The siren song of the stripper

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I was 11 years old in 1962 when a friend and I decided to do something that was, at the time, unthinkable and, we thought, more than a little naughty.

A new movie was coming to our community, a musical comedy-drama, titled, “Gypsy.” The movie was based upon a play which, in turn, was based upon the book, “Gypsy: A memoir,” written by Gypsy Rose Lee, a striptease artist. My friend and I knew our folks would never let us go see a movie that featured a stripper so we allowed them to think we were seeing another show.

The movie did not live up to our carnal expectations and, today, would have been rated PG-13 at most. Perhaps even PG. Disappointed, we would have to delay our entry into debauchery. What did stick with me was a song that was sung by Natalie Wood who played the part of Gypsy. The song was, “Let Me Entertain You,” a lighthearted and somewhat seductive song. A portion of the lyrics are:

“Let me entertain you

Let me make you smile

Let me do a few tricks

Some old and then some new tricks

I’m very versatile

And if you’re real good

I’ll make you feel good

I’d want your spirit to climb

So let me entertain you

We’ll have a real good time

Yes sir!

We’ll have

A real good time!”

The reason I bring this song into the present day, is that the stripper’s song could very well be describing a host of modern church worship services. The gathering together of Christians on Sunday mornings has many facets but the overriding and primary purpose of a worship service is to … well … worship.

Some churches see the service as a time to do evangelism. But it is not the primary purpose. Neither is fellowship. A secondary purpose is to “equip the saints to do the work of the ministry,” but if the preacher doesn’t show up, the service should and can continue along because the purpose is for believers to present themselves to God and worship him.

A meme on social media features two chimpanzees. One grouses that, “I didn’t like the service last Sunday.” The other says, “That’s good because we weren’t worshipping you.” A church service is not primarily for the people who gather. A church service is not an event where the pastor and staff perform for the audience in the pews. The service is for an audience of One and those gathered perform their duties and direct them to the One. Anything else is something less than biblical worship.

This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be sermons, special music, offerings, prayer needs expressed, and all the rest, but all these things are not primary. Worship is not at all about us. It is about Him.

There is a new trend and that is “church as entertainment center.” It’s goal is to keep the crowd coming, to entertain, to titillate, to excite, to make them want to be part of this experience, to participate in the event.

Years ago, as a young 20-something pastor, I met with the pastor of a rapidly growing church. I asked, “What is the secret of your church growth?” He said, “Make every Sunday in the year a special event.” Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?”

This young pastor, probably in his early 30s at the time, took me to a wall calendar that showed every Sunday of the year and each Sunday had a label.

There was “Wild West Day,” where people dressed up as cowboys and horses were brought in for the kids to ride after the church service. There was July 4th were everyone was encouraged to wear red, white, and blue to church. Of course there was Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving and all the normal observances but every, single Sunday, all 52 of them, was a special event. I became exhausted just reading the calendar! Apparently, all this took a toll on him too, as a few short years later, he was gone and the church dwindled.

Recently, I saw a video of a Christian gathering in a concert hall. With the laser light show, the fog machine, the gyrating singers, the head-banging musicians, the movie screen, and the dancing and swaying congregation, had I turned the sound down, I could not have distinguished between this gathering and a secular rock concert. Even with the sound up it was very difficult to understand the words. “Who is this for?” I thought. Is this for God alone or is it for the audience and the performers? What about the audience of One? I can’t make that judgment. Only God knows the heart but I couldn’t help but think of the Gypsy Rose Lee song.

There are those that say that this is what the church must do to attract the current generation. I do not agree. The one military branch that has always been counter-cultural is the Marine Corps. They haven’t changed their standards or recruitment since the early days and they always seem to fulfill their quota. They don’t join you, you join them.

From the beginning, the church has been counter-cultural. The Bible even says, “”Do not be conformed to the world.” While the church may do a great many things for a great many people, the service of worship is not for the people. No, the worship service is for God.

It is, in my estimation, perfectly fine to use enhancements during worship. Imagery, signs and symbols, art, music, and more that draw one’s attention to the grandeur, majesty, holiness, and faithfulness of God are all valuable. But when anything is done simply for effect, to gin up excitement, to simply create “church as event,” to “have a real good time, yes sir,” then we are in danger of being seduced by the siren song of the stripper.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 East, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (Georgia and Tennessee). A Marine veteran, he is the Associate Endorser for U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

3 COMMENTS

  1. Americans only worship money and power. Since the Moral Majority became a force in American religious life and conflated capitalism with Christianity, evangelical Christians have abandoned Jesus’ core teachings in favor of imposing change from the outside in rather than the inside out.

    I recognize that the Christian church in the United States was not always so, but it is hard to turn back when you have tasted power and fortune. Good luck in your quest to rectify this Rev. Epps.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking perspective that probably is often overlooked in today’s society. I do wonder what kind of turnout churches would have if people actually thought that worship was the main reason to be attending church? Is it better to attract many so that individuals may get something out of a service and learn about Jesus or fewer so that they can worship God in the way some think they should? I think leaders of churches have had to think outside the box, so to speak, to attract bodies. Growing up, I attended weekly Mass. I was taught that it was a sense of duty. You did it, because you were supposed to. As I grew older, what I found, was that the church wasn’t a welcoming place. It was full of judgement, hypocrites, and an hour filled with boredom. When I was old enough to make my own decisions, I stopped going. Did my life change? No. It went on like it always did. Fast forward 20-25 years and I occasionally attend Sunday service at one of those “carnival” churches. You know the ones. Loud music, laser light shows, jokes, testimonies and full immersion baptisms. You know why I like going there? Because it’s a church for those that don’t have a church. They accept everyone, no matter what. You wear what makes you feel comfortable. You bring your coffee if you want. No one judges you if you don’t come every week. You learn how to grow your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ve learned things about Jesus and how they relate to me. I never got that from weekly Mass. Church is an individual thing – it always has been. Each one of us makes our own decisions on what we need out of a church service or if we even need church. No one can make that decision for us.

    • Living AM, You are correct and I agree with you on a personal level – especially as a former Catholic. There is another thing to consider and that is – can a church survive financially and every other way without regular weekly attendees and contributors? Probably not, but does that or any church have the right to require forced attendance, contributions or behavior? Probably not.

      Faced with those realities some churches have decided to provide entertainment since the entertainment audience contributes on a somewhat regular basis. At the same time their doors are always open so you and I can drop in 2 or 3 or 20 days per year when the spirit moves us. Quite a balancing act for the churches.