Church as Fan Service

I'm a Netflix subscriber so from time to time I'll surf through their selection of streaming videos to see if I can find anything good (I usually can't). Once in a while I'll look through the Anime movies as I've enjoyed a few sci-fi Anime movies in the past.

It's hard to tell if a movie is any good so I spend time reading the Netflix member reviews. And as I surfed the Anime movies I kept seeing sentences like this in the reviews:

Great movie if you can live with all the fan service.

Lots of fan service if you're into that.

Awesome! Tons of fan service!!!!!
Reading reviews like this I wondered to myself, "What in the world is fan service?"

Fan service, I discovered, are things added to Anime movies to titillate viewers, generally male viewers. Fan service is "giving the fans what they want." For the most part this means drawing female Anime characters with large breasts and short skirts. It also includes nudity and graphic violence.

What is key here is that none of this has any relevance to the plot. It's just "eye candy" to push the visual buttons of the viewer. It's "servicing the fan," not advancing the story. Here's the current top Urban Dictionary definition of fan service:
In general, fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer...Basically, if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it's probably fan service in one form or another.
Having found all this out I can now navigate Netflix in a more informed manner, generally staying clear of movies with reviews mentioning a lot of fan service.

But fan service as a concept has stuck in my mind.

And the other day I began to wonder about fan service at church.

To be clear, I'm not talking about nudity and short skirts at church. I'm talking about the root idea of fan service: adding something that "pleases" (servicing the fans, giving the people what they want) that has nothing to do with advancing the plot.

Let me give a simple example. In the adult bible class I help teach on Sunday mornings at church we have coffee and donuts. That's fan service. People like having coffee and donuts in class so we provide them. But coffee and donuts don't have anything to do with the mission of the church. Coffee and donuts don't help advance the story/plot of the Kingdom of God.

Now there is nothing wrong with coffee and donuts. I sure like having them both in class. I'm just illustrating how the concept of fan service might be applied to church. Such an application opens up a lot of interesting questions. Specifically, how much of church life is devoted to fan service? How much of the physical environment, the worship, the programs/classes, etc. can be considered fan service? That is, how much of what is going on at a given church is devoted to "giving the people what they want" rather than advancing the story of the Kingdom?

Because it seems to me that a lot of churches are so beholden to American consumerism that they are almost wholly given over to fan service, if only to attract the "spiritual shopper."

Everything is created to give the people what they want. Church as fan service.

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51 thoughts on “Church as Fan Service”

  1. Richard,

    You sure struck a chord on this one for me.  I wonder if things like worship style and sermon subjects touch on this too?

  2. Coffee and doughnuts aren't so much fan service.  They're taking care of the more base needs so people are free to focus on higher level stuff.  It's hard to think about abstract stuff when you're drowsy and hungry.

  3.  It's funny, because if there were no coffee and donuts in class I'm pretty sure a riot would break out.

    Sugar, fat and caffeine...the three basic food groups.

  4. I was only half joking about the sacrament, above.  Lots of real Christianity is eating and drinking, whatever practical benefits derive from full bellies.

  5. The post-Christendom, missional critique of modern churches in North America has run over this ground pretty well: these churches are very often vendors of spiritual goods and services.  The researchers' take: that "business model" is doomed to "diminishing returns" as it increasingly relies on a "niche market," and it was never a very faithful outliving of the gospel in the first place.  The institutions will wither, die, or change in the face of cultural shifts.  The question is whether or not they can be a kernel of wheat for the coming generations of the church.

  6. This reminds me a little of a great little post by Pete Rollins last week His point is that its not just the coffee and doughnuts that function as fan service but also, to a large degree, the praise'n'worship and the teaching if they serve to distract people's attention from the reality of their pain and the suffering of others. In other places he tends toward a notion of god as fan service, or at least people's safe mental constructions of God. I don't think he's making the same point as the Freudians about God as a crutch, but  I've not fully digested his thinking - I was planning to have another go at him after my copy of AOF has made its way accross the Atlantic.

  7. Yes, the critique here is nothing new. Mainly I'm having fun trying to introduce a new way of describing the situation. I've heard the phrase "vendors of spiritual goods and services" used a lot but it's not short or punchy enough. "Fan service", though, has a ring to it.

  8. Agreed.  There's a little smug satisfaction in applying a phrase with that unseemly, porny connotation.  ;-)

    Next post: the cultural hero system of manga snobbery.

  9. It might be a little too smug. But it does have some pop to it.

    Here's how I imagine it being used. Imagine two missional sorts of people visiting or in a church where something consumeristic taking place. I doubt these two people, even if they are total ecclesiology nerds, would change glances and say "vendor of religious goods and services." But I can imagine two such people exchanging knowing glances and saying "fan service" to quickly communicate what they think is going on.

  10. "Business Model" - what a most accurate description of organized religion. And what is the church in business to do? To sell  salvation. They'll dodge the more obvious costs of tithing and works, of course, by telling you it's "free for the asking," but you'll still end up selling your soul to buy into it. The best "sales" are at Christmas and Easter, but it's better not to wait... just in case you happen to die first. 

  11. I love this so much. Of course, people will make arguments for why coffee & donuts advance the story of the kingdom, but the harder one has to try to make such arguments the more we just ought to admit to ourselves that "fan service" is a pretty fair description.

    As someone who plans worship weekly I consciously engage in fan-service all the time. Each week I choose at least 1 hymn purely because my people love it. Often there is no clear way to relate it to the scripture or the sermon for that week. Sometimes it is a hymn I personally dislike. Occasionally it is a hymn that I find the theology distasteful. But including a hymn that people like to sing is a strategy to keep attendance up. It's fan-service.

  12. a church I attended recently was in the midst of a sermon series based on a book called "Not a Fan", and if you ask me the church and the curriculum itself were absolutely stock full of fan service. 

  13. I used to search Netflix (till we canceled our DVD account after the price hike and took our business to Redbox) for off-the-beaten-path, independent flicks (without a lot of fanfare and hype).  This weekend, I found 'The Way,' starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez, in memory of his grandfather, Francisco.  Such a beautiful movie.  Check it out, if you can find it on Netflix!  I know that Redbox has it, at least in our locale.

    Dr. Beck, I have grown up to the fact that all churches are prostituting their wares to varying extents.  (Tony Campolo:  The Church is a whore, but she's my mother.")

    I like me some donuts and such now and then...  But.  If love, in the form of radical hospitality, mercy, and embrace, is missing in action, then it's a lost cause to hang in there.  The church is really the people.  It's often a mixed bag.  But, in my experience -- and I've been in my share of churches, there is usually an atmosphere or vibe that permeates a place, which goes beyond the doctrine and tradition of the institution.  It's not the donuts.  It's the idea that donuts can substitute for the real thing that people seek.  It's the absence of Christ in the Body.  Just my .01.

  14. In Diana Butler Bass' book "Broken we Kneel" she describes the distinction between chapel and church, which I think gets a bit at what you are describing.  
    But I think there is a distinction between the fan service of having coffee and doughnuts, or keeping favorite hymns in rotation, and the fan service of watering down the message and the challenge of the gospel so as to keep members from feeling uncomfortable.  That's the bigger problem.

  15. Susan N., you've hit the nail on the head again.  In a former church we had what was called "AM Quality".  This, as applied to special music, meant that certain music and performances were more suitable for the morning worship service when visitors might attend and the lesser quality performers were relegated to play/sing at the less well attended evening service.  This was also a church that was missing in action on love and mercy and hospitality.  Oh, yes.  They served donuts (and cookies) with their coffee.

  16. "But.  If love, in the form of radical hospitality, mercy, and embrace, is missing in action, then it's a lost cause to hang in there."

    We got an e-mail that the little church plant we were a part of for several years (until my accident last year which resulted in 2 months of physical therapy, and nearly a year's recovery, and not a single person even called!) is going to to cease and desist. It just couldn't make it on the strong, unyielding personalities that ran the show. In our day and time, people are less apt to continue to support such an org, where they have no voice, no consideration, and it's clear that that's not going to change. 

  17. I think we need to do a certain amount, but also to ensure that it doesn't degenerate into cheap grace. So we offer tea and coffee after the service, which is fan service but also builds community and lets us get to know each other better. We've put in a loop, sound system and electronic organ to improve the music; that again is fan service. We're trying to make the services more culturally appropriate for our mainly black congregation, and to step up pastoral work; again, it's fan service. But letting the church's theology degenerate into 'me and my personal salvation' would be going too far; it services peoples' fear of death, while evading the need to challenge prinicpalities and powers.

  18. One man's fan service is another man's distraction. I am completely distracted by the passing of the peace, others would revolt if it went missing.

    I think it's a non-issue. The Church needs real reform, not gimmicks.

  19. The megachurch I attended last mother's day (and never again) offered all the women in the audience, oops congregation, a certificate for a free manicure on the way out.  Of course you were supposed to provide your name, address and email when you used it, so fan service to non-members came with a price. 

  20. I'm reminded of Bonhoeffer's comment that the church is the only institution that exists for the sake of people who are not members... Kind of puts our insistence on fan service in perspective.

  21. Agreed! Our vicar calls the way our church does the peace 'holy chaos'. Another US pastor pleaded with the congregants not to  use the peace as a time to schedule their next tee date at the golf club. 

  22. I believe that is the church referenced in one of my favourite episodes of King of the Hill

    "If I wanted to go that route I could just walk around the mall and think about Jesus!"

  23. I recently wrote a story that parallels what you are describing. I just posted it here:

  24. Ah, the joys of reeling them in with Messy Church! we live messy church strategies are deemed the successful way to get families to 'cope' with church-going. If we have a Family Service (the first Sunday of the month) there HAS to be at least ONE messy church activity to help engage any of the children in worship who miraculously show up. And it might be an incentive for parents to stay so they can watch their kids be cute. For one Family service everyone was encouraged on the non-Family Sundays the weeks before to bring their teddy bears. The worship feature that day was to have the teddy bears abseiling down from the bell tower across the nave. But nobody had quite worked out how or where the teddy bears would land. I think the Kingdom message was 'to trust in God'. How you land is his problem.

    The tea ladies get all disorientated because they have to remember to put the orange drink out on this one Sunday a month. There hasn't been 'Sunday School' here for decades so we need eye-candy and magic just to get folks here for l hour of worship. I can't imagine what we would do if we added that extra 45-min in for Sunday School for all the different ages. They still wouldn't get their tea/coffee and bourbons/custard creams until after the final blessing.

    My hope is: if there is any love in the mess the Kingdom won't resemble just another social club. :)

  25. How about 'Doing Double God'? 

    During our morning notices one of our church wardens was telling the folks about the morning communion service we were having the next week, but before that one the 'other' church across the road had invited everyone for an early breakfast with their services (a lot of our members also go there when they don't like things at our church). He then remembered that there would be an extra worship service our vicar and others were preparing for on the evening of the same day, to begin with a shared tea. He somehow felt all that church time would be more than most people could bear so he apologetically said we were all most welcome to attend if, of course, 'you don't mind doing double God'.

  26. You can tell how hard core "de-churched" I am, because even nudity and short skirts wouldn't get me to go back.

  27. "The Church is a whore, but she is my mother." - It was St. Augustine who said it first. Sorry for the nitpicking!

    I saw something about that movie the other day, I'm still on Netflix so I'll see if it is there, thanks for the suggestion!

  28. I think the idea of fan service is quite helpful. It is certainly the catchiest way to describe the phenomenon! Discerning what sorts of things are actual fan service is the tricky part. 

    From my limited reading of George MacDonald thus far, a common theme seems to be the idea that "getting what we want" is usually the worst thing for us and, inversely, things that we do not want at all turn out to be the best thing for us. It is in maintaining this sort of perspective a midst the trials and tribulations of life that seems to be the gateway of much wisdom. Indeed, I think Lewis took this theme from MacDonald when he conceptualized hell as the place where God allows us the freedom to get what we ultimately want.

    I am slowly working through the idea that God's wrath is another expression of his love. Here's some great Scripture to fuel the fire:
    form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I,
    the LORD, do all these things." Isa. 45:7"When
    times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the
    one as well as the
    other." Eccl. 7:14
    "You mean this for harm, but God meant it for good." Gen.
    45:5, 8 
    Amos 3:6 "If a calamity occurs in a city,
    has not the LORD done it?"
    Yet, and I'm thinking of John Piper and others, I think that this is the sort of idea that I would only discuss and share within the intimacy of a trusted relationship where love transcends pride and pain. Though I suppose I just shared it with the world...Anyway, understanding how bad things can actually be very good things has helped me second guess myself when I become dissatisfied with anything. Indeed, the contented man has the courage and trust to continually say, "This is what I need."

  29. I tend to draw a rather sharp distinction between "church" as a sociopolitical economic entity and the "Body of Christ." I see the "church" as an instrument of the "Body." Ideally a place or structure (in the broadest sense) where the world at large and the "Body" can comfortably interact and get to know each other. In this understanding the "fan service" actually does support the ultimate goal of advancing the Kingdom in so far as it aids in bringing this proximity.

  30.  You might be interested in a recent episode of the show Who Do You Think You Are where Martin Sheen traced his family tree. It's a great show, and his ancestors were 'activists' just like him,

  31. Eh. I've been to a church without what you call "fan service". There was absolutely no way to get to know people within the church in any simple manner. Before service, nobody had any reason to be there. After service, everyone just assembled in their little pre-defined groups and ran off.

    Other churches I went to had the "fan service". One had it before service, so people would talk to each other. The Orthodox churches often have coffee hour after service, same thing. It gives introverts like myself a really good way to meet people. Otherwise, have fun not knowing anyone in church after you've been there for 3 months.

    I'm honestly not sure what the hell church is even for anymore. People seem to criticize all the wrong points of it and say weird things about what the church is supposed to be. It's primary mode is to get believers together. If you want your church just be a special place for the special sort of ultra-devoted people who are really interested in the whole worship-God idea, well, church loses its meaning. There are a lot more people in these churches than that would demand. And some of us are not convinced God would find that very interesting, either.

  32. One of your final statements "...churches are so beholden to American consumerism..." is so true. I was just thinking about this very thing this morning. As a member of a declining mainline church, I can see the effects of this... Now we've got controversies on the national level between progressives and conservatives, and we handily lend ourselves to services that bore youth, but here's the thing... There are two key death knells that I think have rung. The first is the absence of the evidence of transformed lives, i.e., the Holy Spirit, i.e., fruits of the Spirit. The second is bowing at the altar of consumerist ideology. Our people will bitch and moan if the sermon goes on for more than 20 minutes, and if church service goes out of it's one-hour bounds, but there's plenty of time for everything else. So our time limits, coffee hours, and committees, etc probably are only "fan service." In spite of all of this, I still get fed spiritually from the old hymns, sermons, and liturgy. Fortunately God will feed us even in the midst of lethargy and corruption by consumerism. It does however make waging our spiritual war against the Principalities and Powers much more difficult when our churches are still serving them.

  33. I think one of the places churches have gone wrong is the separation of communion and pot luck. Things happen around a table. People get to know each other. They share stories of faith; how they've seen God working in lives. A common meal isn't fan service, but family.

    Think how many feasts were instructed by God for Israel, to honor His providence and deliverance, but also to solidify them as a people -- not just refugees from Egypt.

    In Christ, believers have a common identity and share an extraordinary Table. It might include coffee and doughnuts; it might include lamb, horseradish and matzoh. But it should always be centered on the bread and the cup -- His body and blood -- because the Table says that we are in Him and He is in us.

  34. Yeah, I think when we call eating together and passing peace "fan service" we are thinking of church as an educational unit (or something?) rather than a family. Jeesh.

    I do think that "attractiveness" is a sort of fan service. I miss my old church where ugly people singing off key led the music. There you knew nobody was going to judge you based on appearance.

    Just kidding--or am I?

  35. Thank you for sharing the link! I enjoyed the article and found the comments very helpful.

  36. Hi Patricia, your church experience saddens but doesn't surprise me.  I am sorry for the way you were not cared for and loved at the time you needed it most, by the people you would expect to be your friends.  I hope that your body is fully healed and strong now...

    I have the tendency to waffle between depression and outrage if I think too hard on all the injustices I have experienced and witnessed in the Church over my lifetime.  Whether in the church or out in the world, people have a way of letting us down...disappointing.  Sometimes, they're downright mean and callous.  As trite as it sounds, heartbreak has been a path for me to feel more for others who suffer and to have compassion toward them.  Ironically, that has been a gift.  To say that not everyone can easily feel compassion and have mercy on others is an understatement!

    My ongoing struggle is to manage the tendency to harden my heart (Pat Benatar fans, unite!) and become bitter in response to painful losses.  The bad-ass front I put on sometimes is my protective mechanism.  Can you relate, Patricia?  Your voice (and friendship) matters to me.  On Sara Groves 'Fireflies and Songs' CD is a line from the song 'Twice as Good,' that I love:  "Life with you is half as hard and twice as good."  That pretty much sums it up for me -- gratitude for friends who remain beside us in thick and thin.  ~Peace~

  37. Hi Susan,
    Thanks, I still have some lingering neck issues. I had nerve damage in my neck that radiated pain down my left arm.  I'm still doing my physical therapy exercises to manage the pain. The biggest pain now is trying to deal with the insurance that is supposed to take care of this.

    We just found it really ironic the way "being community" was loudly buzzed, but when I was injured, there was no "community" whatsoever. We had given significantly, time, resources, efforts, etc. There were quite a few others who apparently had a comparable experience, and left also. The whole org is ending wholesale. To me, it's further evidence that organization is not the legitmizing pretext for Christianity.

    I'd also say that there are legitimate reasons to "harden" one's heart, if one has been conditioned to remain voiceless in unhealthy circumstances, whether it's church or family. Neither environment is a place I'd expect to find friends anymore. Friendship goes both ways in an equalizing kind of way, without  pressure, hierarchy, patronizing, or posturing (my husband is my true best friend). True Christainity follows the commands of Christ to love. But I have real issues with those who use Christ to demand, guilt and cajole, and take what you give, give, give, but, like the Pirates of Caribbean toast, "give nuthin' back." Especially if it's over the course of a lifetime, or at a time of real need.

  38. My Anglican priest says it's a joke among clergy that coffee after service is the fifth sacrament. Communion is where spiritual community is formed; coffee is where physical and affectionate community is formed.

  39. You're in the States and can't find anything on Netflix? Man, try Canada's selection.

    If you haven't seen /Arranged/, though, and if they haven't pulled it in the US (as they have here), make sure you do. I found it on Netflix and loved it.

  40. Insurance -- one of those necessary "evils."  The whole system is so messed up; but don't let me get started on that...  Especially when you are sick, or recovering from an injury, you don't feel like expending great amounts of energy to battle for the coverage you paid for (or thought you had).  :-(

    I'm not sure I believe, at this point anyway, that no organized community (a/k/a "church") can become a legitimate fellowship of believers.  There are great *potential* benefits to grouping and ordering, I think.  But, sadly, and as Richard has expressed here in many posts and discussions, any institution, org, corp, business, soon takes on a life of its own and is susceptible to great dehumanizing corruption (powers and principalities).

    In our past EFCA church, we were fairly involved in serving and participating, too.  Spent four years there.  It was my gentle, quiet daughter who got hurt the most in the "community that wasn't a community" (a healthy one, anyway).  I can take care of myself, but No. One. Messes. With. My. Children!  Hell hath no fury like a mother whose child has been scorned.  I let myself have it full-blast, too, for failing to see the harm being done much, much sooner.  I love my children more than my church, or local public school system, or any other power/principality.  I can't throw my arms around the world (a la Bono), but I can do right by my children.

    Oh Patricia, I know that the failures of the church/Christianity are probably like a trip to Disneyland compared with the experiences you've had with your family of origin.  I totally "get" needing to draw clear, firm boundaries with those whom you know are not to be trusted.  As I mentioned in a past conversation, I finally completely severed contact with my father and his unstable second wife.  That, though, is the grief of this world:  as much as we yearn for the love of Christ, and want to *be* love in a way that transcends earthly brokenness, we can't fix some things.  Reconciliation is just not always possible.  It takes two to carry, and often it's all uphill.  (Do you know Amy Mann of Til' Tuesday?  I'm big on meaningful lyrics!)

    The hardening I was talking about is the kind that shuts out all advances and attempts by others to come close...not trusting anybody...a hopeless enduring of life.  I've been close to that a few times, and fortunately it has been only temporary.  Sometimes, when we're really hurting and brokenhearted, we just need time and space to heal before we can put ourselves out there again.  Fortunately, God is as near as our own breath, especially to the brokenhearted, and He specializes in healing and redeeming the messiness of us.  If I didn't believe in that, then I really would be a hopeless case.

    Thanks for this heart-to-heart dialogue, Patricia.  With you, and others here, I'm beginning to get the gist of "confess your faults one to another, that you may be healed."  Some burdens are pretty heavy to carry around alone.  ~Peace~

  41. Padded pews were a real draw for us skinny folks back in the fifties and sixties. Not many c of c folks had them, but we started moving on over the other side of the tracks economically and they became a lot more commonplace even in small country congregations. It made sitting through the 30-45 minute sermons more bearable and brightened up the "auditorium" considerably (usually a deep wine hue). In the 1870's the restoration Benjamin Franklin excoriated the wealthy Northern churches who were succumbing to the pleasures of sin and ease of wealth. Aesthetics was not a big priority withthe crusty, earnest preacher and editor of the American Christian Review.

    Maybe he had a point. But where does one draw the line? I visited a marvelous English cathedral clone recently and was blown away with the architecture and ambiance. A lot of the music was based on ancient plainsong. It was stunning. How much fan service was going on I don't know. Sure enough, the pews were padded in crimson. Made the fascinating, moving liturgy go by a bit easier, but to tell you the truth....a hard pew wouldn't have made that much difference.

  42. Back int the early 90's a contingent from our congregation went up to Chicago's famous Willow Creek Church for a widely publicized seminar and take-home experience. These folks had marketing down, flat down. The rationale was to seduce the "seekers" to experience the gospel and getting saved....and, of course, keeping the saved in the vast church organization. It certainly seemed to be working. The pastor came by the technique honestly...his father owned a huge, successful chain of grocery stores. It was pure spiritual pragmatics....another name for fan service? Spiritual authenticity is a slippery critter to rope.

  43. Pat, the maneuvering and manipulation behind "church as a business" staggers me.  Is nothing sacred?  Consumer culture is rampant, and we each bear some responsibility for it.  But using God and faith as leverage in marketing strategy seems especially wrong?

  44. I haven't read through all of the comments yet, so I apologize if this comment is redundant. If fan service at church draws more people in to be exposed to the Kingdom story (even if it is for the wrong reasons), couldn't the world potentially benefit from an increase in fan service at church?

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