On May 21, 2017, after 147 years, the Ringling Brothers Circus and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended. No more clowns, no more tigers, no more daredevils shot from cannons. And no more elephant tricks, which ended earlier. Founded through the merging of several circus companies in the 1860s and 70s, the circus brought elements of carnival, freak show, museum attraction, and zoo animals together in one. There was nothing like it in the world. It was the greatest show on Earth!
The Ringling Brothers Circus Is Dead. What Does That Mean For The Church?
What shifted in our communities over the last 150 years that made the Ringling Brothers Circus board up its doors? And, is there any application for our churches?
Kenneth Feld, who owns the circus, “believes it grew outdated and difficult for audiences with shorter attention spans,” said one report. “Entertainment has changed,” Feld said in another article. “The traditional family unit is different.” Both of these seem obvious enough when we think about it. Yes, the want for quick, enticing, individualized entertainment always, always, always, is the curse of the age of devices and streaming content. True too, is the change in the family unit. On the surface, Feld may simply be referencing the stable two parent, husband and wife, household. Deeper still, we may suggest in the statement that the entitlement of children today and parents’ inability to have them wait for satisfaction made the circus something Little Johnny wanted to do or dismissed. His choice.
Another point that we’re more and more conscious of is time. Time is in competition with itself. Families are so busy doing so many things, the circus becomes just another event to tire out Little Johnny and his parents. It’s best then to not expend the energy to drive and park and sit and watch and fight the crowds exiting the arena… even when the crowds were thinner in recent years. Besides, we’ve made VR to get rid of all these unnecessary people who spoil my time. I’ll just put on my headset on my couch, in my house, by myself.
You might call it simple capitalism at work. The circus wasn’t able to change their structure to accommodate a new audience so it failed. That’s the way the market works. I’m afraid, however, that there’s something a bit more sinister at play, something more self-serving than dollars here or dollars there.
What is the application for our churches? Here are a few questions to ask ourselves.
Have We Made Church About Entertainment?
Entertainment value is up to the audience to decide. Are we playing the game of the circus with people’s entertainment dollar? If we begin to bore our audiences, what then? If we can’t keep up with the demand to entertain – to WOW – and produce a unicorn or an elephant in a tutu, eventually our audience will drift away.
Are We Creating A Cult Of Personality?
Should pastors be stars on a stage? Should they instead be teachers and humble leaders who exposit Scripture, people who spur us on to live lives worthy of the calling we have received? If we build and organize and hope around a ringmaster that is made to keep everything going with pronouncements, the church suffers in the long run.
How Much Should Our Churches Adapt To Meet Culture?
This is a huge question full of rabbit trails. Perhaps our intention is something to keep in check more than asking how much we should adapt. Do we intend to compete with people’s time however they fill it – sandy beaches, big careers, ginormous houses, soccer games, etc.? If we intend to compete, we’re going the wrong direction. The first thing God called holy was time. In Genesis 2:3 it says, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” We need to be teaching our congregations that the Sabbath is holy and set apart. There is and should be no competition.
How Much Should We Stick To The Ancient Practices Of Liturgy?
This is something each church wrestles with, in high churches or congregational community churches. How do we identify with the past and allow the order of worship, long ago set in motion, to inform and change us? For example, since the early church, people gathered and confessed their sins before God and asked for his mercy and grace. A point of confession and absolution is counter-cultural because it calls us to admit our sin and depend only on Jesus. The reciting of the creed, either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, serves as a reminder of all the points we share in common and believe. Like confession, reciting the creed is an ancient practice that calls us into a faith that’s larger than our own interpretation of Scripture. Communion is another.
Have We Exchanged An Altar For A Stage?
In 1757, Robert Robinson wrote “Come Thou Fountain.” It reads: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come; and I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.” It’s based in I Samuel 6-7 when the Israelites had sinned and the ark had been given into the hands of the Philistines. Samuel says to the people that if they turn to the Lord with their whole hearts, He will deliver them. When the Lord does, Samuel took a stone and placed it down. He called it Ebenezer which means, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” Our churches, our platforms, should be Ebenezers. They are altars to the Lord, where the broken come to find healing.
In 1985, singer/songwriter Steve Taylor released “This Disco (Used to be a Cute Cathedral).” It might help us as we think more about the 147-year circus shutting down and our churches of today. Here’s a selection: “Sunday needs a pick-me-up? Here’s your chance. Do you get tired of the same old square dance?… Got no need for altar calls, sold the altar for the mirror balls. Do you shuffle? Do you twist? ‘Cause with a hot hits playlist, now we say, ‘This disco used to be a cute cathedral, where the chosen cha-cha every day of the year. This disco used to be a cute cathedral, where we only play the stuff you’re wanting to hear.'” You can hear the song here.