Bait & Switch, Or How People Go to Church for Jesus But Get Something Else


I read about these churches with satellite campuses, where people watch a pastor by closed-circuit TV. I hear about these churches where the worship teams operate from iPads. I know of these churches where people fret over the brand of stage lights used or the sound systems.

And yet the cry of the human heart remains: “Show me Jesus.”

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3 ESV

All that we do in a church must go back to one reality: Knowing God and His Son. That’s it.

Authenticity has become a buzzword in Christian circles, and it’s almost humorous to witness the highly manipulative means we use to achieve authenticity. Yet the fact remains: We want a deep, abiding intimacy with God free of dross.

Our problem is that we keep erecting barriers to authenticity for the sake of creating that intimacy. I think this is because we no longer know what it takes to become intimate with God.

I’m convinced that many church leaders are out of touch, if what we see of a Sunday meeting is typical. The church meeting revolves around the mistaken assumption that people are self-feeding. I don’t believe that should be assumed. I think a lot of people come to church hoping to achieve intimacy, but church leaders assume they already have it, leaders don’t help usher people into it, and then folks go back home having not found what they came for. Then they are expected to build off a foundation they do not have.

Or worse. The church gives a foundation, but it’s all built on a show, a performance. People came looking for Jesus, but they got Ringling Brothers instead.

Church as entertainmentA life experience:

I know a pastor who is a solid man of God. He genuinely loves people and loves Jesus. One Sunday, he got up and said, “People keep asking me when we’re going to go deeper, but this is as deep as it gets!” And he said it with a broad smile on his face.

A year later, that pastor and his staff were convening a whole-church meeting to repent for the dog and pony show the church had become.

You see, the people in the seats were starving to death. The leadership assumed people were feeding themselves properly, and they weren’t. The people didn’t know where to find spiritual food, and the leaders of the church weren’t giving them any. Those people in the seats knew it too. They knew they were dying. They came to church looking for Jesus and instead got a pale imitation.

While this doesn’t excuse the people in the seats for not being more self-sufficient in their own feeding, the problem remains. Every Sunday in America, people are going to church hoping to encounter Jesus, but they get something else instead.

We Christians like to reserve the following verse for our foes:

Claiming to be wise, they became fools…
—Romans 1:22 ESV

Do we ever consider that in thinking we are wise about human nature and what people need we have instead become fools and substituted a genuine intimacy with the Lord for something else? Something that doesn’t satisfy and never can?

There is nothing so sad as a church that keeps piling on the show while people sit in the seats and wonder why it is they leave after an hour and still feel empty. Five minutes outside the church door, the entertainment’s buzz has worn off, and again the reality of life has rushed in to fill the perpetual void.

Authenticity may be a buzzword, but people are dying for it nonetheless.

What if we stripped everything we do as a church down to its core? What if we pitched the amped worship band? The PowerPoint presentation? The CCTV? The theater-like church building? The one-hour show?

What if we went back to prayer? What if we opened our services for people to stand up and share their needs? What if we ate a real communion meal together and took our time doing so? What if the people in the seats were given free reign to use their gifts to minister to others in the body during our services?

What if we talked about Jesus and not just about ourselves? What if we held Him up in such a way that awe came back to the people because of who He is and not because of the new light bar we got for the stage?

What if?

It’s not just the young believers who are dying for real food. These are tough times. Some of the people hit hardest are those who have been walking with Jesus for the longest time. Satan hates those people, and he will do everything he can to discourage them, because if he takes them down, the young in Christ will go down too.

I can think of nothing sadder than a person who comes to church desiring Jesus but who instead receives trifles.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Time to purge everything that hinders.

23 thoughts on “Bait & Switch, Or How People Go to Church for Jesus But Get Something Else

  1. Aunt Darlene

    Sounds like your Lutheran roots were a good place to start.
    Been to feel good churches but that is all I left with.
    Realizing what you went to church for and coming home with dancing feet does not a Sunday sermon

  2. Mr. Poet

    Ignore the power of Jesus’s name!
    Come on! Let’s have a ball!
    Bring forth the church growth diagram
    lest we grow bored of all!
    Bring forth the church growth diagram
    lest we grow bored of all!

  3. Mr. Poet

    Who will valet my car? Who will usher me to the private elevator, which will take me up to the luxury suite overlooking the staging area for my executive viewing of the worship service? I expect my freshly baked Communion bread to be waiting for me under glass and my Communion wine chilled.

    • Poet,

      I attended a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh that had a chauffeur’s entrance–and it got a lot of use. If we left it at that, we could turn up our nose at the hoity-toity-ness of it all, but that church’s college outreach program was powerful, and some of the greatest growth I experienced in my life came about because of that ministry. Sometimes, you can’t make an object lesson out of one fact.

  4. linda

    Hi Mr. Edelen,
    I’m thinking that there are dark spiritual forces as well that have somehow gained a foothold in the church. The only evedence that I have of this being possible is the difficulty that I have keeping up devotionals and reading the Bible when I am attending a ‘church’. There are other factors of course. I had some changes occuring in my life, but generally this is what I find. For me, this has deterred me from attending church. It may not be so easy as just adjusting the way we do church. I think we may have gone beyond that.

    What will it take? We need a good knowledge about what is going on. This is difficult other than what we see on the surface. We know that in Jesus’ time he called the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law the children of the devil. Because I think that these leaders knew what they were doing. On the outside everything looked pious and well, but there were some serious things in the undercurrent that were not of God in the ‘church temple worship and workings’ of Jesus’ day. This was not a matter of changing tactics. It was a matter of shutting it down.

    Corruption was complete although there were still leaders that were righteous. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus being such examples. And of course Paul the Apostle was a Pharisee before he encountered Jesus on the Damascus road.

    God always has his people, the true church. At least I believe this is so in our day. However, there is a scripture that questions whether Jesus will find faith on the earth when he comes. This thought is amazing to me.

  5. BraveSaintStuart

    I really like this article. As someone who has been raised in a performance-laden worship culture (though not to the extent of having a flashy light show), I can appreciate the sentiment that we can and do often get lost in it. At the same time, I’m cautious to simply throw it all out, baby, bathwater and all.
    I have a special place in my heart for the vessel that is music, and while there are many modern worship songs that I think are garbage (a fault that can and should be shared as much by record execs as the artists themselves, by the way), there are also some timeless treasures being created right now. Moreover, there’s a usefulness to video screens and multi-media overall. And you want to focus on that stuff so that it lives out its usefulness to convey the message. But you don’t want to make that stuff the focus of worship.
    The heart of your message hits hard. What if we were less distracted by the stageworks and instead were given the space to be enamored by the greatness of God.

    • BSS,

      I played drums on the worship team at my church for seven years (though I’m on a break right now). Most of the music is fine. It’s the “show” I don’t like. I don’t want to go on stage feeling like a rock star. I don’t want a rock mentality to permeate the worship. I don’t want a favorite melody to be the reason someone is “worshiping.” If those trappings of the world start creeping into worship, then it has gone off course. I would contend it’s off course in a lot of churches.

      There’s a way to avoid the mess. Too many are adopting the mess, though. Simple is always best. Beyond simple lurks error.

  6. Dan,

    Jesus and his followers… that’s enough. We don’t need anything else. Everything else quickly becomes the focus and a distraction.

    Of course, when we remove all the other stuff, it’s going to seem like we’re not doing anything at all. But, eventually, we’ll learn that all that other stuff was keeping us away from what’s most important: Jesus working through each of us to build up his church (us).


  7. While I realize that no church is perfect and that God can get his mission accomplished in spite of our mishandling of ministry and community, I do agree with your concern over this disturbing trend. I am convinced that disciples are not made in auditorium seats while passively watching a stage or a screen. From my perspective there seems to be a group-think among influential church leaders. While trying to be current and fresh they all follow the same script. It is a script designed to build an organization and establish a brand, not one focused on making disciples. I can’t remember who said it, but this quotation stuck with me: “we have to start making disciples instead of inspiration junkies.” Amen.

  8. alan

    Many local churches are so desperate to become “seeker friendly” that they’ve become a scripted entertainment event. Little meat, much froth. They follow the rote (and dead) western world order of worship and liturgy. Pastoral staff and congregants alike sleep walk through the service and emerge 90 minutes later still hungry for spiritual nourishment. This is the sad state of many Protestant churches in the US.

  9. Don Costello

    There is no “This is as deep as it gets”, in our relationship with God, it is potentially bottomless. We are the only ones who put a bottom in it or a roof on it. I have a problem with Pastors who will not strive to go deeper or higher or encourage his congregation to do so. Most of the things American Christians got to church for should already be a part of their lives through a daily relationship with God.

    • Mr. Poet

      “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit” (Hebrews 6:1-3 KJV).

      As far as I know, I never have attended a church which “[went] on unto perfection.” Every sermon, Sunday school class, and small group focused on one of the above topics. Even in the book of Hebrews, as far as I can tell, the author spent most of the rest of the book discussing faith. If he went beyond the “principles of the doctrine of Christ,” I have yet to fathom it in my studies. “…if God permit” indeed.

      • Poet,

        I think the current emphasis on being all things to all people and for constantly appealing to the lost among us rather than to the believer keeps the Church in America in a constantly state of toddler-dom.

        • Mr. Poet

          I’d agree with you, except I’ve been to churches where they don’t emphasize being all things to all people and they don’t constantly appeal to the lost.

          Is it toddlerdom? Sure. But do the fivefold ministry among us really know what is beyond these principles?

          • Poet,

            I’m speaking generally, of course.

            I think we’re missing true apostleship in the West, and in the same way that the recipe for Roman concrete has been lost to history, we seem to have lost an idea of what “beyond” looks like.

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