Over the past few weeks there’s been some promotion for concerts where you can go and see Christian worship leaders performing. We’ll come back to the question about performances and concerts shortly but what has particularly caught the eye has been the offer of priority and VIP tickets.
First of all, VIP tickets were offered for concerts with Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United. After a bit of an outcry, the term VIP was removed though these events are still described as “experiences.** Then yesterday, a friend of mine shared this advert for VIP tickets at $130 to see and have dinner with the Gettys.
Now before I talk a bit more about the specific issues here, some people have been a little uneasy about us discussing the issues publicly. Two concerns were raised. The first was that by publicly questioning such issues we might be drawing attention to them In forums where unbelievers might be able to see and this would be a bad witness -like taking your brother to court (1 Corinthians 6).
However, the issue in 1 Corinthians 6 was not that Christians were airing their dirty lining in public. Rather, it was that they were using the courts to settle personal scores. Paul was clear that if there were genuine fallings out and wrongdoing among believers them the church had competency to respond to sin to encourage repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. This does not mean that matters won’t become public just as has happened with the sad cases of abuse and bullying that have come to light. The church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 would involve responding publicly to public and persistent sin.
Non-Christians know that believers aren’t perfect. They see our own day to day failings and they get to hear about horrendous scandals when they happen. The problem is not with those who talk openly about such things but with those who allow such scandals to happen. Our responsibility is to be clear in our communication that Christians are not perfect but the Gospel is for failing and sinful people. Our responsibility is to ensure that our own conversation about such things is seasoned with salt and light, shows humility and points to grace.
Secondly, the risk of judging individuals was raised. Do we know the circumstances of the specific artists involved? Is it fair to comment when they are often generous people who do a lot of good? Is it possible that the proceeds may be going to charitable causes? The point is that when we are seeing such things happen with concerning regularity then the issue is not with individuals but with the culture that seems to be growing up around the contemporary worship experience. It is highly possible that the individual musicians and composers are not involved in and not alert to the publicity and merchandising.
However, what we are seeing here is symptomatic of a commercial culture that has crept into church life. I think this starts when we begin to blur the lines between performance and corporate worship. When I go to a concert, I’m going to watch and listen -I’m going to be entertained. Yet, we are not talking about solo pieces at these events. We’re talking about the same songs that we would sing on a Sunday but at a larger venue and with the original composers leading. Yes, we are selling tickets for an experience.
I’m already uncomfortable with that. However, the VIP experience takes us a step further. What it offers is the experience of privilege and elitism in exchange for more money. It separates and grades believers on the basis of wealth. It offers entrance into an inner circle and access to those we consider to be celebrities. Once again it does so on the basis of money.
Alongside this I’ve also experienced the same kind of culture when it comes to seeking support for Gospel ministry. In order to persuade people to give to church planting and revitalisation in our neediest neighbourhoods, there is an expectation that donors with deep pockets will be wined and dined before different people will pitch their ideas for the donors to choose between. Attend training to learn how to raise support as individual, church or charity and you’ll also be told that you need to follow up such pitching with donor care so that those who give the most feel looked after and appreciated. Now, to be clear, I’m deeply appreciative of those who have supported different things I’ve been involved in over the years. However, often the greatest sacrificial giving comes not from the wealthy donors who give large amounts but the many less well off who give smaller amounts but at greater cost to themselves. I’ve a feeling that there is something in the Gospels to that effect!
What we are seeing here is an aspect of our culture that should leave us deeply disturbed and distressed. It’s idolatrous and sinful and it calls for repentance. Are those words too strong? Well here’s Jude 1:11
“11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.”
5 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing
Meanwhile Paul says:
“17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,[e] 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”
We have a money, power and privilege problem. It’s not about a few individuals selling some tickets. The marketing guys have worked out that there is demand among Christians for such experiences.
This is not something we can ignore or excuse away. This is something that requires repentance and change.