Perhaps it’s my age, or maybe it was the weather, but recently on a hot summer’s day I got to thinking about my boyhood in northern Indiana when every summer the carnival came to town. It was a big event and teh equipment always set up on a large vacant lot at the corner of Main Street and Columbus Drive. You couldn’t miss it. The carnival stayed in town for a week and temporarily distracted the bored children from facing the fact that school would soon be starting. This was our last fling.
But I didn’t reminisce about the freaks or the games and prices. I got to thinking that the carnival had a lot to say to our churches today and to me as a preacher.
To begin with, the carnival always drew a big crowd that didn’t do anything together except be in the same place, spend money and try to have a good time. It was American individualism at its best, not unlike some church crowds today (I hesitate to call them “congregations”) that aren’t united either in commitment or witness. They are only individuals, couples and families in the same place at the same time going through the same motions, sort of like the carnival crowd. Unity? Not likely. The carnival peddled what most people are still looking for today: entertainment that provides distraction. Those were the depression days and life was tough. An hour or two at the carnival might lift your spirits.
A local church should be a united family, not just a crowd of miscellaneous people assembled at the same address. A church is a family even when the buildings aren’t open! Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are members of the Body of Christ. We belong to Christ and to each other, and we must live like brothers and sisters in the Lord. This means arriving at church in time to get settled and be prepared to worship the Lord. If we were to visit the governor or the president of the United States, we would arrive early and be ready; so why should we treat the Lord as though worshiping Him isnt’ really important? In many services, the opening song shouldn’t be the Doxology but “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
But being in the crowd isn’t the same as being in touch with the Lord by faith. Many people were in the crowd around Jesus when that suffering woman touched the hem of His garment and was healed, but they didn’t experience the power and the blessing (Mark 5:21-34). Being together means encouraging one another, sharing one another’s burdens adn blessings, and praying for one another. Most of all, we need to worship the Lord together and by faith draw upon His strength and wisdom. Carnivals draw big crowds, but they are temporary gatherings and not organized for action. It’s one thing to build a crowd and quite something else to build a church.
Certainly we should seek to reach as many people as possible with the message of salvation, but we must exercise discernment when it comes to being a family in worship. Jesus doesn’t demand a big crowd before He will be present with His people. He visited ten frightened disciples on Easter evening, and He promised, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). If God doesn’t come to the meeting, the meeting was a failure.
The emphasis at the carnival was entertainment, and that seems to be the emphasis in too many churches today. My wife and I walked into a church one Sunday morning, and one of the greeters held out his hand and said, “Welcome! Come in and have fun!” I paused, looked at the man and said, “We don’t go to church to have fun. We go to church to worship God.” I held up my Bible and said, “Where in this book are we told that going to church should be fun?” By then the man was so paralyzed he didn’t know what to say.
Read your Bible and you will discover that being with God’s people may be anything but fun. Isaiah went to the temple as a worshiper, saw himself as a sinner and came out as a prophet (Isaiah 6)! Paul and Barnabas were fasting and praying with the assembly in Antioch and received a call to the mission field (Acts 13:1-3). The apostle John was worship in exile on the Lord’s Day and saw the whole panorama of prophecy (Revelation 1), which resulted in him falling on his face, weeping and beholding amazing sights.
We gather together to be edified, not to be entertained. There’s nothing evil about clean humor and an occasional smile or chuckle, but preachers are not stand-up comedians and musicians are not performers. The shallowness of “worship services” must grieve the Holy Spirit. In some churches, the study of the Bible in Sunday school and youth groups has been replaced by fun and games. The great god Entertainment has taken over and must be worshiped, no matter how much time and money it may take. After all these years, the church hasn’t learned that we don’t have the resources to put on the kinds of “shows” that the world puts on–nor does God want us to! In fact, the lost world expects something different at church from what they get in local theaters and night clubs.
I fear that in some of our churches, technology has replaced prayer and the Holy Spirit. The people at the control board attempt to manipulate the congregation by changing the lights, adjusting the volume (usually higher), and producing special effets. Too oten preaching is not “in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:5) so that Jesus is exalted, but only a demonstration of human talent and personality that entertains many but converts nobody. If they had eyes to see as they leave the church edifice, the people would behold Jesus standing outside the door knocking, trying to get in.
(All rights reserved. Copyright Warren W. Wiersbe. Not to be used without permission.)
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).