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Dr. Henry B. Waiters: Is it a church service or just a big show?

The News Journal recently showcased local aspects of a growing cultural phenomenon: the worship renewal movement. The special feature explained how Generation X-ers are hungering for a new style of worship which bears a closer resemblance to MTV than to their parents’ old-time religion.

Alice Crann alluded to the “walls of tradition tumbling down.” Indeed, at the new and more “hip” sanctuary, jeans, shorts and T-shirts do fine in services with names like “Saturday Night Alive,” a show title many X-ers would find familiar. Drama, dance, video clips, rock ‘n’ roll, TV talk show formats and eating during the service are part of the worship experience.

Dr. Robert Webber, author and worship renewal authority, in talking about the forces shaping the movement explained, “Generation X learns more through participation than reason. They are looking for forms of communication that they experience in culture.”

What forms would that be? Assuming that Webber is referring to the entertainment industry, perhaps a better name for the renewal movement would be “postmodern religion.” But one should be careful before thinking that we are witnessing a quantum leap in religious experiences. We may, in truth, be witnessing the obliteration of a rational and decent religious heritage.

A critical examination would indicate that the movement is a by-product of a culture that has been weaned on television. Any communication medium has the potential to change the structure of public discourse, even to alter our perceptions of the world around us.

For example, the printing press has been credited with helping to bring Europe out of the Dark Ages, fueling the Protestant Reformation and opening the floodgates to a new world of liberty, freedom and democracy. Media critic Neil Postman pointed out in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that people who lived in a print culture had a “sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially and had a high valuation for reason and order.”

However, America has now shifted from a print-oriented culture to an image-oriented one; the consequences being that we have lost the ability to rationalize, preferring rather to be entertained. A hundred years ago, it was not a difficult matter for people to listen to a two-hour sermon without getting mentally exhausted. Today, on any given Sunday at noontime millions of wristwatch alarms are going off, reminding the preacher to shut up.

With television, substance gives way to sounds and sights, facts are replaced with feelings, issues are replaced by images, and reason is replaced by emotion. The primary purpose of television is to entertain the audience — that is its nature.

Not only does television serve up its content on a platter of entertainment, but the American mind has fed off it for so long that almost everything in our culture — worship included — mirrors the rules of the entertainment industry.

Even higher education has been touched by the tentacles of the television culture. Peter Sacks, in his book “Generation X Goes to College,” describes today’s college students as lazy toward their studies yet demanding of good grades and entertaining teaching because they are “buying a product” from the institution.

To some observers our television culture is synonymous with postmodernism, a philosophy which is best described as a search for novelty, momentary enjoyment, euphoria, no fixed commitments and no rules. All opinions are valid. Differences are celebrated. Personal happiness is a supreme virtue.

The News Journal’s report on the renewal movement demonstrated that American Worship is increasingly being defined as a task of satisfying the customer with a product while at the same time providing amusement and pleasure.

The traditional Christian message which places emphasis on satisfying God and His purpose is disappearing as we engage ourselves in a perpetual round of entertainments.

Dr. Waiters can be reached at 704-636-3369.

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