I recently heard about a church that puts on a large production each year based on pop culture each year on Easter. In the past they’ve done productions based on Star Trek, Batman, and this year they chose Star Wars.
Now, Chris Rosebrough has done an apt job at critiquing this production and practice, so I won’t go into details. However, I did want to provide a few thoughts on the matter.
The fact of the matter is this. This kind of approach to “evangelism” is riddled with problems. I wanted to highlight three problems today. There are many more that I could point to, but today I’m going to focus on three.
This Approach is Insulting to the Target Audience
Before college, I was part of a mega-church, with a mega-sized youth ministry. During the height of its size, the church was putting on two week-long summer camps for middle school students (7th-9th grade) which had 150 students each week. I remember that one of the most sought after roles on the leadership team was the skit team. I had the joy (not sarcastically saying that either) of playing the villain during one of the weeks. My character was “Dr. Devil” (pronounced like the word “evil” with a “D” on the front, and obvious pun) and it was patterned after the character “Dr. Evil” from the, then, popular movie franchise “Austin Powers.” Now, without analyzing the appropriateness or effectiveness of such a practice, it was clear that part of the strategy with the skits was to connect the students to a pop culture phenomena and then teach them the gospel through the story we crafted (which isn’t even what is happening in the Easter production in question). Typically we began with a character who was on the fence of making a decision for Christ, then the character would get swept up with the bad guys, who were attempting to draw them away from the faith, and finally they would recognize that they were sinners and be lead to faith in Christ by a camp leader (playing themselves) and defeat the bad guys in the climactic final night’s skit.
Now, lets assume that the church in question followed this pattern exactly. That through the course of their production the main character was essentially an allegorical representation of each person watching the show, and the hope was that as they watched the show they would see themselves and be moved to make the same decision the character did.
It seems to me, that we should in some senses, be a little concerned that we are using the same techniques and tactics to reach adults that are common in middle school. What’s next? Are we going to open Sunday worship services with a round of dodge ball? Are we going to have memory verses that are rewarded with a piece of candy in adult formation and education courses?
They are Deceptive
If I spent a million dollars advertising ‘This Easter come and hear how Jesus is enough… the Old Rugged Cross will be performed by the choir’… the only people that would come are those that already believe that Jesus is enough. Unfortunately our world has tuned out the gospel. They think they already know it, which of course they don’t! What non-christian people do know is Pop culture. Star Wars in particular is wildly popular and Disney has just paid $4B for franchise. This Easter we had somewhere over 6000 attend one of our 5 services.
The basic claim here is that there are people who heard the Gospel this weekend that otherwise would not have. While this may be the case, does this justify this shallow trick? This seems akin to me of telling your child that you’re going to the park, and stopping at the doctor’s office to get a shot first. Then telling them “Well, I didn’t lie, because we’re going to the park next.”
Dozens of them came to faith in Christ and filled out decision cards. They have been invited to a 4 week course that teaches them how ‘Jesus is enough’. These people were lost for all eternity last week and now they have discovered the gift of eternal life… but instead of rejoicing the modern-day pharisees become like those of old who objected, “It is not lawful to heal on the Sabbath”. (emphasis in original)
Praise God that dozens of people appear to have made a decision to follow Christ. I would be interested in tracking the spiritual progress of those dozens of people over the next 6 months, 1 year, and 5 years to see how many of those dozens of people demonstrate long-term fruit and a sustained confession in Christianity. It is quite easy to get people to say something in a moment, or to write something on a card. Actual conversion is a different story entirely. Faith does not come by expensive sets and cheap pop culture references. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. This bait and switch tactic relies on the same shady practices that are illegal in the retail world. “I know you came for the entertainment… but we are all out of stock. Try this Gospel instead.”
They are Ineffective
While the congregation can throw out numbers like “6000 people attended” and “dozens of decisions”… the reality is that this tactic is woefully inadequate to communicate the life-giving Gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It did succeed in drawing in people who normally do not grace the doors of the church. However, at least one couple left more confused about the Gospel than they did going in.
Chris Rosebrough reached out to this couple to interview them, and their responses were predictable. They did not understand the point of this, other than to put butts in seats. They commented that this might serve to draw people to come back, and possibly when they return (especially the youth) they might be taught something about Christianity, and that overall this did not add to their understanding of the Christian message (they actually said that it confused them more). There was no discernible tie in within the production to the Christian message, besides a possible allusion to resurrection when Luke Skywalker is frozen in carbonite (that’s right… Luke Skywalker… Jar-Jar is spinning in his computer generated and vaguely racist grave)… and that Darth Vader “might have been Judas.” Even the former Roman Catholic said that she couldn’t tell where the connections were supposed to be (she also commented that attending Mass on Sunday would expose you to more of the Bible than this did).
Now, to be fair, the church separated the show from the Sermon… and this couple left after the show and before the sermon. But that causes us to ask “How many of the 6000 attendees that the church sites actually stayed for the sermon, and how many left as this couple did.”
The members of this church spent over 300 hours making the set, learning lines, and producing content. I don’t even want to know how much money was spent on this… and if they obtained licensing (I have an INCREDIBLY tough time believing Lucas would grant licensing for this without expecting a huge amount of money) the cost is even higher.
Now, imagine if those 300 hours and all that money was spent going door to door and genuinely inviting people in the area to join them for Easter, providing a good meal after the service that was free to all who attended, and members of the church intentionally sat with visitors to get to know them and ask questions about what the person heard during the sermon…
The fact is, that rather than trying to entertain people into the Kingdom, we ought to be living quite and humble lives which garner people’s respect, being open about why we live those lives, and telling people that Christ died to save those who would believe in his name despite the fact that they are sinners who are worthy of his judgement rather than his love. If that isn’t enough, then we are all just as hopeless as Episode II.