In our culture today there is great power in entertainment. Entertainers of all kinds – actors, singers, writers, athletes, and talk show hosts, to name a few – are rich and famous. They have become the idols of our world, commanding attention and power. It is natural, therefore, for our churches and preachers to be adversely influenced by this pattern. Our congregations increasingly seek out and give their loyalty to entertaining churches who have entertaining music and entertaining preachers. In a world where preachers have lost their sense of power, therefore, many are quick to seek power – either for themselves or for their messages – by entertaining. Underneath this cultural shift in our churches is a corrupt and damaging theology that quietly believes that entertainment is power. However, a sermon that is more preoccupied with entertainment than with God has no power, for God alone is the source of power in our preaching.
In order to ensure that there are no misunderstandings about what is meant by the word, entertainment, let me define it quickly here for you. What I mean when I use the word,entertainment, is the demand for short sermons that are served, cut, chewed, partially digested, spoon fed, and then further digested for the hearer by the preacher. Entertainment is happening when Bibles become optional in the pew, when stories from the preacher are preferred to expositional teaching, and when videos and snappy object lessons replace the public reading of Scripture. Entertainment is at large when the number of allusions to contemporary culture and the amount of laughter a preacher can produce become the rubrics for evaluating the quality of the message. And finally, entertainment can be recognized by its love of soundbites, self-help, and corporate therapy sessions. These are the elements of what I have branded entertainment in preaching.
Now, before we delve further into this critique of entertainment in preaching an important disclaimer is required. I am not suggesting for a moment that preaching, and church in general, needs to be dull and boring. A good and faithful sermon ought to be entertaining in a purer sense of the term. That is, faithful preaching ought to be enjoyable, exciting even, and life changing. I am not suggesting that a properly placed joke is an affront to God or that a cultural illustration in the message is out of place. All of these flourishes, when applied wisely and faithfully, can add depth, meaning, and personality to a message. Some preachers, for example, are naturally and supernaturally gifted to weave stories together or to speak in a culturally sensitive dialect. To divorce that preacher from his personality would directly contradict what has already been stated above. The driving point that I am about to articulate is directed at the intent and the measure of entertainment in preaching as defined in the above paragraph.
By intent, I mean that if a preacher is naturally entertaining, in whatever sense of the word, then his messages ought to utilize such qualities. However, if a preacher slaves over a punchline in order to secure laughter and applause, or if he is preoccupied with bells and whistles – of whatever kind – to needlessly supplement the Word of God, then his intent may be to entertain rather than to exposit and exhort. Put another way, a preacher who needs to be liked is in danger of trying to entertain – as defined above – rather than preach the truth from Holy Scriptures.
By measure, I mean that if a preacher adds an illustration or two in the course of forty minutes in order to help the congregation relate to a biblical idea then he is using an appropriate tool. If, however, a preacher manages to insert a Scripture verse or two in the course of a forty minute illustration then he is likely trying to entertain more than exhort and exposit faithfully.
The intent and measure of entertainment in preaching cannot be unequivocally set in a dogmatic or scientific fashion. Admittedly, just exactly when preaching ceases to be exposition and starts to be entertainment is a gray zone open to much interpretation. Nevertheless, it is critical that we continually remind ourselves before we step into the pulpit that preaching is not entertainment and preachers are not jesters. How close a preacher dares tread toward the breaking point between exposition and entertainment is a matter of personal conscience before the Lord. As for me, I have decided that my goal is never to entertain, but always to exposit with sincerity and an appreciation for the gravitas of the preaching moment. And I hope that this too is “entertaining.”