The Church of Regal Entertainment: Does Where We Worship Matter?

“I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home….” So begins an old country song. Fed up with her husband perched on a bar stool every evening, drinking away his paycheck, then stumbling home three sheets to the wind, this resourceful wife decides to transform their home into a bar. So she hires an alcoholic to assist with the redecoration. They take out the dining room table to make room for the bar. She hangs a neon sign that points the way to the bathroom. Her husband and his buddies can cash their paychecks at the house, and while they’re sleeping off the booze the next morning she’ll deposit the money in the bank Her whole strategy is summed in the chorus, "I’m gonna hire a wino to decorate our home, so you’ll feel more at ease here and you won’t have to roam..." If she erases the boundaries between home and bar, her husband will feel comfortable, his friends will feel welcome, and she’ll have money in the bank. She will make some sacrifices, but since she’ll regain her husband, it’ll all be worth it.

To Decorate or to Destroy?

But will it be worth it? And will she really regain her husband? The truth is that she hasn’t really made the bar and home equal; the bar wears the pants in that family now. The pub culture, which her husband loves, in which he feels comfortable, has much more control over his thinking, his actions, and his heart, than does the culture of his home. She sacrifices the intimacy of their household in a failed attempt to win back her husband. And, yes, she’ll have him there, but in a space that does nothing more than perpetuate the very lifestyle that is wrecking her home and marriage. Her intentions may be golden, but she’s doing nothing more than enabling his beer-guzzling, family-avoiding lifestyle. She hasn’t so much hired a wino to decorate their home as to destroy their home—to destroy any chance it might be a place where that man is transformed back into the husband he needs to be.

I’m Gonna Hire a Theological Wino to Decorate Our Church

The wife in this old country song bears a strong resemblance to lady church in many parts of America. She is motivated by the desire to connect with people who don’t feel at ease sitting in a pew, surrounded by stained glass, the cross of Jesus sitting atop the altar. They’re not comfortable with organ music, sermons preached from pulpits, songs sung from hymnals. Where are they at ease? In a movie theatre, or a sports stadium, or a bar. They are comfortable jamming to a band full of drums and steel guitars, listening to comedians and other entertainers, and hearing soloists or groups sing to them during concerts. They can kick back with a cup of Starbucks in their hands, wearing their favorite blue jeans, reclining in stadium seats with a big screen in front of them. So lady church hires the equivalent of a theological wino to decorate her church home, so these people will feel more at ease.

Worship in a Movie Theatre

For instance, Regal Entertainment Group offers churches the option of renting one of their theatres for worship services. In their ad, they boast that “clients have even said that holding their services in a theatre was a no-brainer for them because they wanted to reach the unchurched and the theatre was in a familiar, culturally relevant place.” Besides the perks of “ample parking, spacious lobbies, plenty of bathrooms” there is the “perfect view of the screen from a comfortable seat (cup holders included!).” And, of course, they add that “there’s no more powerful way to share your message.”

Yes, but what powerful message is really being shared? What message is the church communicating that chooses a movie theatre for its worship space? Or what message, for instance, is Joel Osteen’s congregation communicating when it chooses a former sports stadium for its gathering space? It’s the same type of message that the frustrated wife in our country song is communicating. Only in the case of lady church, it is this: the church does not have a message that is radically different from that of the world. It is not so radically different as to require a radically different space in which to communicate it. It is a comfortable, entertaining, non-life-altering message. The Gospel is as American as apple pie, Chevrolet, and Regal Cinemas.

Only it’s not. The Gospel is a radical message. It is as contrary to the ways and thoughts of the world as a home is to a bar, as a temple is to a theatre. And because of that, the church where this Gospel is preached dare not ape the architecture of the world. If she does, if she transforms the church into a theatre of entertainment, then she will teach the world that the Gospel is about titillation, feeling good, kicking back and being comfortable.

Holy Worship of a Holy God in a Holy Place

As the Old Testament tabernacle and temple were, so the New Testament church is: a holy place where the holy God dwells to meet with His holy people. I want to feel uncomfortable in church. I want my family and friends and fellow worshipers not to feel at ease, but to feel in awe when they enter the sanctuary of God. I want them to exclaim, as did Jacob, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” (Gen 28:17). I don’t want them to say, “How cool is this place! This is none other than the theatre where I watched ‘Annabelle’ last week, and here’s the cup holder where I put my Dr. Pepper while I ate popcorn.”

The church is a place of radical transformation. God meets with His people in this place to speak a law to them that reveals their selfishness, the bad man in all of them, the death that lurks within them. And through that law He kills. He puts them to the death of repentance in order that He might resurrect them through the good news of Jesus Christ. In Him they are not made comfortable and at ease, but are changed. They are made alive, truly alive, in the Son of God who loves them, who gave up His life for their own, who burst forth from the grace triumphant over death. That resurrection proclamation is transformative. It makes living saints out of dead sinners. It gives hope and healing to the wounded and bleeding.

Yes, of course, mission congregations often gather in spaces that are less than ideal. But I pray that even then they choose as neutral a space as possible for their temporary sanctuary, and transform that room or building on Sunday morning into as church-like a setting as possible. Why? Because the architecture, the furnishings, and the decorations of the church are not peripheral to this message. They too preach Christ. Stained glass and icons preach in color and symbol the good news of Jesus. Crosses and crucifixes focus the viewer on the heart of the church’s message of Christ crucified for you. The altar and communion rail beckon the worshiper to the feast of Jesus’ forgiving flesh and vivifying blood. Incense proclaims to our sense of smell the pleasing aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice and the rising smoke visually portrays our prayers that rise to heaven’s throne of grace. Pulpits and altars root the believers in the divine Word that comes down from heaven to feed our souls with words of truth. All together, architecture, sacred furnishings, and holy décor proclaim the Christ who radically transforms us into the children of God, citizens not of this world but a divine kingdom, worshipers who experience heaven on earth every Sunday morning.

You like to drink beer? Fine, enjoy a pint at the pub. You like to watch movies? Me too, so let’s go to the theatre. But when we’re meeting God face-to-face, leave the beer and the popcorn outside, for that place of divine encounter is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven, the church of Jesus Christ.