Monday, 1 August 2011

Should worship entertain?

In a 2010 paper on UU Worship, Mike Mallory asks us to consider the value of "entertainment" in worship services:
...we should be willing to include “entertainment” as a purpose in the Sunday morning experience. Entertainment is not a religious function. Then again, while community building is a secular function, it is vitally important for a religious community... 
The term “entertainment” is often viewed as cheap or superficial... However, if asked to name your favorite film or play, the answer, I suspect, will include a work of artistic merit, which produced insights into the human condition in a way, which was engaging, dramatic and memorable. “Entertainment” is not an antonym for “Authentic.” 
...evangelical mega-churches are serious about entertainment. I hesitate to point this out, because I am certainly not suggesting that entertainment in a UU congregation look like the entertainment that happens in an evangelical mega-church. Nevertheless, I am claiming that the presentation of the Sunday morning experience in UU congregations should be entertaining.  
Entertainment can be serious or lighthearted, tragic or comic, emotional or conceptual. Entertainment is a way of planning a presentation by focusing on the quality of recipient’s experience. Entertainment may not make a message more important, but it can make the recipient more engaged and the message more memorable. An entertaining message can inspire people to commit their time and energy into social justice, allow people to understand the inner reality of someone very different or lead a person into a moment of ecstatic presence...
Mallory goes on to question the typical UU anti-entertainment rationale and dares to suggest that our reasons may be more like excuses for an unwillingness to tackle the hard work of creating worship entertaining enough to reach the modern, plugged-in, worshipper:
I believe there is a sentiment that religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular should rise above the profane of entertainment and that a UU minister who stands and delivers a sermon, plainly and unplugged, is a living testament to honesty, genuineness and authenticity. I believe this sentiment springs from a na├»ve mythology and conveniently excuses the hard work of reimagining the Sunday morning experience. 
I find myself persuaded by Mallory's argument. The form of our worship should be among the transient elements of our faith, but has tended to be treated more like the permanent! In fact, the deep, permanent, elements of our faith may be ineffective because we fail to embed them in a form that touches people as and where they are.

What arises for me is not at all a feeling of revulsion at the concept of "entertaining worship", but a deep discomfort about my own inadequacy for the task and the lack of resources at my disposal.

I would love to hear how others engage with these ideas...


  1. As used here, I see "entertaining" as combining two qualities. One is "engaging" and the other is "aesthetically excellent." In fact, because of the negative connotations clinging to the word "entertaining," I might prefer to substitute the longer phrase "engaging and aesthetically excellent" in its place, to avoid the knee-jerk negative reaction that attaches to the former word.

    More to the substance: I do believe that we can and should be willing to be entertaining in our worship, as I have stipulatively defined the term here.

  2. Thanks for your comment DSD...

    I can't speak for Mike Mallory, but I suspect he might say that we often use the word "entertainment" derisively to avoid the challenge and fear that arises when we consider what would be required to create worship that is truly engaging and aesthetically excellent. As in "A more polished presentation and better music? We're not here to entertain, you know!"


  3. Our congregation would probably not use the word "entertaining" as a criterion for services, but I can go right along with DSD's criteria above. We do want our services to be engaging and aesthetically excellent, and might even argue that aesthetic excellence is a component of an engaging service.

    We are a little different than your average UU congregation, though, as our services are participatory rituals, rather than the traditional sermon, meditation, and song model. While it's not impossible to create that engagement and aesthetic excellence in the context of a more traditional service by any means, I would venture that it's easier to do in a participatory context, where you have the opportunity to engage people on a physical, sensory level, as well as on an intellectual and emotional level.

  4. Excellent post Andy, and a very good Unitarian question to *pose*. ;-)

    "Should worship entertain?"

    To borrow a phrase from "less than perfect" U.S. President Bill Clinton aka William (Politically Incorrect Middle Name Deleted) Clinton -

    "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'entertain'* is." :-)

    Indeed there are some subtle differences between the meaning of the word 'entertain' and the meaning of the word 'entertainment', which may need to be duly considered here.

    The word 'entertain' *can* mean -

    1. To hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting. See Synonyms at amuse.

    2. To extend hospitality toward: entertain friends at dinner.

    3. a. To consider; contemplate: entertain an idea.
    b. To hold in mind; harbor: entertained few illusions.

    4. Archaic To continue with; maintain.

    It seems to me that 'worship' *should* in fact do most if not all of the above things.


    None-the-less I can reasonably presume that it is the first definition of the word 'entertain' that we are dealing with here.

    Needless to say, in light of the above meanings of the word 'entertain' I *could* take issue with Mike Mallory's assertion that -

    "Entertainment is not a religious function."

    Indeed I think that 'entertainment' in the sense of being somewhat 'theatrical' has been a significant part of religion from its earliest inception.

    As Mike rightly points out, while the term “entertainment” is often viewed as cheap or superficial it *can* produce insights into the human condition (or indeed Ultimate Reality and/or God) in a way, which is engaging, dramatic and memorable.

  5. Comment Part 2:

    Speaking of which. . .

    The first and only celebration of 'Creation Day' in the Unitarian Church of Montreal began with a powerful performance of taiko drumming by Montreal taiko drum group Arashi Daiko whose 'entertainment' started the proceedings with a "Big Bang" that was engaging, dramatic and memorable. Likewise the religious 'entertainment' provided by a Montreal Bharatanatyam dance group during the Hindu presentation made for an engaging, dramatic and memorable introduction to Hindu Creation mythology in the form Shiva's Cosmic Creation Dance amongst two or three other dances. The Montreal Pagan Grove *performed* a Circle Of Power ritual which took over a half hour to complete. When I later asked the Eastern Orthodox Christian priest who had participated in the first celebration of Creation Day what he thought of this pagan ritual he responded that he had found it to be quite "theatrical", not that Eastern Orthodox Christian religious ritual, to say nothing of other forms of Christian worship, is not quite theatrical in its own way. . .

    : evangelical mega-churches are serious about entertainment.

    I must say that I did find Pastor Joe Nelms' recent NASCAR race prayer to be quite entertaining in an engaging, dramatic and more than a little bit memorable way and, quite evidently, the crowd of NASCAR racing fans did too. ;-) While *some* might find Pastor Nelms' apparent religious "product placement" to be rather questionable, and even quite crass, I think that he was mainly crafting his *lighthearted*, somewhat comical, and definitely quite entertaining prayer to his specific audience, and it *does* seem that it was very well received by most of them. . .

    Needless to say I agree with Mallory that *entertaining* religion most certainly can make the 'worship' more engaging and the message more memorable.

    More later perhaps, but I will probably wait until I see your response to this comment before commenting further.

    Allah prochaine,

    Robin Edgar

    * To say nothing of what the meaning of the word 'worship' is. . .

  6. Thanks Andy.

    Private message no need to post.

  7. If I'm not entertained through awe, intellectual engagement, a new experience or challenge then I quickly get bored.
    This is a major challenge for me in regards to worship. I get bored by different 'church' things at different times.
    I find that external aspects (music, ritual, stories, liturgical structure, sermon, environment)are all important to be of a good quality.

    But the content that fills and gives life to these things is definitely more central for me. I want to have worship that is willing to be courageous in exploring and challenging people. It's likely that people only want to hear what they believe should be included in worship. (This goes through the spectrum. Everyone is as bad!)

    But I think worship should be challenging the membership, and everyone else, by driving a diversity of theological perspectives and styles that transcend peoples comfort zones.

    Surely that's part of our communal quest for tolerance, patience and love? Unitarianism is challenging because there is a risk that it can become a quest that is a mile wide but only an inch deep.

    Not many people love watching the same films over and over again. The same scenes, the same words, the same ideas. Surely most of us will get bored if we're not feed something else. Retention is probably Unitarianism's biggest problem. I'd guess this is an aspect for those who hang on for a couple of years and then get bored.

    Unitarianism is able to adapt and 'entertain' but it needs to be more open to the stranger, the dissenter, and those that are difficult. It needs to confront these things, with as much energy, as changing a few externals and jazzing things up.