Churches are Midways, Pastors are Barkers

Many churches are merely religious versions of carnival midways, and their pastors are the barkers. Learn to recognize it and discover the cure.

When my family and I go to the Texas State Fair in Dallas, Texas, one of the areas we usually skip is the midway. Despite its fun music, bright lights, and colorful stuffed animals, we just can’t reconcile spending the exorbitant amounts of money generally needed to partake of its offerings. Nevertheless, midways attract thousands of visitors each year to enjoy in the activities.

Midways generally include superfluous games, challenges, and sights, especially at larger venues such as state fairs. While their purpose is profit, their design is intended to attract visitors. Two key aspects of a successful midway are an inviting atmosphere and loud barkers.

The atmosphere is created through the use of bright lights (which admittedly are pretty at night), popular upbeat music, brightly colored giant stuffed animals, and food. No midway is complete without lots of fried foods, especially funnel cakes. Overall, the sights, sounds, and smells are combined to create an aesthetically inviting atmosphere designed to bring people into the midway.

Along with an inviting atmosphere, successful midways include barkers. Generally the barker is a single person standing at the entrance of the midway calling out to people to get their attention. While larger venues (e.g., state fairs) may employ a single barker, smaller venues let their booth workers fill the role. As you walk by, someone calls out, imploring you to play the games or see the sights. Often using a medley of information, barbs, pleas, and simple invitations, barkers let passersby know about the activities and invite them to participate in the midway. Between an inviting atmosphere and rambunctious barkers, midways continue to be a staple of carnivals and fairs.

Today, local churches have become religious midways, and pastors the barkers. Sunday school classes, worship services, fellowships, and other activities have devolved from gospel ministries into Christianized activity booths, and pastors have transformed from gospel preachers into attention-grabbing raconteurs. Instead of greater profits, churches seek packed pews and teeming tithes; instead of selling games and pseudo-‘wonders,’ churches market religion, better lives, and—sadly—Christianized get-rich quick schemes (you know, the famous “sow a seed” claims).

Local Church: The Religious Midway

The church’s shift from gospel ministry to God’s midway is seen clearly in two areas: worship service debates and the pulpit search committee. While much can be said regarding both of these, this article will simply highlight how they contribute to the church-as-midway phenomenon plaguing the American church.

For decades Christians have wrangled over worship service styles, with the debate generally oversimplified as between “contemporary,” “traditional,” or “blended” services. Then there’s the “seeker service” model popularized by Willow Creek Community Church (Bill Hybels) and the “purpose driven” model represented by Saddleback Church (Rick Warren). Regardless of one’s particular style preference or position in the debate, the consensus is that the local church should offer services and activities that in some way are welcoming and accepting so as to be attractive to passersby.

In many ways churches today are attempting to plan services or develop activities that present a vibrant, optimistic, aesthetically appealing church—just like midways. Sights, sounds, and smells are orchestrated and molded for the purpose of attracting people into the church and providing them a pleasant experience. The goals: promote the local church, and fill the pews and offering plates.

Some may think that I am critical of churches that adopt more contemporary services, use light shows and upbeat pop-style music, and desire to create spirited, seamless worship service. On the contrary! There is nothing sinful or wrong with the use of new technology, modern styles, and other things often criticized regarding more contemporary churches. The problem is the mission, not the methods.

Regardless of one’s worship service style preferences, too often churches today behave more like carnival midways than gospel ministries. Their goal is to bring people into the church by creating an atmosphere that is dynamic, attractive, and aesthetically pleasing. It is less about creating an atmosphere of dynamic worship and more about promoting the church and filling the seats. Jesus, however, did not establish his church in order to fill the pews and coffers in the name of God. Rather, he established her for his own glory with the mission of going out to the world proclaiming the gospel.

Pastor: The Religious Barker

State Fair of Texas midway barker.
Midway barker at the Texas State Fair.

Another area that promulgates the idea that the church is a Christianized midway and the pastor is the barker is the pulpit search committee. For those not familiar with this, a pulpit or pastor search committee is a group of individuals charged with the duty of seeking someone to be the church’s next pastor. Some committees maintain full hiring power—they can hire a pastor without a larger congregational vote—while others only make a recommendation to the church body. Regardless, pulpit search committees endeavor to find the person they believe should be the church’s pastor.

Serving on a search committee is a difficult and unenvious duty. The members are given a great deal of responsibility and authority—their calling is a high calling indeed!—and nobody should seek to serve in such a role. The members must spend much time in prayer seeking the will of God, struggling to find the person that they are certain God wants to be the next pastor. Many often wonder, “Are we hearing God correctly?” It’s a difficult role to fill.

While many who serve on these committees intellectually acknowledge that the gospel is the church’s mission, and thus should be the mission of the search committee and of the next pastor, often the gospel is overshadowed by the midway. One of the most often asked question of pastoral candidates is in regard to growing the church. Often they directly ask how the potential pastor will grow the church, though sometimes they are more indirect, asking about healing, restoring, or ministering to the church. However it’s asked, one of the top concerns of search committees is finding someone to serve as a Christian barker promoting the church and calling people to come in.

Search committees often seek someone to announce to passersby the offerings of the church, draw attention to the church, and appeal to the world’s needs in an effort to entice them to partake of the various booths offered in the religious midway called church. The gospel becomes merely a tool used by the pastor to help in his duties as religious midway barker.

Many pastors willingly assume this role. They spend less time preaching the gospel and more time appealing to people’s fleshly, worldly desires. Sermons become devoid of sin, but offer six steps to a better life, happier marriages, or other things; pop-psychology supplants the Paraclete and self-help replaces Scripture. Some go so far as to appeal to greed, implying that one could win the big prize if only they were brave enough to buy a ticket to play the game. The religious version sounds something like this: somebody else received a large amount of money (or healing or other miracle) because they were faithful enough to sow a seed into the ministry).

Whether he’s preaching a message of self-help or selfish greed, the pastor’s duty is to pronounce to others the virtues of the church and entice them to come in. They are merely religious midway barkers, and pulpit search committees often encourage this philosophy by seeking someone to fill that role.

The Cure: Gospel-Centered Christianity

There is nothing wrong with having fun at church. Music need not be dreary and dirgesque; it can be energetic and appealing, even modern in style. Inviting people to church and developing ministries to meet needs are always good ideas. The problem is not in what is done, but why it is done; the problem is the mission, not the methods. The cure is to be gospel-centered.

Churches and midways differ significantly in fundamental areas: their operation and their endgame (i.e., their mission). Midways are built on the premise of attracting people for financial gain. As such, they are designed to entice and enchant people so they will be drawn to the booths and, ideally, spend their money in the hopes of obtaining some prize or personal satisfaction. Midways follow the bring-them-in model. Churches, however, should follow the send-them-out model.

Jesus commanded his followers to be goers: we are to go out into the world proclaiming God’s message of good news to the world. Jesus twice sent his disciples to go preach to communities and villages (Matt 10:5-42; Luke 10:1-22). He didn’t call them to attract people to their facilities; he told them to go to the people. Using a parable he instructed believers to “Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23; in this parable, the Master’s house is not the local church, but the kingdom of God; inviting them in means calling them to become disciples of Christ). Finally, before his ascension, Jesus told the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19).

The local church is to be an outgoing church. Church is not a midway full of activities and food, but is a gas station for refueling the believer so he or she can continue going for Christ. All a church does, from worship services to small groups to social fellowships, should be geared toward getting believers prepared to spend the week going for Christ. While midways are designed to bring people in, church services and Bible studies should invigorate, empower, and train people to be disciples going out into the world.

Not only do midways and churches differ in how they operate, they also have notably divergent endgames. Midways exist to make profits. There’s nothing wrong with profiting in a business endeavor. However, churches are not businesses, they are ministries. Local churches are not institutions of profit, they are assemblies of the gospel.

Profit can be measured in two ways: financial and biological. Financial profit is commonly understood: revenues above and beyond expenses. Businesses gain financial profits by receiving payment for goods or services rendered. Churches receive financial profits by receiving tithes and offerings. While businesses exist for financial profits, churches do not.

Too many churches based their effectiveness and success by their financial bottom line. When revenue declines, the church is failing in its mission; when revenue increases, the church is successful. However, Jesus did not commission his disciples to seek financial gain, nor did he measure success on a spreadsheet.

To the church in Laodicea, Jesus said, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). Here, the local church believed it was successful and spiritual because of its financial profits. However, Jesus said that such success is worldly, not heavenly, and that despite their financial wealth, the church was a failure. Furthermore, Jesus had nothing good to say about the financially profitable Laodicean church.

Laodicea contrasts starkly with the church in Smyrna, to which Jesus said, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). Here was a church that was both financially destitute and facing extreme persecution, yet Jesus called the “rich” and had only praise and encouragement for the Smyrna church.

Not only do many churches today measure their success or failure by their financial profits, but many also base it on their biological profit. Biological profit is the increase in the number of people attending church services or Bible studies. Many today distort the intentions of the Church Growth Movement inaugurated by Donald McGavran (cf. Understanding Church Growth) and emphasize numerical growth (herein called biological so as to distinguish it from financial numbers). Many point to texts in Acts where it talks about thousands being saved as evidence that God wants believers to strive for biological growth in local churches (a proper understanding of those passages is subject of other articles). However, Jesus never called his disciples to seek biological growth, but to seek spiritual growth.

Jesus told us to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33); he told his followers to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19); and Paul told his protégé to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). Luke records Jesus’ teachings following his resurrection:

[A]nd He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” – Luke 24:46-49

[B]ut you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. – Acts 1:8

These passages indicate that Jesus called his disciples not to seek biological profit, but spiritual growth in the gospel of Christ. Herein is the difference of the endgames, or missions, of midways and churches: the former is all about profits, the latter is all about the gospel.

Many churches today have devolved from ministries to midways, and have replaced their gospel mission with a worldly profit mission. As a result, their services and activities are marketed in the name of the church, and the gospel is at best a tool for self-promotion, and at worst a side show. The mentality of many church members has shifted from one of proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the world to one of filling pews and offering plates. Church services are all too often not about worshipping a risen savior, but about bowing at the idol of religious sycophancy.

Scores of pulpit search committees seek not gospel preachers and teachers, but church cheerleaders and religious midway barkers calling people to visit the booths within the church walls. In order to seek greater profits—financial and biological—many preachers relegate the gospel to an adjunct issue or a tool for appealing to fleshliness and greed. Uncounted pulpits are manned by propagators of religious self-help and selfish gain in the here and now rather than preachers of the word, both written (Scripture) and living (Christ Jesus).

America is plagued by churches and denominations seeking to promote and grow themselves rather than promote and grow God’s kingdom. Even worse, many confound self-promotion with gospel promotion, believing the lie that to promote the church is to promote Jesus. As a result, many churches become mere religious midways, and pastors become their barkers. Thus, the world sees little-to-no difference between a church and a business because they believe both are out for themselves.

It is time that churches abandon their midway mentality and adopt a gospel-centered mentality. This begins with believers repenting of their sin of replacing the cross with a building. Believers should renew their passion for God and his mission to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Disciples of Christ should once again become disciples of Christ and no longer disciples of man or churches.

Church leaders and laity should re-evaluate all their churches do and ask how it helps promote the gospel. Where the gospel is not primary, all activities should be adjusted, re-designed, or eliminated. The gospel mission of the church should become more than a mere mission, purpose, or vision statement; it should become a way of thinking and living.

Now is the time for the church to return to God. Now is the time for believers to resubmit to the Jesus. Now is the time for Jesus’ disciples to follow the Spirit. Now is the time for the gospel to dominate, define, and direct the church. Now is the time to the church to become gospel-centered.

About John L. Rothra
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