Putting On A Show For Jesus
Recent videos of an extravagant Christmas show put on by one of the largest churches in America have garnered millions of views and no small amount of backlash from online viewers.
Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX, first got national attention when videos were shared online from last year's annual Christmas show, which featured flying drummers and spectacularly over-the-top production.
Not only are the airborne drummers back again this year, but the Vegas-style extravaganza now includes flying angels, 1,000 cast members, a real zebra, a flock of sheep, and three live camels, among other fantastic elements.
The show lasts 100 minutes, which Prestonwood touts as the "perfect length for everyone in the family," and tickets cost $70 per person.
One Dallas journalist called it Cirque-du-Holiness. I've watched many of the show's videos, and I can attest that he's not far from the truth with his assessment.
The criticism that Prestonwood has received is fair. This kind of show undoubtedly costs well over a million dollars, and the predictable critiques of how churches should spend their money have come hard and fast.
But I'm not going down that path with my own reflections about the show. If a church wants to go all out with an annual event to offer to their community, and the church members wholeheartedly embrace it, that's their business.
To be clear, I disagree with Prestonwood's level-raising approach, but I find something far more problematic regarding the overall theology they are disseminating.
What troubles me the most is the triumphalistic tone and the overall tenor of the theme of the production. It's steeped in the terrible theology of prosperity Gospel and consumer-focused Christianity.
There's no humility or vulnerability in Prestonwood's depiction of God entering into history by becoming one of us. The profoundly transformational theology of the Incarnation is lost amid dance numbers, spotlights, and dazzling displays on massive video screens.
In other words, it's a quintessential American depiction of the radically counter-cultural and nondescript way that the eternal and universal Christ arrived on earth.
This is a show for winners, not losers. This is a show that plays to the comfortable, the rich, the powerful, and all those who secretly believe that being comfortable, rich, and powerful is the highest form of success as a Christian.
The late Brennan Manning (author of the fantastic book Ragamuffin Gospel) had this to say about this view of the Nativity:The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and a prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.
Despite the message of the grand show that Prestonwood produces, everyone who gathers to watch it comes away with a distorted view of the meaning of the Christmas story.
Interestingly, it's the critics of the show who actually get it right. There is something off about the triumphant, over-the-top "gospel" that Prestonwood embraces and perpetuates.
It doesn't ring true, and even non-Christian observers can see it.
Christ comes to us in our brokenness, meeting us in the gutters, the back-alleys, the dark corners of our souls. Christ comes to the lost and the lonely, the cast out and the cast-off.
And no amount of lighting, stage smoke, or flying acrobats can cover over the reality that among the broken are all those who can easily afford to take their whole family to Prestonwood for an evening of entertainment.
To that end, I would prefer to see a Christmas pageant in a small town church where the actors were conscripted from among the church's children and youth, and the backdrops were hand-painted on cardboard from a refrigerator box.
Those pageants are messy. The lines are delivered haltingly. The choir is the congregation. The sheep are toddlers who can't be tamed.
I believe that the glory of God is revealed more perfectly in those imperfect productions created by amateurs who simply want to tell the story of how God is saving the world by finding us in our lowly state and showing us our worth by becoming one of the frail and finite.
May we all carry the meaning of the Christmas story in our hearts as we take these last few steps in our Advent journey. May we realize that God's love finds us where we are and leads us to where God longs for us to be.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all, now and forever. Amen.