Artistic Excellence or Meaningless Spectacle? The Bible's Take on Megachurch Worship


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The Christmas Eve service opened with snare drummers hammering out a militaristic rhythm in perfect unison as they descended and ascended from the church’s balcony to the stage. Behind them, a massive LED screen exploded with neon pink, yellow, blue, and purple “JESUS.” It was an ostentatious spectacle they hoped would stir the crowd into a clapping, hooting, hollering frenzy.

Instead, the Little Drummer church went viral. For all the wrong reasons.

Of course, some people mocked the cheesiness of it all. But others saw it as deeply symptomatic of the way American Christians have baptized the jubilant, technicolor liturgy of secular concerts designed to entertain people rather than lead them into worship of the one true God.

As I watched the critiques roll in, I found myself nodding. Spectacle can draw our attention away from the transcendence of God, instead making us marvel at human ingenuity. But then I found myself shaking my head: people began to pile on about any use of lighting, smoke, and even sound amplification in services.

Were they right? Does any use of stage technology in a church service denude the worship of, well, worship? Or were they wrong? Can stage technology, rightly used and rightly understood, be a medium of worship?

Maybe you’ve found yourself wondering similar questions. If that’s the case, I’ve got good news: you’re not the first to ask.

Cathedrals and Whitewashed Walls

During the Reformation, Protestantism quickly fragmented into multiple traditions arguing over different issues. The church building, unsurprisingly, wasn’t off the table. For some Christians, especially in the austere Dutch tradition, Roman Catholic cathedrals were embarrassingly opulent. The art, stained glass, and detailed architecture were symptomatic of the church’s ongoing compromises with greed, power, and prestige.

So they opted for the simplest churches and services possible. The walls were whitewashed. No art. No stained glass. No details. The music in church was acapella. No instruments. No harmony. Nothing to distract from God.

But not everyone agreed. German Lutherans, for example, understood that the Catholic mass—with its inaccessible Latin liturgies—and the grand cathedrals could prevent Christians from worshiping their creator. But they also saw that beauty, art, and creativity are all important to God the creator. He made the Alps, after all.

So these Lutherans took a different approach: they used beautiful stained glass to tell the story of Jesus. Baroque composers like J.S. Bach invented entirely new forms of harmony and conducted church musicians in oratorios (in German!) that gave a hitherto unimagined emotional life to worship. Every aspect of the service was crafted with artistic excellence to draw the worshiper into the presence of the God who created this world with artistic excellence.

Moreover, they understood that when God guided his own people in worship, he commanded creative buildings with the most excellent music. For example, the first person the Bible describes receiving the Spirit of God wasn’t Abraham or Moses. It was Bezalel—the dude who built the tabernacle.

Tabernacle and Temple

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”

Exodus 31:1-5

The tabernacle glittered with gold. It was constructed with fine purple linen to show the majesty of Yahweh. Embroidered images of Cherubim on the tent flaps recalled the garden of Eden. Even the garments of the priests were worked with the finest artistic precision.

King David was a musician and spared no expense (or energy) in leading his people in worship, “David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, even with songs and with lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals and with trumpets.” (1 Chronicles 13:8).

Later, the temple turned the tabernacle’s beauty and extravagance up to eleven. Solomon funded a state-of-the-art orchestra—new instruments and all!—to lead worship (2 Chronicles 5:1-14). Taken together, it’s hard to escape the idea that God not only appreciates beauty, he calls for it in worship.

You’d think all of this biblical context would cause Christians to debate less about creativity in worship, but over the last few centuries, the worship wars haven’t ended.

Debates over hymnals—People used to memorize the songs, which allowed them to lift their eyes up to heaven, but now they’re buried in a book!

Debates over organs—those are instruments in the common pub, used for drinking songs, not worship!

Debates over crosses—If you put a cross up there, everyone will begin to worship it, not Jesus!

That’s the great irony of those who want to do away with screens, light, smoke, or anything in a worship service that smells of modernity: what they argue for in its place (printed lyrics, stages with a simple cross, and the use of analog instruments) were considered radical by a previous generation. We may think we’re arguing for a more spiritual service, but in reality, we just want a service from a different decade.

That’s not to say that we can (much less should) do anything in a worship service. It is to say that we need to find a better way to evaluate what we do in worship than asking, “How new is this technology?” or “Does this look like a concert?”

Smoke and Lights

Let me focus on one specific question I’ve seen recently: Aren’t smoke and lights just a bit too much?

First, we don’t use smoke in modern worship settings. Instead, what looks “smoky” is actually harmless water-based haze that improves visibility with indoor stage lighting.

Second, the kind of yes-or-no framing of the question is common but unhelpful. Instead, we ought to ask: What role can smoke and lights play in shepherding worship? If it turns out they’re distracting or cause people to marvel at their fellow humans, then let’s turn them off. In some churches, that’s exactly what needs to happen.

But I’ve found myself experiencing something rather different, at least in our church. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Bible nerd, but when I see "smoke" and lights, I cannot help but think of the presence of God.

Throughout the Bible, when God appears to a people (or an individual prophet), he is accompanied by smoke and light.

A few examples may illustrate the point:

After the building of the tabernacle, the people see smoke and light, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34-35).

After the construction of the temple, God arrives in smoke and light, “Then the temple of the LORD was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:13-14)

When God called Isaiah, he saw smoke in the temple, “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [and] the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:1-2, 4).

When God called Ezekiel, he saw the glory of God as a smoky cloud of lightning, “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light” (Ezekiel 1:4).

I could keep going, but you get the idea.

So when I see smoke and light during a worship service, I always see it as a visual symbol of God’s presence. I imagine entering into the tabernacle, or temple, or heavenly vision where God appears to his people. Of course, there’re ways to use smoke and light that obstruct this—when it’s just a meaningless spectacle meant to entertain.

But when the lights and smoke match the liturgy and draw me into God’s presence, I feel quite differently. In moments of confession, the lights turn dark red to remind me of the blood Jesus spilled for my sin. In moments of refreshment and renewal, the lights turn green to remind me that God turns the wilderness into gardens. In moments of praise, flashing, shimmering lights guide me toward the transcendent lord of glory. In moments of communal solidarity, the lights rise up to let me see my fellow Christians.

When the liturgy, music, smoke, and lights are all calibrated to draw us into a story so we can enter into the presence of the writer of the great tale—I can only call that worship.

The greatest obstacle to my worship isn’t the smoke and lights. It’s my own cynicism and self-consciousness. When I allow myself to become a critic of the worship service in worship, I cease to worship and instead focus on myself: How does this make me feel? Do I like this? Am I for this?

In such cases, I’m my own worst enemy.

But thankfully, there is a different way: we can embrace the beauty of imagination and creativity, allowing the artists God has called to lead us to… lead us. To embrace their gifts, I must give them the gift of being non-critical, of seeking to enter into what they’ve created. By entering in collectively, we become the worshiping congregation that Jesus so longs for us to be.


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