Fun at Church?

Anthony Robinson

Should church be fun? Is worship supposed to be a “feel-good” experience? A number of recent experiences have me wondering.

  • At his California Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller welcomes the television audience and assembled congregation saying, “This is a church where we can have fun!”
  • When I was in Minnesota recently for a speaking engagement, a pastor told me of his visit to a booming mega-church there in the land of 10,000 lakes. “The whole point,” he said, “was to make you feel good–and I did. I felt good.”
  • A new best-selling book for clergy, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, urges six critical choices, among them, “Choose Fun Over Drudgery.”
  • If there’s ever a moment when televised preacher and best-selling author Joel Osteen isn’t grinning, I have yet to see it.

At least in a number of churches these days the point seems to be to feel good. If the choice is fun versus drudgery, I’d take fun, too. But maybe that isn’t really the choice? To be sure, I do believe humor has a place in church and certainly so does authentic joy. “Joy,” said C.S. Lewis, “is the serious business of heaven.” The Westminster Catechism answered the question, “What is the chief end of man? ” with the response, “To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”

Sometimes people have left a worship service I’ve led and said, “I enjoyed that,” but then catch themselves and ask, “Is it OK to enjoy church…By all means,” I answer. Still, I worry about the current emphasis on fun and feeling good as the point of church or worship. What’s the problem? In many ways, optimism seems to be the real and official religion or creed of American culture. Feel-good church services fit right in with that.

But official optimism permits no sadness, no bewilderment, no acknowledgement of suffering or loss. I worry that when church is all about having fun and feeling good, we are no longer telling the truth about God or about ourselves. Religion, instead of being about the deepening of our lives, becomes silly and trivial.

Recently, Princeton Seminary professor Gordon Mikoski observed that the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper helps us to remember sorrow. “So much of American life is built on triumph and success and beauty and happiness… . The Lord’s Supper really isn’t about those things. It’s about remembering a very sad story about loss and death.”

To lift up sorrow and loss does two things, says Mikoski. “It helps people to deal with their own sorrow and loss, even feelings of godforsakenness. And it helps people move toward solidarity with others having such experiences.”

Not only does the contemporary emphasis on religion as fun and worship as feeling good deny a lot of reality and cause people to overlook suffering, it also misses the true point of worship. The point of worship becomes how I feel or what worship does for me. But that misses the point. If ever there were an hour in the week when “It’s not about you,” worship is it.

Leaving church one Sunday, a woman complained to her pastor, “Worship just didn’t do anything for me.” The pastor smiled as he said, “Well, thankfully, it wasn’t directed at you.” It was a gutsy response and a sound one, too. We’ve become a self-preoccupied people, given to asking “Do I like this? ” or “What does it do for me? ” or “Am I having fun?”

But perhaps our deepest need is a different one altogether. Not just to have fun or feel good; our greatest need is to forget ourselves. The true point is to be set free from our relentless preoccupation with ourselves. Instead of asking parwhether we’re feeling good or are entertained or are having fun every minute, religion asks us to lose ourselves in a truth and love, a mystery and purpose, greater than ourselves.

Jesus said something like this when he said, “He who loses himself will find himself.” The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said authentic spirituality means, “Forgetting ourselves on purpose, casting our awful solemnity to the wind and joining the General Dance.”

In the current preoccupation with having fun, being entertained and feeling good in church, religion misses its true calling.

Religion is not to simply mirror a culture back to itself. It is to create a window through which we can see more clearly; a window through which we see ourselves, one another, and the depth and dimension of life.

Anthony Robinson is a minister in the United Church of Christ who speaks and teaches nationally and is the author of many books and articles, including Transforming Congregational Culture (Eerdmans, 2003) and the award-winning What’s Theology Got to Do with It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church (Alban, 2006). This article originally appeared in the November 9, 2007, edition of the Seattle Post Intelligencer and is used by permission.