Are you not entertained? Reverence, fun & worship

I was interested in seeing this video of Derek Thomas on the Ligonier website addressing the question of whether there is a role for entertainment in the church:

I appreciated a few things about what he said.

First, kudos to him for recognising that Presbyterians like him struggle to have fun. Frankly, strict and particular baptists suffer from the same (I suspect) broadly reformed problem. We even enshrine a sense that we’re not into fun in our nomenclature, so at least we’re laying out our stall early! Most of us reformed folk could do with having a bit of fun to the glory of God.

Second, I appreciate that he recognises there is a theology of fun. He is quite clear that God intends us to have fun. I think he is right about that. We will come onto his caveats on that shortly. But I think this was helpful.

Third, whilst I have my own caveats on this (more in a minute), I appreciate the principle that worship is not principally about us. I think he is right. Worship is primarily about our praising and worshipping God, not entertaining ourselves. I agree with him this is the right priority.

So, that’s where I agree. But I do have a few queries about some of what is said in this short video.

First, it was interesting that he is certain – whilst God intends us to have fun – he is fairly sure we shouldn’t have that fun in church and absolutely certain it shouldn’t be in worship. But I am not so sure about that. I absolutely appreciate the third point I list above – our worship is not primarily about entertaining ourselves but concerns our praise and worship of God – but I’m not sure those two things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Take the Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example. It tells us the reason for our existence is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. It goes on to tell us that we know how to glorify God and enjoy him through the scriptures. The Westminster Confession, 21:I, also tells us that ‘the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture’. Taken together, man was created to glorify God and enjoy him forever, which we learn how to do through the scriptures within which God has prescribed how he is to be worshipped. In other words, we enjoy God through our worship of him.

Now, no doubt somebody cleverer than me will comment and put me right (should they think I am wrong), but it seems to me enjoyment and fun are closely linked concepts. If it is possible to have ‘fun’ to the glory of God, and our worship is the means whereby we enjoy God, it strikes me that fun in worship is entirely reasonable. This line becomes all the more direct if we take John Frame’s view of the regulative principle (which I do) in which he argues, ‘But when you think about it, the regulative principle is not limited to worship services. It is God’s regulative principle for all areas of human life. It is not only in our Sunday worship services that we seek to please God rather than ourselves (1 Thess. 4:122 Tim. 2:34).’ He goes on to argues, ‘The parallel between worship and other areas of human life should not surprise us, because, in one sense, worship is all of life.’

Derek Thomas acknowledges that God intends us to have fun and that a theology of fun rightly exists. But, if we accept that and we follow Frame, the same regulative principle that governs worship in church also governs our worship outside of church. All of life, he argues, is governed by the same regulative principle. Which means, if there is a legitimate theology of fun to be had because, as Thomas states, ‘God intends us to have fun’, that same principle must extend into worship services too unless there is some clear and direct statement in scripture that fun is verboten when the people of God gather. I’m not sure I am aware of such a prescription.

What is more, we are to enjoy God through our worship. In a sense, our worship should be fun. It should be enjoyable. A believer – whose heart has been changed by God to love him and seek after him as it ought – will come to enjoy worship. It will, in a sense, be fun and enjoyable. That doesn’t mean that the primary basis for our worship is to entertain ourselves. We aren’t in church worshipping to that end – the end is God himself! But, if our hearts are right and we are enjoying God as we ought, a by-product of our praise and worship seems likely to be enjoyment. Though we aren’t there primarily as pleasure-seekers, we will take pleasure in worshipping God with his people. A by-product of hearts rightly oriented toward the Lord will be enjoying the things of God, taking pleasure in them and (dare I say) even having fun while doing so.

Which brings me, finally, to his comment that worship ought to be reverent and sombre. If, following Frame, the same regulative principle that governs our church worship also governs all of life, we would have to consider all of life to be reverent and sombre. If the only appropriate attire for church is a dark suit and a stony face, we better keep that getup on all the time because all of life is worship and the Lord is always present with us.

But even if we don’t follow Frame, I am not sure where this principle comes from. Of course, we don’t want to be irreverent toward the Lord, but since when was reverence and being miserable synonymous? It is possible to be reverent and humourous (for example) at the same time. There is no reason why reverence and fun, or enjoying something, can’t go hand in hand. To argue that they are mutually exclusive is to say that it is impossible to enjoy the worship of God. If you enjoy it, it is no longer reverent! But, of course, if you don’t enjoy it, you aren’t doing what we were created to do; namely, glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Whilst approaching the living God is no small thing, it is worth remembering that he isn’t some distant figure, but in Christ he is our Father. If we conceive of him as the loving Father that he is, what kind of loving father insists his children are sombre every time they come near him? There is, clearly, a way to disrespect our fathers, but enjoying him and having fun in his presence is surely not it and isn’t to be found in the Bible. Indeed, I would be sad if my children never felt they could have fun, laugh or joke in my presence because they were worried I would somehow consider it disrespectful to me. I might not like it if I was the butt of their jokes – and that is all the more serious when we are speaking about Almighty God – but the idea that he objects the fun and laughter in his presence strikes me as very odd.

What is a shame is that many who use the word ‘reverent’ to describe their worship services very often mean dull and boring. Again, whilst we shouldn’t want to worship God in a way that is disrespectful to him and irreverent, grim faces and boring services is hardly the mark of great respect. Indeed, if God created us to glorify and enjoy him – and he governs that properly through his Word, including how he is to be worshipped – we are surely doing it wrong if our worship bears all hallmarks of a sombre funeral service.

It strikes me that if there is a theology of fun to be had, and that God intends us to have fun – though our being entertained shouldn’t be the primary reason for our being in church – it might well be the happy by-product of people enjoying their heavenly Father as they were originally created to do.