Are Churches Any Better Than Nightclubs? (hint: if the obvious choice were the right answer I wouldn’t have written this)

Peter Rollins recently made an interesting point on his blog, and, to paraphrase, it goes something like this:

Q. What do the state, nightclubs, and worship services have in common?

A. All have rituals that people participate in willingly, though not really knowing why, and where the true self is kept safely hidden from self and others, thus empowering the institution to continue as is, without threat of revolt.

Speaking of a worship service, Rollins writes:

Here God is treated as a subject supposed-not-to-know about our doubt, brokenness etc. By singing songs that claim we are happy, fulfilled and utterly devoted we protect the Big Other from seeing the truth of our inner antagonisms  The more frenetically we sing the more we attempt to conceal the truth from this Big Other. In this way we are able to avoid the difficult work that would be involved in directly confronting the tensions in our subjective world. As such, churches and nightclubs can offer the same psychological support for us and thus can both be considered as a form of religious activity: an activity designed to sustain a subject over and above us who protects us from our own conflicts.

Translation: it’s hard to be real in church because the whole system seems to work better if you’re not.

Which is not good.

The problem, though, is what to do about it. Maybe the solution–or at least the move in the right direction–is for people to decide to be real whether or not everyone gets it. It also helps if church leaders model transparency, but even if they don’t, that shouldn’t stop anyone else from picking up the ball and running with it.

Maybe people just don’t like to be vulnerable and intimate. There are probably many nature and nurture reasons for that, which only reminds me how thickly armored we are on all sides, which makes all this following Jesus stuff so hard to pull off, seeing that Jesus was pretty real in how he dealt with others.

Being real as a follower of Christ is the whole point. It’s not about control, painting on false masks, protecting our egos, or whatever else keeps us at a safe distance from God and ourselves.

Again, I’m not really sure what the solution is–other than cut it out.

[Peter Rollins is a writer, lecturer, storyteller, public speaker, and founder of ikon, a faith group that has gained an international reputation for blending live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre, ritual and reflection to create what they call ‘transformance art’. He has a PhD in Post-Structural thought (Queens University, Belfast). He is currently a research associate with the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College, Dublin and the author of Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, How (Not) to Speak of God, and The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales.]


  • hopaulius

    And there’s this: Churches and nightclubs both serve wine. Except that some churches only pretend to serve wine, even though almost all their members serve themselves the real thing at home.

  • Eric Robinson

    Weird. Peter Enns is quoting Peter Rollins. That’s a confluence of writers who interest me that I would never have put together. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • John Hawthorne

    Really interesting stuff. I’m teaching Durkheim next week in theory class and may use Rollins’ quote to illustrate the point of “Elementary Forms”. Thanks for sharing.

  • unkleE

    I can’t help feeling Rollins has only described one sort of church service. I think there are others – especially house churches, but also conventional ones – where honesty is much more possible in the singing and everything else. Of course we are rarely 100% open and honest, and that is probably best. Overall, I’d say the points here are more good reason to do simple church, house church or whatever you want to call it.

  • EricG

    Great points.
    One thing we could do is recover the sense of mystery from ancient Christian traditions. That way we might be more open to and accepting of the great tensions in both life and our faith. We could be more real.
    I think it would also help to include lament in our services. Instead of reading and singing only happy and triumphant songs and scripture, we could – in addition – use lament Psalms like 88 – imagine reading in church “Why Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me?” That might also allow us to be more real.

    • Stephen W

      EricG – Absolutely this. I’ve wondered for a while why I don’t engage with worship (songs) very well, and it occurred to me that it’s because it’s somewhat dishonest. We seem to think that worship means telling God what we think he wants to hear, yet a third of the Psalms are laments. I wonder how things would go if we had a few “woe is me, life really sucks, where is God?” songs?

  • Tyler

    Wow, sounds like a really shitty church. But I know you know that a bad example of something doesn’t mean there aren’t good examples also.

  • Randy

    This is simply generalization. Just because you have some bad or poor examples of churches out there doesn’t mean there aren’t some good ones. I can tell you what we do in our church and the reason behind it. We are not just some haphazard assembly that is involved in rituals stemmed from traditions. We make it a point to know why we believe or do what we believe or do. I know this is my opinion here but I believe my church is the best in the world. Thank you, Lord!

  • Andrew

    Churches by and large reflect the membership it constitutes of (since its survival relies ultimately on keeping its members happy). Thus, a church in a conservative suburban setting is going to more conservative theologically and be more reactionary to new ideas (I also think most larger/’mega’ churches are more reactionary by nature . . I have other issues with megachurches but I’ll refrain for now). A smaller church in an urban setting serving a more “liberal” clientele will often be less dogmatic and more open to theological questioning.

  • Larry

    Thanks, Peter! This is eye-opening. I think I’ll give nightclubs another chance.

  • Jim V

    I find this post depressingly sophmoric. As Jim Gaffigan might put it, like a spoiled teenage girl who in one moment says to her parents “You both mean and I hate you all,” and the comes stomping down from her room asking “when’s dinner?”. Look, the church has had problems, has problems and will have problems. At times and to some it will seem shallow and at others way too dogmatic, but stop bellyaching all the time. I’m not exactly in with th cool crowd at my church or feel connected and “real” either, but I figured out a while ago that the whole exercise was about my communicating and experiencing God and his son, Jesus the Christ. So, if you can’t do that at your current church, switch, for heaven’s sake. Find a group of like-brooding peopele and start your own. How do you think we got all these denominations in the first place. Seriously, after reading the constant complaints about the church (especially the evangelical church) from both the article authors and the commenters, I just want to say, “for God’s sake, quit already!” Or go get some therapy to deal with the anger and bitterness. If the evangelical churches are so far off the mark, they will die out and Christ will build his church anew, but quit with the “I want a place where I can question theology.”. No you don’t, you want a place where you can question theology up to a point, beyond which it is pointless to even have a church or any type of theology to speak of. One man’s liberal is another man’s fundamentalist. Otherwise, go join the Unitarians.

    For once, I would like to see one article on this blog that actually pointed out the positives of the Christian church (other than giving to the poor, that’s too easy), and the evangelical churches in particular. Otherwise, let’s just give up the ghost and sign on with John Spong and his lot.

    • Nick Gotts

      How do you think we got all these denominations in the first place.

      Simple: religion has no reality-check, so there’s no way of settling disagreements over doctrine – other than by force, as was the custom until fairly recently in the case of Christianity.

  • EricG

    Jim V,

    Yeah, rants that are as insulting as yours are usually the mark of a mature person with good theology and Christian virtue. Thanks for enlightening the rest of us.

    • Jim V

      Well, my “rant” may be insulting, but I’m sorry to say that it is no more immature than comparing a church to a nightclub. Please, that comparison is truly insulting to all the people who are trying to find a way, however imperfectly, to live out their faith, celebrate what they view is a gift from God (salvation through Christ) and seek to communicate with the Lord. The comparison is not only insulting but immature, since it is clearly intended to be sensational and cause a stir. So, whether you think I have good theology and Christian virtue or not is immaterial. The argument put forth does NOTHING to provide CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, but merely provides and opportunity to complain and get others who also want to complain to sympathize. That’s not maturity, it’s the perfect example of immaturity.

      Finally, your response to my post is telling. You and other posters complain that the church doesn’t allow you to be “real” or to challenge theology or dogma – then when someone actually expresses their “real” feelings about the constant barrage of negative comments about the church to be found here, you show intolerance instead of dialogue. Of course, I’m not saying that I don’t think that the church can improve, it can – but let’s recognize the good with the bad. Let us build up as much as we deconstruct. Let us encourage as much as we criticize. If that makes my theology and Christian virtue of matter of dispute, then so be it. Also, your welcome.

  • Seeker

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post as usual Peter. I have a lot of appreciation for Peter Rollins and the work that he is doing in philosophy/theology. I am currently working through his book “The Idolatry of God” and it is providing a lot of food for thought. Were it not for those like yourself, Peter Rollins, and many others out there who aren’t afraid of “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything” (to steal the title of a book by David Dark), I would probably be far more disillusioned with the state of the Christian church… I’m glad there are those who are willing to publicly ask questions of the Christian faith, to concede that we don’t have God figured out, and that there is indeed much mystery that yet remains.
    Jim V: Maybe time to take your own advice, because you sound pretty angry yourself… You certainly don’t have to keep reading this blog if it makes your blood boil. :-) For someone like me, it gives me space to work through my own questions, and so I’m thankful for it. It is the questioning of my faith that seems to be keeping it alive at this point. Were I not allowed to voice some critique and hear the critique of others, I don’t think the Christian faith would be anything more than another dead system of control. I haven’t read much Spong at this point, but from the tone of your post I’m guessing he would be easier to hang out with… :-) Chill out man! The community of Jesus (i.e. the church) can handle a little honest critique.

    • Jim V


      I’m considering taking my own advice. I read this blog because I do think that there are certain issues that merit discussion and that the church needs to face – how to deal with the Old Testament and ANE history, etc., etc. However, I’ve been disturbed by the continuing criticism without any mention of the positives of the church or the criticism of brothers and sisters in Christ with whom someone may not agree as if they are horrible trolls or ignoramises. Comparing the church to a nightclub? Really? You think this is a good analogy? As for whether the Christian faith would be a dead system of control with or without come voice of critique – first, I assume that we all believe that there actually is a divine force behind the whole darn thing and not just a system intended to suppress and control. There is always going to be opportunity to critique, and good reason, but the church has to have some value beyond our ability to critique it – otherwise we might as well start questioning whether that divine force really does have any role in it. I know that the community can handle a “little” honest critique, but it is our job as Christians to build up as much as we tear down and I feel like we’ve been doing a little too much tearing down of late. Now, how do we build up? I’ll consider my own advice, however, more carefully. Thank you.

  • EricG

    Jim V,
    There are elements of truth in what you are saying – e.g., Rollins engages in excessive hyperbole sometimes, which at some level is not fair to those who put their blood sweat love and tears into the body of Christ.
    But coming into the conversation with insults, as you do, will almost never lead to a constructive dialogue, even if parts of what you are saying are true.
    And other parts of what you are saying – i.e., that Rollins, Pete Enns and commenters are just bashing the church and not constructive – are wrong. Rollins offers constructive ideas to address the problem he identifies in his books (heck, he started a couple of communities to try to live out what he is suggesting). And I understand Pete Enns’ post as an invitation for conversation about constructive solutions. In my comment I offered a couple. None of this is just to bash the church – it is constructive.
    Peace of Christ to you.

    • Jim V

      I accept your criticism and will think more on it. In my defense, at least I didn’t write my missive in the first person as Jesus and damn you all to hell. I understand that is becoming popular. ; – )

      • peteenns

        Jim, I appreciate your spirit here! And to be clear, what I mean by getting “real”–following on Rollins’s post–is not about questioning theology. My focus here is on how hard it is in church (in my experience and I know many others) of letting people see the wounds rather than the true, messy self. I have never been part of a church where masks didn’t need to be worn.

        • Jim V

          Dr. Enns – I guess that was why I was getting frustrated. I’ve never belonged to a church where masks weren’t present either, but I’ve never been a part of any group (other than a group of close friends, where that is the truth). Even at my place of business, which I in-part own, I can’t totally let my mask slip away. I guess I’m asking if we are expecting too much from the church as a whole. After all, in the end, it is a human incarnation of a divine structure, so it’s going to be messy and heartbraking. I’m just reminded of a friend of mine who had similar misgivings about church. He said to me that he felt like the parishoners were just singing songs and worshipping like they were in a cult. He would turn around during worship songs and face the wrong way, just to see if people noticed. They went on singing and that disturbed him. Yet, I pointed out to him that he could do the same thing at a political rally, a Rotary Club meetings, or a football game (if he didn’t get his lights knocked out after a while) and notice the same trend. Humans seem to like ritual in order to put their brain to rest. While I realize this is the point that Rollins is making – that all these things: football, nightclub, etc., are similar, the major difference is that there either is or isn’t a divine essence behind the whole thing and that we may have to do some digging to get to it, but it should be there. We can’t all be showing wounds even part of the time (I’m reminded of the old revivalist rallies in the 20′s where people would stand up and confess some horrid sin). We find groups within the larger body of people who we can trust to show those wounds and with whom we can count on to help build us. That’s why I come to this blog. The rest of the time, I think we need to do our best to use the church to commune with God, not necessarily with the whole body of believers. If the church isn’t serving that function for you, find a better one for you. That’s not forum shopping, it’s just making sure you have the part of the body you need. I think masks will always be there, it’s only with a smaller group of close friends where they will really come off.

          • Matt Thornton

            Isn’t the same divine presence in the nightclub too? Not sure why it’s so insulting to compare people’s behavior in different settings. Ultimately, I think it’s a matter of one’s posture toward social openness and transparency – How much of the openness that we have in prayer is translated into our interactions with our brothers and sisters, wherever we might find them?

            I would think that the need for a mask has to do with social fear more than anything else. So, perhaps its worth considering what is driving the fear that causes us to need our masks. What do I need to cover up when I put on my “happy face”? I think your point above that we can’t be showing wounds all the time is right – it would get to be depressing for those around us, if nothing else! But, if any situation (church, game, club, whatever) requires a mask all the time, something is probably amiss.

            In my short experience, there are two conditions to successfully share something other than the ‘party line’ – a willingness to speak honestly, and a willingness to hear compassionately. Both have to be there, and both start with each of us.


  • Brian Thomas

    Constructive solution: Go back to using tried and true liturgies that begin w/ an honest confession of sin, followed by absolution, sing hymns/spiritual songs that have stood the test of time and offer a wide assortment of honest and healthy emotions and truths about the Holy Trinity much like the Psalms vice the happy/clappy stuff of recent history (this isn’t about musical preference, but content). Offer the Pax Domini prior to communing to your fellow sinner-saints and kneel down beside them and receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins in faith remembering the cost of the world’s redemption. Depart together under God’s blessing. And… if you feel like it later in the week, invite those same sinner-saints to the club to listen to some good music and enjoy some more wine. All good gifts of God’s creation!

  • JB

    I think Rollins is over-generalizing the “church” experience just to make a point, or he goes to some of the worst churches in the free world. I agree that it is difficult to be real with people at church, but that is usually a problem of self, not others. (I’m not saying that people aren’t ostracized for being honest sometimes) It usually takes one person to be bold enough to get the ball rolling for everyone else. Recently I was on my to a Christian bookstore to purchase a book for class that I teach when I guy cut me off on the freeway and I proceeded to get next to him, flip him off, drop 900 F-bombs, and tell him to pull over so I could fight him. I shared this with the class, to illustrate that I am a work in progress when it comes to being the type of person I should be. Out of a class of 30 young adults, 20 told me how refreshing and, oddly enough, reassuring it was to hear a story like that. Over time many have opened up in the same way. In my view, anyone experiencing this type of church needs to start being real with himself and then put it out there. If they kick him out of the place, then its a shitty church to begin with and its a good opportunity to move on.

  • Emi S.

    Interesting to read as I also stand at this place wondering, what now? It seems to me the answer is not so much either/or as it is both/and, as it often seems to turn out for me. Our dualistic mindset will often result in an often resentful, disdainful, or fearful “reaction” to one approach, which does not exactly reflect Christ’s nature of peace. It’s helpful I think to always consider the “third option” of holding two opposites in creative tension where peace does tend to reside if we can withstand the tension and room for ambiguity, mystery, faith, and love. At a glance the choice can seem to be one between cutting the tumor off for survival or letting it plague you slowly (and here “tumor” refers to a toxic effect or allergin of sort – not for anyone – but for a fraction of us with certain sensitivity or susceptibility). There’s also the embracing of the whole to see what grace might spring forth from that death.

    To be fair, what’s helpful for one is not always helpful for another. Coloring by number, for instance, is appropriate for those who strive in a structured environment or for children, but suffocating for right-brained or artists who need open spaces to thrive. Some churches are very contemplative and wise in how they encourage the sheep (hopefully, towards grace), and some fail to consider the ramifications of how they motivate their sheep (unintendedly, by fear … of human opinion, church disapproval, punishment, etc.). There’s also the local church as a 501c3 organization, and then the more universal Church. Different habits acquired at church can also be either constructive or destructive depending on who you are.

    For example, while a local church encouraged daily habit of certain practices that were helpful in my youth, I found that I was mentally habituated to worship only when worship music was played, be prepared to know God more only when the Bible was open or during a sermon, etc., leaving all other moments rather dry or irrelevant. After having distance myself from the local church for a few years, while still actively involved in the universal Church, I find moments of worship and of knowing God in any given moment, experiencing much grace than I had before. Not necessarily the case for anyone, but for myself personally, it was helpful, a direction in grace and away from fear.

    • Emi S.

      Sorry, “strive” needs to be “thrive” ;)

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  • Christopher S. Brownwell

    The point of the article is not to bash the Church. It is descriptive. Christians simply don’t realize they are being insincere in their beliefs and in their worship. God is Spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. I think most Christians approach the worship service on autopilot. Worship requires both an emotional and an intellectual response. Christians who sing “I surrender all” but don’t really mean it are like clubbers who dance but don’t intellectually consider why they are doing it. That is the sad state of church members and thus make the Church less effective. That is the accurate description of the Church whether you like it or not.

    • Christopher S. Brownwell

      I don’t know who Peter Rollins is, but I do notice that his book, Insurrection, was endorsed by Rob Bell. That doesn’t make Peter Rollins a heretic, but it makes me look at him a little more closely.

  • CraigCregger

    “For once, I would like to see one article on this blog that actually pointed out the positives of the Christian church (other than giving to the poor, that’s too easy), ”

    yes, can someone please point me to a post where Dr. Enns says something positive about the Christian church, and something that might illustrate even a remote benefit of following Jesus? This is not to be sarcastic, but I have read through so many posts on this blog, and it seems that they are all about a disillusioned Christian who is mad about their faith. I keep coming back because I think that one day I will read a post that doesn’t sound like this, but I never do.

  • Talea

    Churches in our area are getting trained by Reclaiming Victory Ministries. Their discipleship training teaches leaders (and just the ordinary believer) how to help others be real before God and each other. It’s a start and it is awesome.

  • Camino1

    I have found, as a leader, that being honest before myself makes me honest before God.
    God-honesty is demystified.

    I’m not sure that what Rollins so necessarily and adeptly depicts is categorical. Many of the songs we have sung are confessional–they acknowledge our brokenness and our laments.

    Still, this is a good reminder/prod.