When walking into some church assemblies these days a person can be forgiven for wondering if they have walked into some kind of experiential theater. Lights are kept low; smoke or fog machines run; the band plays to provide a particular experience or feeling; everything is tightly scripted and precisely performed. The whole experience is designed to impress and entertain those who would attend.
Performance evangelism involves the attempt to promote the Gospel and increase church membership and attendance through a strong emphasis on audiovisual experiences. For generations many preachers have relied on rhetorical polish, compelling song leading, and association with the newest fads in entertainment to attract listeners to their messages. And yet we should not be surprised to find forms of performance evangelism becoming all the more prevalent in modern American society. We have witnessed the explosion of increasingly technical and imaginative forms of audiovisual entertainment in music, television, and films. Entertainment has become a more important part of the way Westerners spend their free time. We can easily understand why many who profess Christ would feel the need to compete in such an entertainment marketplace; after all, most people would rather spend one or two hours watching a good movie, sporting event, or enjoying some other form of diversion than to sit and be bored in a church assembly. A strong drive exists to give the people what they want in seeking to meet them where they are.
In truth, anything that is to be done has an element of performance in it. Every lesson preached, every song sung, every conversation about the Gospel is, in some way or another, a performance. Furthermore, there is no Gospel imperative for the performance of the acts of the assembly and in the proclamation of the Gospel to prove intentionally bland or mediocre. As Christians we ought to strive to glorify God in everything that we do: to this end we ought to participate in the assembly and proclaim the Gospel to the best of our ability and with excellence.
It is one thing to seek to participate in the assembly and proclaim the Gospel well and with excellence; it is quite another to make the assembly and evangelism about the performance. The very real dangers of performance evangelism involve confusing entertainment for edification and presence for participation.
The meaning of “edification” has become distorted in modern Evangelicalism. All too often, when people speak of an experience as having been “edifying,” they mean it provided a great emotional high. The light show, types of band music, and other special effects are all choreographed to produce this kind of entertainment experience. People walk away feeling good, and believing they have received edification. Paul did indeed declare that all things in the assembly should edify in 1 Corinthians 14:26. Yet “edifying,” Greek oikodomen, means “to construct, erect, build up.” Spiritual edification is the means by which a spiritual house is constructed; therefore, edification must involve more than a feeling. Edification, therefore, takes place when substance is added to a person’s faith: when the dust settles, there is now something present in the construction that was not there before. A person can experience spiritual edification in the midst of an experience that produces an emotional high if there is spiritual substance being communicated and exhorted in the process. Unfortunately, all too often, little substance is being communicated in such experiences, and people become habituated to seeking after the feeling of emotional highs and call it edification. No building of faith is erected in their souls, and shipwreck comes all too easily. They have been entertained and enjoyed a great experience, yet they did not receive true edification.
An even greater danger in performance evangelism centers on what life in Christ ultimately is all about. God has called us to share in life in Christ with one another (John 17:20-23). Christians assemble to reinforce and display their joint participation with one another, that which they share in common, in Christ (Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). To this end the assembly of Christians is designed for all to participate jointly: the Lord’s Supper is a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, Christians speak, teach, and admonish one another in song, Christians give of their means to further their joint participation in the work of God in Christ, Christians are directed in prayer together and assent to the prayer for one another, and even as the Word of God is proclaimed, all are to jointly share and participate in the message and its applications (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 14;14-17, 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:13, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, 1 Timothy 3:14-4:6). We do well to note how Paul had expected Christians to have a message or a song or a prayer when they came together, and all were to be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26). In performance evangelism, however, joint participation would be a hindrance to the professional level of quality demanded of the experience. Singing is mostly for the band and/or the choir. The expectation for most of those present is to serve as spectators, absorbing the experience on offer. An illusion of participation might be given for those present, but not the substance thereof. Furthermore, the quality and professionalism of the experience reinforces the spectator and participant distinction: I am not nearly as good of a musician, singer, or speaker as those up on the stage; therefore it is right and appropriate for me to watch and not to participate, for my participation would only lessen the quality of the experience. To this end many are given every reason to believe and feel that their participation in Christianity is as one present as a spectator, and less as one jointly participating with others in service to God in Christ.
We live in a world which prioritizes performance over meaning and participation; it is tragically sad to see so many in Christ follow after it. In Christ performance is never for its own end or purposes; performance exists to manifest, enhance, and strengthen meaning and participation. A most beautifully presented message is worth nothing if no one really receives the meaning and acts upon it; the most exalted performance profits little if it does not bring people together in joint participation in the Lord Jesus. Performance is thus a vehicle, and as with all vehicles, it does best when it is out of the way: performance should never get in the way of meaning and participation, either in being so vapid, bland, or mediocre as to hinder the meaning and participation, or as being so superb and sublime as to overshadow the meaning and participation.
Performance will always be a part of the proclamation of the Gospel and the acts of the assembly. The question is whether we will privilege performance to the detriment of meaning and participation, or seek excellence in performance to enhance and reinforce meaning and participation. Neither Christianity nor its assemblies are spectator sports; we must constantly display, in all that we do, how Christianity demands joint participation with God in Christ, and therefore should encourage participation by all in the acts of the assembly and the proclamation of the Gospel. In all we do we ought to see the spiritual edification of those who hear and participate: not merely to entertain, but to teach, exhort, and encourage so that real, substantive construction has taken place in faith. May we glorify God through our evangelism and participation in the assemblies, jointly participating in the faith unto edification, and obtain life in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry