"So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play" (Exodus 32:6, NASB).
"Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11, NASB).
The people of Israel had not even received the ten commandments of their law before they started establishing commandments of their own to Aaron. Like King Saul after him, Aaron gave in to the demands and expectations of the people in order to establish a system, in Aaron's case a religious practice but in Saul's a theocratic practice of polity, that bent to the whims of the people and not to the directions of the Lord. Paul later cites the passage in Exodus as a negative example for the church: do not give into idolatry as the people of Israel did under Aaron at the mountain (1 Cor. 10:7). In contrast to this, the Jews of Berea, however, had received the word of the apostles and tested it against what they were reading in the old testament to make sure these things matched what they had learned in the Bible. These people were engaged with the teaching, testing word for word so that they might believe and practice as God would have them do. Why am I bringing both of these examples together in synthesis? Because our purpose in service to God, whether that be in corporate worship or individual acts of honoring the Lord, should be to do that which is pleasing in his sight above all others. If our focus is merely set on entertainment, we are occupied by thinking on the desires of man, not the things of God (cf. Mat. 16:23). But if we set our focus on pleasing the Lord, we will be busy about the work of finding out that which is pleasing to him and doing it (Eph. 5:20). There is not a false dichotomy at play; we must do the Lord's work, effectively speaking for him a way that communicates with the audience we address.
Within the desire to do what is pleasing to God, let us realize that it is not a matter of entertainment to be engaged in the service of God. We know that Jesus was engaged in the service of God when he cleared the Temple of money changers, being filled with zeal for God's house (Jno. 2:17). We ought to have a similar zeal with a different application in our service. This means we teachers and preachers of the Bible ought to engage audiences of our brethren and unbelievers with a desire to stir up a similar engagement without stooping to the frivolity of transitory entertainment. It is an interesting study to see how many times Paul cited the popular culture of his day while preaching to non-Christians or when teaching Christians. For instance, the statement that "Bad company corrupts good morals" (1 Cor. 15:33) comes from a well-known Greek play by the Greek playwright Menander. The Greek poet ("prophet") Epimenides of Crete was quoted by Paul (Ac. 17:28) when he stated "in him we live and move and have our being" which was originally part of a hymn to Zeus--which Paul applied to the true God. Paul later quoted Epimenides in saying that "All Cretans are liars" (Tit. 1:12). If we stick with the scripture, we have example upon example of preaching which connects Biblical teaching with cultural cords. In doing this, Paul was not entertaining his audiences; he was engaging them.
Entertainment, however, is not a long-term solution to the need of people to hear and obey the gospel. That is because the whims of people, while constantly changing, are rarely anchored into firm soil (Mar. 4:8; 2 Tim. 3:7). Having received the word of the Lord who ministers at the right hand of God, will we truly stoop to entertaining as a means of reaching others for Christ? Before you say that this is a straw man I am speaking against, please hear me out. Christians in the United States work for Christ in the midst of a culture war. Pandering to the desires of the young or the old as though we were taking sides in the conflict is not what I am saying is effective for reaching people for Christ. Only the gospel message can save the lost: our warfare is spiritual, not carnal, and not merely cultural (1 Pet. 2:11; Jam. 4:11; 2 Cor. 10:3). It is up to us to present the gospel in our actions and if necessary in our words so that we will attract others to Christ (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22). If we stoop to methods that make us only men-pleasers, we are not serving the Lord but passing lusts. In this, we must recognize that our audiences change over time, and we speak to a different audience than the one that existed in the first century. We must consider the times so that we may communicate the truths of God, especially the need for salvation, in the appearance of the age we live in.
If I must preach shorter sermons on occasion to reach those with short attention spans, I will. Lord willing I will have the opportunity to speak much more in fewer words on more occasions.
If I must use stories to illustrate God's teaching as Christ did, I will. I do not want to only speak from my own experience—which engages the preacher but not always the listener—but ask listeners to evaluate themselves (2 Cor. 13:5) and to connect themselves to the teaching of Christ, seeing themselves in the mirror of the word, making the changes the Christ requires (2 Cor. 3:18; Jam. 1:23).
If I must use cultural references to reach the lost as Paul did, I will. I want to hold the Bible firmly in one hand and the newspaper (or blogpost?) in the other, showing the relevance of the word, persuading others to accept the authority of God over the temporary emotions which entertainment excites.
If I must make changes in presentation style or organization of a Bible class, I will. Personal Bible study should be personal. I want the focus to be God's word, not necessarily the teacher of the audience. I want to say, with Paul, that it is not I but the Lord whose word carries the authorized weight of instruction above our own (1 Cor. 7:10). The question I want to ask is whether or not the class is engaged with the material taught from the scriptures. If this can be accomplished with the audience using lecture, I will lecture. If with class discussion, we will discuss.
Let us all be willing to be all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22) so with Paul we may win some to Christ. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that big numbers are a sign of growth or entertainment a sign of spiritual maturity. Let us be willing to bend ourselves in ways God permits, using selective expediencies to connect spiritual with spiritual.
Let us not strive to entertain but to engage.
By Sam Stinson
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