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Hey, welcome to the show. I had this online discussion with some fellow believers this past week, and I felt the need to dive into it on this podcast. Are there some things that don’t belong in a church service? I’m sure the answer is yes, but when it comes to rattling off a list of things that shouldn’t take place in church it’s pretty easy for us to get way off on a tangent. I want to address this because it comes up quite often, and I think that TOO OFTEN we tend to make mountains out of mole hills – as my daddy would say.
A lot of what I’m going to talk about here, it depends greatly on our background, the culture, and generally what we’re used to. We tend to see things that are out of the ordinary to us as being strange. If we don’t understand it, we often look on it with disdain or with a judgmental attitude. And this, I believe, is where we get ourselves into trouble – thinking we are the arbiters of what is right and just, as well as what just has no place being.
So the question came up a few days ago on a friend’s social media post. This is a dear friend and brother in Christ, and a man I love and respect. His question was this: “Why does anyone need a smoke machine in church?” Okay, fair enough. I think it’s a valid question for someone who truly wants to know the answer. Personally, I probably would not be one to use a smoke machine during the service. But I found myself on the side of trying to give the benefit of the doubt to whoever it was that chose to employ smoke during church. Why? Keep listening…
The argument of most who commented on his post was that the smoke machine has absolutely no place in a church service. Some people made jokes about “smoke and mirrors,” others remarked cynically that it was somehow meant to put on a show and invoke higher offerings when the plate is passed, and it just went downhill from there. I’ll admit that, as much as I would NOT use smoke that way myself, I DO often like to play “devil’s advocate” – so-to-speak. And trust me, plenty of those commenting thought the smoke thing was probably “of the devil.”
My immediate thought on this was that the same argument has been made time and time again against various things that have become more or less commonplace in church today. Musical instruments, sound systems, lighting, even the building itself – why do we need any of that? And the truth is, we don’t. None of those things are necessary to having church, worshiping, and preaching God’s Word. But the fact is that times change, customs change, methods of praise and preaching change, and we either change with it or we sit back, point fingers, and complain about things we don’t understand.
Now, I’ll come back to the whole smoke machine thing in a bit, and I’ll even offer up a possible reason or two why some might choose to use it. But for the moment, let’s follow this logic out to its fullest extent. Should we simply continue doing just those things we’re use to and never change? Ever? There was a time when hymnals were the new thing, and plenty of people didn’t like them. Over time, they became the norm, and things changed again. “Choruses” or “praise & worship music” was the newest thing, and lots of people resisted. Humans tend to not like change, but change is constant. Those who don’t adapt will always have plenty to gripe about.
I’ve heard people question why church’s have darker lighting in the audience and bright lights on the stage. They said things like, “They’re just putting on a show,” “That stuff doesn’t belong in church,” and, “God doesn’t need any help!” But what’s really happening is, they were attacking something they didn’t understand and saying it didn’t belong there because they weren’t used to it or didn’t like it.
I have explained before the reasons for that kind of lighting. As an audio visual person, I know that darker lighting in the audience and more light on stage helps to eliminate distractions and draw attention to a central point. If someone is speaking or preaching, that type of lighting helps focus people’s attention on the person they’re listening to. Also, during worship, there are other reasons why more light on stage is needed. Musicians have to be able to see what they’re doing to play or read their music, for example. And if the church is streaming their services online, like our church does – we learned that we have to pour a lot of light onto the stage in order for the video camera to properly pick up and show a visual for the online live feed.
That’s the thing, though. There are tons of legitimate reasons – often technical – for things that most people never know about because they aren’t involved with the technical aspects of a church service. As technology changes, all sorts of new things become desirable if not outright necessary. Like heat and air conditioning – it might not be completely necessary, and NO, God doesn’t require it in order for Him to show up, but it sure is nice to be in a comfortable temperature at church, isn’t it? The same applies to lots of other things – like the padded seating, the sound system, lights, etc.
I said earlier that the question my friend asked was indeed a valid one IF he was truly wanting to know the answer. And this is a crucial thing to take note of. Indulge me for a moment as I give a prime example of what I’m talking about…
Some years ago, my brother Stan worked at a learning center. While teaching a particular student, the young boy asked, “Why do I need to learn algebra? I’m never going to use it in real life, am I?” It’s a common question a teenager might ask, and Stan knew exactly how to handle it. He looked at this young man and said the following:
“Before I answer your question, are you sure you really want to know the answer? Think about it. Are you asking the question because you want to know, or are you asking because you just don’t want to do it? Here’s the thing. If I give you the answer to your question, then you’ll never be able to use that question like an excuse. Once you have the answer, the question can never be asked again. So, knowing this, do you truly want to know the answer?”
Wow, right? The kid looked at him, thought for a second, and finally decided he was too curious now to NOT listen to the answer, so he said, “Okay, sure, why do I need to learn algebra?” Stan’s answer was brief and to-the-point, and it was also 100% correct. And now that some of you are wondering about it yourself, I’ll tell you his reply:
“Algebra teaches you critical thinking and valuable problem-solving skills that you will use throughout your life no matter what type of work you go into.”
BAM! There ya go. And now you can never ever ask the question again.
Fine. Let’s get back to this “smoke” thing. What possible purpose could that serve? Before I give a couple of possible answers, I have to ask: Are we asking the question because we want to hear an actual answer, or are we asking because we’ve already decided that there IS NO GOOD reason for it and we just want to point our fingers at it and ridicule it? Seriously. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t automatically give us license to say, “Hey, that’s stupid. That doesn’t belong in church!”
It’s a lot like when people say in judgment that Christians ought not do this or that. When we do that, we’re super-imposing our own sense of morality on top of God’s and claiming our own interpretation as how everyone should behave. That seems very Pharisaical to me. The Pharisees knew the scriptures. And boy, they KNEW that they knew the scriptures. They let that knowledge elevate them in their minds as being more reverent than they actually were. And Jesus called them on it more than once. Knowing the Word is awesome, but you also have to be able to properly apply it to your life.
Anyway, back to the smoke machine. I said I would offer you a couple of plausible reasons for why someone might use it in a worship service. But remember, once you hear these reasons, you can’t ask the question ever again. You ready? Here goes… Have you ever read up about the golden altar of incense? It was used by the chief priests in the temple. As the incense was burned, smoke would rise from the altar, carrying a fragrance upward to God. This was symbolic. The offering of incense symbolizes our praise and worship. As it burns and the smoke rises, that symbolizes those praises rising up to God. Our worship is said to be like a sweet fragrance to Him, and that is derived from the priest’s offering on the golden altar of incense.
With that in mind, isn’t it just possible that utilizing a smoke machine during a worship service is also offering a visual symbol of our praises rising to God? Maybe? I think that’s very plausible, and frankly, not so out of place after all. Now, I don’t know if that’s the reason or not, but I sure do think it would qualify as a pretty good one. Another reason, perhaps a bit less likely but still possible, is that the smoke machine – which actually creates vapor – helps create a more cloud-like heavenly atmosphere. You might think that’s silly. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. But my point here is just THAT – I do not know what their reason is, but I’m sure they have one, and who am I to judge?
I think far too much time is spent, by Christians, looking down our noses at things we just don’t understand. We take it upon ourselves to deem it uncalled for, unworthy, irreverent, unnecessary, and out of place. But just because we don’t understand it or it doesn’t make sense to us DOES NOT MEAN that it’s wrong or that it has no place in church. What truly has no place in church is our own self-righteous, sanctimonious, and judgmental attitudes. Are we guilty of passing judgment on things simply due to a lack of comprehension?
Again, the arguments we make against things are often self-defeating. Why do we need padded chairs instead of pews? Why do we need dark sanctuaries and brightly lit stages? Why doesn’t the pastor wear a suit and tie? Why does the worship leader have tattoos? How about this: Why do we need to keep asking why we need this or that? Why can’t we just worship while we’re at church instead of looking for things to complain about? I mean this honestly, and with all due respect. But why is it that we are so focused on the carpet or the curtains or the lights or the smoke – things we don’t like – INSTEAD OF being focused on God?
If I go to a worship service or even a praise and worship concert somewhere, I gotta tell ya, I’m not gonna be noticing all the lights and smoke (if there is any). Because my focus should be on worshipping Jesus. If I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, then I’m not gonna be looking around and noticing a bunch of stuff that I don’t like, or that I think is unnecessary, or that I think has no place there. What doesn’t belong in that environment is my self-righteous attitude. What DOES belong is my focus on God and my praises uplifted to Him. If there truly IS something there that doesn’t belong, I’m sure God is big enough to deal with it. What He want’s from me is my participation, my worship, and my adoration. And that’s what matters.
We need to stop picking apart our fellow man, and especially our fellow believers. We ought to do more building up, and less tearing down. As God’s children, we are called to be better than this. Not to be petty and point our fingers at things we don’t understand or don’t like, but to bear all things and endure all things in love. When we cut down fellow believers who are worshipping in a way that is strange or unfamiliar to us, we are alienating part of our Christian family – the body of Christ.
If you were to visit Christian churches in other parts of the world, you would undoubtedly see some customs and forms of worship that might surprise or even shock you. Cultural differences may seem odd to us, but it doesn’t diminish those people’s faith and inheritance in God. Why on earth would a believer want to chastise another believer for worshipping in a way that seems odd or different? Don’t we realize that we are given an awesome responsibility to love on another, to build up, and to serve?
Speaking of the human tongue, James 3:9-10 says…
“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
So I implore you, please, don’t be too quick to wag your finger at someone or something and pass judgment regarding things you don’t understand. We are to speak blessings and not cursings, to build up rather than to tear down. Let’s keep our attitudes in check. Worship God in Spirit and in Truth, and whether or not you use lights or smoke or whatever really isn’t the point. Don’t focus on the trivial things that aren’t worth our time. But focus instead on Jesus.