Monday, August 10, 2009

Should the church try to entertain? OR Christians aren't that funny

Joel Stein who writes for Time Magazine certainly comes across as smug and condescending. He is also no fan of Christians who take their confession seriously. In an article he wrote for in July he puts these "qualities" on display. However, he also stumbles upon some truth. What is more, his article prompted me to ask again what the church is thinking when it seeks to entertain. Stein writes about a visit he made to Saddleback Community Church, specifically to their improv group.

Stein writes:
There are many things Evangelical Christians are good at, such as bake sales and talking to me on planes. They're less adept at other things, such as comedy and fighting lions. Christians aren't funny because they tend to be literal-minded. Also because they're sad about having had sex with only one person. So when Kevin Roose, author of the excellent new book The Unlikely Disciple, told me that Rick Warren's giant Saddleback Church has its own improv group, for the first time in my life, I felt my calling. I may not be the Woody Allen or Jon Stewart of the secular world, but in the land of the unfunny Christian, the one-joked Jew is king.

I called improv-troupe leader Ron Ruhman and asked if I could perform with the group at one of their monthly Saturday-night shows. He graciously invited me out. And then graciously asked me to try not to curse onstage. I arrived at the college-campus-size Orange County church on a Saturday afternoon. After being taught various improv games with the five members of the troupe, none of which involved the Bible or moral lessons, I asked them what the difference was between secular and Christian improv. "We're dirtier," said Jeremy Bryan Barnes. Then he explained why they weren't doing Christian comedy. "When we started, we'd get requests from groups to do jokes about Noah. But it wasn't fun. We'd work too hard to work in Noah. It's our job to entertain." Their goal, Barnes explained, was to give people a way to get friends to the church who have turned down an invitation to a service. This made sense until I thought about the kind of person who would say, "I'm not interested in eternal salvation, but I'd love to spend a Saturday night in a small conference room watching Christian improvisational comedy!"

Wow! I don't even know where to begin. Perhaps churches that are under the impression that lost people are waiting on pins and needles for the church to become more entertaining ought to rethink their assumptions.

Here is what goes through your mind during 90 minutes of Christian improv: "No, no, can't say that, nope, maybe if ... no." In response to a game in which we had to communicate a murder scenario to one another in gibberish, our audience shouted its increasingly bland ideas with fervor: "Turtle!" "Balloon!" "IHOP!" "Bowling!"

When one sinner yelled "Uranus!" our troupe member repeated it as "Urahnus." We even had to change the classic "guy walks into a bar, and the bartender says" scenario into "guy walks into a restaurant, and the manager says." This was one tight ahnus-ed group.

That said, Christian audiences will laugh at anything, since they are either so nice or so unaware of any entertainment other than Seventh Heaven. Puns proved to be a big hit, as was anything involving eating or pooping. My troupe mates were impressively funny within those boundaries, but after a while, I couldn't take the comedy shackles. During a version of the game Jeopardy!, someone shouted the answer "Milk!" to which I nervously buzzed in with "What is a movie they'd never play at this church?" To my relief, this got a laugh. So when we had to make up rhyming greeting cards for imaginary events and an audience member yelled out "Going to an improv show!" I said, "Improv is scary to do/ Especially when the whole audience wants to convert you."

Afterward, lots of supernice Christian people complimented my Christian-bashing jokes, including Tony Guerrero, Saddleback's director of creative arts, who also throws a jazz and Shakespeare festival at the church. I asked him what exactly the point of all this was, and he said, "If you look back in history, most of the arts were done for the church. All the music of Bach and Mozart was written for the church. We'd like it to be a hub for the arts again." Even back in the Renaissance, for every Michelangelo, there were probably five guys on a stage desperately trying to come up with poop jokes.

And while Saddleback gets criticized for being plush — with its on-campus sand volleyball courts, skateboard park and concert theater — and straying from its central missions of proselytizing and charity, I think it's great that the congregation is branching out. I want there to be more kinds of comedy and music and art. I'm just glad I'm not one of the poor Evangelicals who let themselves see only Christian versions of those things. Because I can't be there every month to save the show.

It seems to me that the contemporary church often has a hard time distinguishing between entertainment and art between kitch and the transcendent. In recent decades the church has had a very troubled relationship with the arts. The days of Reubens, Bach, and Watts are over. Now we have Kincaid, Tomlin, and LeHaye. Nothing against those later mentioned. I would not want to be compared, for instance, to Charles Spurgeon. This does however demonstrate how far we've come (or fallen).

Your thoughts?

What ought to be the church's relationship with entertainment?

Have we confused entertainment with the arts?

What do you believe are the expectations of the typical lost person that agrees to visit a church service?

How might those expectations differ from or resemble the expectations of the average church-goer?


Kimberly said...

Hi Todd,

Interesting post. Before engaging in the question/answer portion, wanted to comment that reading/hearing how we're perceived by non-believers always makes me cringe a bit. Yikes!

Anyway, some random thoughts to your question: "What do you believe are the expectations of the typical lost person that agrees to visit a church service?"

I think the typical lost person might expect some of the following:

1. This is going to be boring and irrelvant to anything in my life.
2. I'll probably be confused (we Christians love our "secret" lingo).
3. They'll try to make me feel guilty about SOMETHING (after all -isn't that what Christianity is all about -- feeling guilty).
4. Money will come up somehow.
5. I'm going to feel uncomfortable with all the show of emotion.
6. I don't like "church" music.
6. The pastor will probably put me to sleep.

Hence, perhaps we feel the need to "entertain," because we're so desperate to be relevant (and to be accepted).

However, I do believe humor can be very effective in a church service. I think what draws people in is being "relate-able." It's very possible to have humor (and good humor) that points to life experiences to which we all relate. Used wisely, humor helps build bridges -- which in the long run may earn us a receptive, willing ear to more weighty, life-altering topics such as the Gospel.

melledge said...

Interesting article. My 2 cents...

I'm of the opinion that pretty much all Christian "entertainment" comes off as cheesy. My primary reason is that as Christians, we seem to believe that any form of creativity must, in some direct way, contain all essential elements of our faith. I always cringe when a Christian movies gets to the inevitable, obligatory "salvation scene" where the protagonist usually "prays the prayer" on camera. We are creative creatures with a desire to entertain and be entertained. Why DON'T we offer something to the world other than the garbage on TV? And it can still be "Christian" without being based on a Biblical character or having a "salvation scene."

Not saying we should focus on that and be completely distracted by it. The primary purpose of the Church is to spread the gospel and reach out to the community in a meaningful way. But there are many creative people. They should use the gifts God gave them. If it's to humor people with improv, then that's what they should do. Maybe the skit itself doesn't lead to salvation, but perhaps the opportunity to build relationships will.

Bill Legge said...

I didn’t realize there would be homework when I started reading this. Joel Osteen doesn’t give homework.

I am going to respond to this much the same way I would respond to my assignments when I was in school. That is to say; I am going to completely ignore the questions as asked, and write about something different. Sort of.

Christians can be funny, Christianity isn’t. The message that eternal damnation is rightly deserved by everyone is not exactly a topic from which to mine comedic gold. Similarly, the message that salvation is due entirely to the grace of God, by faith through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ is a message that requires a seriousness that no other matter is deserving of. But I still think it’s possible to be funny, and that being funny can break down walls that make the listener more receptive to the message.

There seem to be multiple issues complicating the opportunity for humor in the church. One, it seems to me, has to do with the make up of a congregation. Some view the church as a place that requires a stoic seriousness in the worshipping of God. I certainly think that makes sense considering the depth and importance of the matter. However, I, personally, crave some sort of levity after about twenty minutes of deep, soul penetrating, truth. I’m not suggesting that the church have clowns juggling on unicycles at twenty minute intervals. Clowns are creepy. But a well placed anecdote that has relevance and is funny is welcome. And if you want to throw in a “a Priest, a Rabbi, and a Baptist minister” joke I won’t object.

The second issue, most likely prompted by the first, is the reluctance of the speaker to break from strict, solemn, observance of the Scripture to relate a funny anecdote to reinforce the point. I’m generally more emotionally fatigued after a sermon like this, but I understand the thinking.

The third issue I’ve seen is what some churches book as entertainment outside of the Sunday sermons. While Christians can be funny, Christian comedians rarely are. I think this has more to do with the first two issues than it has with the notion, only secular comedians can be funny. I think that Christian comedians want to use comedy as a platform to declare the message of the Gospel. That is good. What’s not good is that they either back themselves into a corner with a “stricter than puritan” moral code that prohibits topics other than the most banal. Or they are so politically correct that only a few topics remain on the table. Both undermine their credibility. If you bill a comedy show it ought to be funny. A few may have a good, original, joke, but I’ve never heard any that can put together more than one or two. I realize that funny is relative, which brings me to my forth issue.

Happy Christians aren’t funny to me. They may be funny to other happy Christians, but I don't get it. Great comedy is usually born out of tragedy. Some who suffer use humor as a coping mechanism for that suffering. Those who are talented at it get HBO specials. The problem is that Christians recognize the greatest tragedy, and we have a much different coping mechanism for this in Christ. The thing is, if one’s investing the energy in faith in Christ in order to cope with suffering, it becomes less necessary for a few clever one liners. It also means we're still suffering.

What ought to be the churches relationship with entertainment? Well, if the church really is to be a community, then I think the church needs to embrace it as a community as a necessary part of communal fellowship. I think holding entertaining events for the body can strengthen the body. Please, just no clowns.

Do I get partial credit?

Fusion! said...

After reading this, I'm reminded of the latest post at iMonk in which he linked to an Australian reporter who goes to a mega church. It's a tough read especially because his gay friends liken their experience unto "Australian Idol". I hope if there is a cut off point, in our use of entertainment, it is at that. The line between being entertaining and being relevant can't be that broad.

Todd Pruitt said...

No doubt about it. Christians do a lot of "cringe worthy" things.

I tend to run the opposite direction of "Christian movies" and most "Christian music." Most of it is simply not very good.

"Why DON'T we offer something to the world other than the garbage on TV?" Good question. The church can be a powerful redemptive presence through being distinctively different not just different in degree.

"Christians can be funny, Christianity isn’t." I like that. I may use it.

"Australian Idol" - Ouch!

Pete Morris said...

The more you know the less funny life and death are. Along with knowledge comes great sadness as my 20 year old son observed.

And yet my people die for lack of knowledge. I just have a hard time with stand-up comedians in the pulpit and preachers of truth-lite, but not much is funnier (in a sad funny way) than to laugh at myself trying to be good.

Sorry just a few random thoughts your post brought to mind.
blessings in your later years

Todd Pruitt said...

Are you saying that you are in your later years?

Pete Morris said...

All our years are later than earlier. But you will have later years than I since my later will come earlier.

I'm sorry again for the randomness.

I spent Sunday night listening to man describe Adult Bible Fellowship much the like the late Friends tv show and that tv show with the bar "where everybody knows your name."

I know what you are thinking, "shut up Pete and get Frazier another beer."