When you want a high-quality meal, what do you look for? Iím guessing it would have nothing to do with whether or not the restaurant has a playground. Similarly, when you want a high-quality church (by Godís standards), are you looking for a playground, programs, or preaching?
As a child, I used to love eating at McDonalds. Granted, our family didn't eat there very often, but a couple times a year we'd visit the golden arches (usually when we were traveling to Wisconsin to visit family and needed to stop for lunch). I enjoyed the food and the chance to run around on Ronald's playground. Dad, although he loves to eat, always griped about what he perceived to be lousy food (it would give him a bellyache). Nevertheless, stopping at Mickey-D's was quick, inexpensive, and provided a chance for my brother and I to burn up some restless energy. Interestingly, as an adult with two young children, I can relate to my Dad's perspective on this subject now better than ever (bellyache and all).
Of course, this lesson is not really about the world's most successful fast-food restaurant chain. But, I wanted us to start there since I believe there are some lessons to be learned from spiritual parallels that can be made between restaurants with playgrounds and religion.
Brad Harrub, of Apologetics Press, put some wonderful thoughts on paper a couple years ago that I want to share with you at this time with some minor editing and expansion. His thoughts, found in the following paragraphs, are certainly worthy of our consideration.
Most of us have been there at one time or another--looking for somewhere to eat on a busy street. It never fails, whenever adults are really craving something good, one of those fast-food restaurants with the playground appears out of nowhere. With neon lights and giant slides beckoning, it immediately captures the attention of anyone under the age of twelve. Suddenly the backseat becomes a chorus of little voices begging to go to the restaurant with the playground. In fact, most children choose their favorite restaurant not for the food, but rather the presence and size of the playground and the type of toy that comes in the value meal. History will record that 25 years ago playgrounds in restaurants were almost as scarce as dinosaurs. Today, you can find two or three within the same city block in certain areas. Kids love it because they get to play. Parents dread it because the food is not very healthy and is often less than appetizing (and more than a few of us have had to bend and snake our way through the tubes in order to rescue a crying child who made it to the top but was too scared to come down!). But, all that being said, the playgrounds work! They entice children (and their hesitant parents) by the millions. In fact, many fast-food restaurants under construction today possess these colossal recreational areas.
Interestingly, we find that this concept of attracting larger numbers through entertainment did not stop with fast-food restaurants. Churches now actively promote pleasure and amusement as a means to increase numbers. Coffee shops and fitness centers are now expected in many religious settings. In fact, a Methodist church near our building has contacted Walt Disney World designers in an effort to make the children's part of their new addition (currently "Wacky World Studios") magical eye-candy for kids. Some New Testament Christians will be quick to follow their example, unfortunately. If we look back in the church 25 years ago, we find that people were content to come and sit through Bible class and worship without being entertained. Not so today. Today, entertainment is expected. Even many churches of Christ have abandoned gospel preaching and the Great Commission and instead are trying to increase attendance using "playgrounds" (so to speak). One of the first questions many parents ask when visiting a new congregation is: "What programs do you have for my children?" Thus, the questions come. "Is there children's church? Is there a youth room with couches and video games? Do you use drama or skits? Do you allow praise teams? Are there church league sports teams? Do your young people go on trips? What do you have for me?"
As more and more churches abandon God's original plan for evangelism for their own man-made gimmicks and games, someone needs to ask the question: "What is really being served?" For you see, those restaurants with playgrounds are great for entertainment, but eating there consistently would quickly deteriorate the health of most individuals. During the mid-1980s, senior citizen actress Clara Peller played a crusty old lady who slapped the counters of neighborhood hamburger joints and loudly asked the probing question, "Where's the beef?" Her point was that there was not much there. Likewise, many churches today have moved toward entertainment and have no "spiritual meat" to offer. It's all fluff and cotton candy. The Hebrews writer strongly admonished - "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe" (Heb. 5:12,13). Churches offering entertainment and "feel good" sermons may be appealing to the eye, and taste good at first, but man cannot live on cotton candy. Likewise, man cannot grow spiritually in a setting where the whole counsel of God has been replaced with sermons covering only the love and grace of Almighty God.
So, what should be our priority in selecting a place to worship our Creator? If we are only interested in "playgrounds" and the "What's in it for me?" philosophy, then these entertaining buildings will serve the purpose. But, if we are assembling to pay honor and praise to Almighty God, then we should be more concerned with the "meal" that is being served. It's high time we teach ourselves (and our children) that it's not about me--it's about the great I AM. Only when we have our priorities in the right place will we find ourselves walking into a worship assembly focused on God rather than ourselves.
Paul, in II Timothy 4:1-5, had this to say to the young evangelist - "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." Tragically, that time has come, and appears to be here to stay. People have completely forgotten why it is we gather together as a body of Christians. They enter a worship setting believing they are in the "audience," and they expect a "good show." Jesus stated in John 4:23 - "But the hour is coming, and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him." God is the audience, and we are the worshipers! Everything done in worship should be done with a proper heart and in accordance with what God desires (that's what it means to worship in spirit and truth). Everything we do, especially in worship, should be done to glorify and praise Him. Has our desire for entertainment blinded us from true worship? Unfortunately, the abundance of new programs, games, and "playgrounds" tell me the answer in many cases is a resounding yes.
Friends, let me encourage you, spiritually speaking, to skip the playground and go find a steakhouse! Jesus, declared nearly two thousand years ago - "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength'" (Mark 12:29,30). May that love for the Lord burn in our hearts, creating a desire to please Him rather than constantly seeking to entertain ourselves.
There is a time for recreation and rest. There is a time to entertain oneself, family, and friends. But, where did we ever come up with the idea (or authority) that gathering to worship Almighty God is such a time? Entertainment works well for restaurants, but not for religion. When I enter a restaurant, I am the authority. I order what I want and expect to be served. When I gather with Christians to worship, I am the servant and God is the authority. Worship is not about me; it's about Him. May we act like the adults that we are and put away the childish, unauthorized playgrounds and programs that have become entrenched in many places (cf. I Cor. 13:11). Let's preach the word and glorify God on His terms!
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.