Flame-throwers in Church? How Much Stagecraft is too Much?

Flame-throwers in Church? How Much Stagecraft is too Much? December 30, 2019
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Las Vegas-style stagecraft is making its way into our weekly worship services. Disco-style moving spotlights and fake fog machines are now the norm in Christian worship, even in small congregations. One church I follow on Facebook recently replaced its backdrop curtain with a 50×28-foot video wall (at a cost of more than $100,000). Another church is adding rock concert-style flame throwers to its stage.

Why do churches do these things? It’s the key to reaching young people, so we’re told.

But everything I read about young adults says they loathe this sort of thing. They’re sick of slick. They long for authenticity.

I can’t help but think a lot of young adults walk into our worship spaces, see the elaborate staging and think to themselves, “This feels fake. I’m being manipulated.”

Have we reached peak stagecraft? At what point do our showy, manmade contrivances overwhelm the simple presence of the Spirit?

Now, I recognize that all churches stage their worship to some degree. And tastes in staging change over time.

When I was a child stained glass was the standard staging element in most churches. Twenty-five years ago, churches began installing projectors. Then the TV cameras rolled in. Five years ago, pallet walls and Edison light bulbs were all the rage. Today, the trend is toward rock concert style worship spaces, complete with aluminum lighting trusses, NFL-style SkyCams, and of course, fake fog.

So, what gives? Why does “generation authenticity” flock to churches that offer such obviously staged worship experiences?

The answer, in a word: Hillsong– the church/concert experience that delivers high quality music paired with state-of-the-art staging. Hillsong’s brand is extremely strong among a subset of very committed young believers, many of whom come from Pentecostal backgrounds where expressive worship is the norm. Whenever Hillsong plants a new church – BOOM – you’ve got an instant congregation full of hip, young believers who’ve come for the worship experience.

Other congregations see the success of Hillsong, so they scramble to catch up. Soon every church in town is embroiled in an arms race, spending tens of thousands of dollars on ever more elaborate staging effects, hoping to replicate the success of Hillsong and its clones.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle, a.k.a. the 80/20 rule? The staging arms race is targeted at the enthusiastic 20% who really like elaborate staging. Meanwhile, the 80% who might appreciate a simpler worship experience get left behind. They stand mute while the band rocks out, the smoke machines belch and rotating spotlights scan the crowd like the Eye of Sauron in search of a Hobbit.

The 80/20 rule may also explain why, even as Hillsong-style churches pack in the millennials, overall attendance among this age group is falling. The 20% who love stagecraft are being overserved, while the remaining 80% is underserved.

Church planters — do the math. The majority of people you’re trying to reach don’t care about special effects, and may even be turned off by them. Instead, go for simplicity. Welcome everyone, and then sing a couple of songs led by an individual with a guitar or keyboard. A sacrament. Prayer. An update from a mission project. Preach a 20-minute message on a relevant passage from the Bible. Include an object lesson so the kids will lock in. Announcements. Wrap it up in an hour or less so the generations can worship together. Leave plenty of time to visit afterward.

Does this sound good to anybody?

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