Monday, December 23, 2013

Pageantry In Church?

Being very interested in history, I have long intended to watch the classic 1934 movie directed by the great Leni Riefenstahl depicting the annual Nuremberg NAZI Party convention, considered by many to be the greatest (and most notorious) propaganda film ever made. Today I had time to sit down and watch that enthralling work, and greatly enjoyed the narration provided in the digitized 2000 edition by Anthony R. Santoro, Ph.D., at that time Distinguished Professor of History and President Emeritus of Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
In was while watching “Triumph Of The Will” that Dr. Santoro made mention of the NAZI Party’s frequent use of flags and standards, remarking about facts that were new to me.  For example, I had not known that the famous architect for Adolph Hitler, a man named Albert Speer, took a leading role in producing the party rallies in Nuremberg, and created the concept that he termed “the sea of flags,” with thousands of swastika flags carried to great effect.  However, it was a second remark he made that intrigued me and dredged up old memories, when he pointed out that Hitler’s use of standards was copied from Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been in power since 1922, and who himself had copied the use of standards from the legions of the Imperial Roman Army.
I think it was 1999 that I attended a meeting of pastors in Southern California where I observed for the first time that I remember in a church the presentation of a pageant of some kind by the host church, featuring standards of the type I had only previously observed in Greek Orthodox churches.  Several months later I attended another meeting of pastors in the state of Colorado, where I once more saw a pageant that made prominent a number of standards.  Finally, when several months had once more passed, I attended yet another meeting of church pastors in the state of Tennessee, where I observed a pageant and display of standards.  This provoked me to approach the director of the program to ask him about the pageant and the standards. He was effusive about the entire subject, volunteering that his idea for the pageant and standards came from a large conference he had attended in Virginia, but that the original concept had come from an Assembly of God church in Brooklyn, whose music director had copied it from a Greek Orthodox church.
Pageantry.  What role does pageantry play in most contemporary churches?  I am afraid pageantry plays an ever increasing role in churches in American culture.  However, questions need to be asked about the proper place of pageantry in Christian worship.  We can understand the importance of pageantry to Imperial Rome, to Mussolini’s Fascist state in Italy, to Hitler’s NAZI Germany, and even to our own military and political arenas.  Pageantry is how you impress people, rally people, motivate the masses, and generate enthusiasm for a team, be it a baseball or football team, a rifle platoon, or a construction crew.
The issue raised in my own mind and heart, however, is the place of pageantry in Christian worship.  After all, we see no pageantry associated with any aspect of the Virgin Birth of Christ, an important point to make at this Christmas time of year.  To be sure, the angels burst forth in a paean of praise, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” but their only audience were the shepherds who had been keeping watch over their flocks by night. It was hardly anything like pageantry.  How about when the wise men from the East arrived? No pageantry there, either.  As a matter of fact, throughout the entire life of the Lord Jesus Christ here on earth, from His birth to His resurrection, the only pageantry on display was the pageantry associated with Roman occupation and the muted pageantry the Romans allowed in connection with Temple worship.
The point that I make is that pageantry occupied no place in anything remotely Christian until Constantine merged state and church and the pageantry of Imperial Rome was adopted by what came to be the Roman Catholic Church, and which is presently seen in the ritualized worship of the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian, Greek, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, the Coptic Church in Africa, and those Protestant churches that are so much wed to formalism.  Sadly, however, pageantry is flooding back into gospel preaching congregations and wreaking havoc.
How so?  Though there will someday be great pageantry associated with proper worship of the Savior, beginning with the majestic procession of His magnificent return in power and great glory (Revelation 19.11 ff), pageantry in Christian worship is not at present sanctioned in scripture, for a significant reason.  The just live by faith.  Pageantry, however, exposes people to a sensory assault that greatly distracts from any possibility of communicating or receiving a faith-based message.  Therefore, whenever a ministry becomes devoted to pageantry, there will be a corresponding diminishing of its focus on those doctrines and proclamations that foster faith.
          After all, if Imperial Rome did it, if Mussolini did it, if Hitler did it, and if the Roman church, the Orthodox churches, and the Coptic churches do it, how spiritual can it be?  Methinks we should be so jealous for the Lord that we seek those encouragements and blessings that derive from the preaching of God’s Word, the singing of God’s praise, the testimonies of God’s people, and the fruit that real ministry produces.  Let us not settle for being emotionally moved by pageantry.  It is a poor substitute for the blessings of God.