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577: How Church Became Theater & the Evangelical Imagination with Karen Swallow Prior


A new survey of worship leaders finds that four megachurches have cornered the worship music market. Should we care who is writing the songs we sing in church, and what gets lost when market forces influence local ministries? A sermon clip has gone viral showing a megachurch pastor scolding people who arrive late or leave early because they are treating the “church like it’s a religious show instead of a welcoming family.” But are people acting like church is a show because that’s the model church leaders have created? We explore the history of how churches came to copy theaters and its impact on the church’s mission and power. Then, Phil talks to Karen Swallow Prior about her new book, “The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis.” She explains how the current crisis in evangelicalism finds its roots in trying to preserve Victorian values rather than biblical ones. Also this week: a celebrity bear is above the law.



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0:00 - Intro


1:49 - Show Starts


4:10 - Theme Song


4:27 - Sponsor - Hiya Health


5:36 - Animal News


14:05 - How we choose worship music in church


34:55 - JD Greear’s recent viral clip


56:03 - Sponsor - AG1

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57:32 - Sponsor - Blueland

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58:38 - Interview Intro

Karen Swallow Prior


1:03:36 - How Victorian literature influenced Evangelicalism


1:12:20 - Evangelicialism and Empire


1:24:43 - Broadening our imagination


1:36:43 - End Credits



Links mentioned in news segment:


Hank the Tank: Fugitive burglar bear captured in California



Few worship leaders avoid Hillsong, Bethel songs — despite controversies and scandal





Other resources:


The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis by Karen Swallow Prior



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15 Comments


As the wife of a lead pastor in a small congregation and highly involved in leadership myself, I appreciate the dialog on what we have created church to be. As you stated, the challenges of being the shepherd or co-learner are both real. Especially in smaller churches where you are directly involved with many in the church. I would love for you all to have interviewees on your podcast that address some of the solutions to creating a relational environment. Many great issues are discussed on your program (which is why I keep listening), but I'm often left wondering how. Thanks for the great programming you put out there.

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One topic that fails to come up in discussions about worship in the Church is people with social anxiety, neurodivergence, or introverts. Or in some cases, all three. I have a pretty good case of at least 2 of these, and the meet and greet before and after the service is somewhat stressful for me. I start to worry that no one will say hello, then I worry that they WILL say hello. I worry if I will have to shake hands or worse, hug if I don't want to. So yes, sometimes I come in late and sit at the back so I won't have to interact too much. Formal small groups can be too much for me as…

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S R
S R
Aug 14, 2023
Replying to

I'm the same. I utterly loathe 'turn to your neighbour' moments, but it's often because the conversation is so artificial and more often than not neither of us really want to do it. I often pray quietly at the end of the service for the emotional energy to interact with just one person and then, that done, I can leave. That's progress for me - 10 years ago, the main selling point of a church for me was if I could slip in almost unnoticed, sing, listen to the sermon and then leave without being accosted by overly friendly greeters or forced into conversation. My view of church has changed since to be more aligned with Skye and Mike's view…

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Jessica Deese
Jessica Deese
Aug 12, 2023

You should definitely check out Wendell Kimbrough’s music. He was our church’s artist in residence/worship leader for several years and one of his weekly responsibilities was creating a singable refrain for the responsive Psalm reading. These refrain’s often became entire songs and eventually an album. Lament is beautifully engaged and expressed in his adept lyrical/translating hand. He’s now at a church in Dallas and writing amazing music that any church would be blessed to have. https://worshipleader.com/worship/you-belong-how-wendell-kimbroughs-song-brought-psalm-87-to-life-in-my-seminary-class/


https://www.wendellk.com

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Dustin Savage
Dustin Savage
Aug 21, 2023
Replying to

Wendell is great. I've introduced a few of his songs to my church - very well received.

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Pam Faggart
Pam Faggart
Aug 10, 2023

Mike made a comment in the discussion about worship music "The concern I have ... not very incarnational.. as if we all decided to do the same sermon series together...". There are thousands of churches who follow a liturgical calendar and do hear the same sermon or similar versions preached every Sunday. I am more concerned with those who feel we always have to come up with something new and original. This is where we can go off track tying to find a new take.

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TJ MacDougall
TJ MacDougall
Aug 10, 2023

I think one of the reasons Hillsong and Bethel music is popular is because they are good at what they do. I'm sure there are other forces such as marketing involved but I do think the songs themselves (many of them) are actually high quality both musically and lyrically. There are many Hillsong and Bethel songs that I still really like.

However I've grown very uncomfortable with Bethel due to political affiliations, and the revelations that have recently come out about Hillsong have exposed a culture that is way worse than I ever expected. So I'm really not comfortable with either now. It's a different situation than comparing it to problematic figures that are long dead because the problems are…

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