) 16-17.
11. Ibid. 78.
11. Emphasis mine, Kenneth Cathen, Christian Biopolitics: A Credo & Strategy for the Future (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971) 113-114. My thanks to Sarah Leslie for supplying this citation.
12. Ibid.
13. Peter Toon, “Iconoclastic Controversy,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Revised Edition, J.D. Douglas, General Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978) 498.
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006) 498.