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Why Pyrotechnics Won’t Save the Church (Some thoughts on “contemporary” worship)


lasrer.smokeI’m quoted in an article of the Fall Issue of Connect: Journal of Children, Youth and Family Ministry, published by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.  Last week I attended the ELCA Youth Ministry Network annual Extravaganza conference (this year taking place in Anaheim, CA.) The question asked in the article is:

What will the future of the church would look like?

My response?

“I hope there are lasers. Man, that would be cool.” *


I’ve made it a running joke that something that would make worship more exciting would be to employ the use of a smoke machine. Just imagine it, a light cloud rolling down the steps during the welcome and announcements; or firing it up on Easter, or using it with the youth when they dramatize the gospel readings. Add some laser lights and a disco ball and people might want to be part of something like that!

We took down the church’s Christmas decorations almost a month ago now. As we were putting the many reminders of Christmas back into storage, I wondered what it would be like to install hydraulic lifts so that the trees could be lowered out of the chancel. They could then be lifted up next Christmas. People gathered would scream with delight as the trees lifted up from beneath the floor. We could turn on the smoke machine to watch the trees ascend into position through a thick fog. We could orchestrate it with music, get another lift with a baby grand piano on top of it, and have laser beams dart around through the cloud and off the disco ball. To do it right would require slow-moving turntable underneath the piano, so it would spin gradually revealing the instrument every angle. What we really could use is a safe way to implement an indoor fireworks show. If it gets too cloudy to see, we could install big screens throughout the sanctuary in order to provide close-ups.  What do you think? Man that would be cool.

People would want to come to that kind of church. We would invite friends, advertise around town, and entice young people. There is no limit to our success with the right kind of equipment!

fogtec-vs-400-smoke-machine-848-pOf course I don’t really want a smoke machine. We probably won’t get lasers either. However, many churches yearn for something spectacular to draw the masses. I’m not against guitars, big screens or even smoke machines; besides being a style choice they are no different from organ, hymn books, and candles. The trouble is – many communities turn to them as THE WAY to reach people. How we worship replaces who we worship, as the medium replaces the message. The takeaway is that people start to believe that “The Spirit is really at work” because of the show. Some, of course, make the same argument stating that “The Spirit is really at work” if enough traditional elements are preserved, the correct liturgies are utilized and had all the proper vestments to wear. Both of these perspectives argue the same point: religiosity must be manufactured. We quickly lose the perspective that faith is a gift from God and believe instead that it’s a buyer’s market when it comes to spirituality in America. We make different decisions thinking we had better get our production value right, whether it is attempting to capture historic liturgy or a facilitate a Christianized rock concert.

Read this carefully:

We should do our best.  We should make every attempt to build on what has come before us as we live in the present and plan for the future. We should select music, write prayers, prepare sermons, while making our best effort to connect our Christian faith to the rest of our lives. We should change where we need to, adapt where we can, and move past dated models that no longer function. 

But read this carefully too:  

Martin Luther said that,

“To have a god is nothing else than to trust in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and idol.”  **

There are many things we make our god even in good faith. Our church buildings are not God. Our musical instruments are not God. Our clothes don’t make us closer to God. Visual aids are not holy in themselves. All of these things are only tools. They are the things we utilize to point to something else, something much bigger – the actual God of the universe whom we gather to worship.

Here is the bottom line:

If we are looking to save the church, we have already taken the wrong path. Pyrotechnics are not going to save the church. Gimmicks are not going to save the church. Spectacle is not going to save the church. Saving the church is not our primary endeavor. Proclaiming the savior of the world is.

What if we started and ended everything we did by asking:

What is our central message – the tools we are using, ourselves, or God?

What makes all of ministry contemporary, relevant, and meaningful is not the ability to do it better than everyone else or have better toys to use. What brings the gospel into the present tense in our lives is that we live our lives in Christ, seeking THE WAY – by joyfully using the gifts and resources we have, rather than worshipping them. Our calling is not to save the church. God uses the voice of the church (and the people connected to it) to proclaim Christ as the savior the world – smoke machine, lasers, or not.


As he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)

* Clint Schneckloth, “The Future Is On Its Way to Us,” Connect: Journal of Children, Youth and Family Ministry. [Chicago: ELCA Youth Ministry Network, Fall, 2012], p. 13.

** Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], explanation to the 1st Commandment, p. 386.

(orginally published on January 30, 2013.)

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