Pastor John, Dan in Salem, Oregon, writes in to ask why you hate fun so much. “Hello, Pastor John. I have heard you disapprove the concept of ‘fun’ as applied to the things of God before (e.g., in your sermon “United with Christ in Death and Life, Part 1”). I would like you to explain more what you have against this word, particularly in light of your acceptance of the often-maligned word ‘happy’ when applied to the things of God. Why reject ‘fun,’ which can connote enjoyment and pleasure, while accepting ‘happy,’ which to many Christians is a worldly substitute for God’s joy? I am feeling confused by your lexical choices, and I know how highly you value the clarity of language!”
My lament is only secondarily concerned with words and is primarily concerned with a spirit of levity or lightness. And I am distinguishing levity from a robust, large-hearted sense of humor. My lament is with a spirit of flippancy, jokingness, silliness, playfulness — a spirit that is manifestly uncomfortable with serious joy — and only comfortable with chipper, upbeat, jolly feelings of joy language. Particular words like fun or happy are not the main issue for me. It is something much deeper than that that I am concerned about.
It really doesn’t matter to me what words a pastor uses if he walks out on the stage after the first two worship songs that have been engaging the hearts with the living Christ and says, “Howdy, church, y’all having fun?” It wouldn’t help matters to me if he changed his language: “Howdy, church, y’all happy this morning?” The issue is not whether the word happy is okay or the word fun is okay. The problem here is not the vocabulary. The problem is the heart. It is the inability to distinguish emotionally between the happiness of the glories of Christ that we were just singing about and the happiness of a barn hee-haw dance. And the point is not that barn dance is bad. Good grief, it is not bad. There is a place for the barn dance and the hee-haw. That is totally not the issue. The point is that there is a difference. There is more than one kind of good times.
Our people desperately need good models of serious joy — not somber joy, but serious joy. I fear there are so many people who don’t have a clue what I am talking about. All they can do is put this into the categories of glum. I hope they are listening more carefully. Our people need to see in their pastor the kind of earnestness about life and worship and ministry that is gloriously happy in the child of God: happy that I am his child, happy to be called into his service, and gloriously able to show that and express that without borrowing from the same demeanor and the same vocabulary of a carnival or a talk show.
“Our people desperately need good models of serious joy — not somber joy, but serious joy.”
So, when I hear pastors say about his ministry, “It is great fun. We are having a blast planting this church. We are just having a blast,” I want to say, “Aren’t you spending most of your time dealing with God, the tragic consequences of the fall, the local and global realities of suffering in ministry, hell, heaven, the slaughter of Jesus on the cross, the resurrection, the bondage of the will that you are powerless to do anything about in the people you love, the power of Satan, the preciousness of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the call to suffer, the hope of glory, the sweetness of Christian camaraderie, the privilege of ministry, the miracle of new birth, the gifts of the Spirit?”
How in the world does the word fun or the phrase “having a blast” fit emotionally with those realities? Why don’t those words fun and blast stick in your craw? I think the answer is this: We are all, myself included, infected with the vocabulary of entertainment, the vocabulary of amusement — infected. “Having fun.” “Having a blast.” This is where we are at home. We are at home with entertainment. This is our default vocabulary resource. This is our native air. The vocabulary of earnestness and gravity and depth and weightiness and substance, these are foreign. They make us feel awkward. They are not natural to us. And that is my lament. It is not about words. We have borrowed the language of entertainment to describe sacred, weighty, serious, holy joys. And the best thing we can say to being an ambassador of the King of kings is, “It is a blast.” I regard that as tragic — and not just a vocabulary tragedy, but a spirit tragedy, a life tragedy, a huge loss in the church and in life.
“We are all, myself included, infected with the vocabulary of entertainment and amusement.”
Someone might object — and I can just imagine — “You are trying to build up a wall again between the sacred and the secular. And we have worked hard, really hard to tear down that wall by the way we talk and the way we dress, and you are trying to build that wall up again between the sacred and the secular.” And my response to that is, “Why should the flattening out go all in one direction, from the spirit of sacred to the spirit of secular — from seriousness to silliness? Why not the other way?” We know why: because emotionally we are at home in the language of the secular. We are at home in the language of entertainment. We are not at home in the language of sacred and holy things. We haven’t torn down the wall between sacred and secular. We have sold the store to the secular.
So, my longing is for a heart in me and others that feels the words and expresses ourselves and feels the demeanor that corresponds to the weightiness and glory and sacredness of the subject matter being referred to and the activity being described. I long for a gladness and gravity, an intermingling of gladness and gravity that are woven together in the life and preaching of a pastor — or anybody — in such a way that sober careless people and sweeten the burdens of the saints. I want careless people to be wakened by the sobriety of joy, and I want burdened saints to come in on Sunday morning to have their burdens sweetened and lightened. And I don’t think the word fun and blast is a vocabulary that does either of those things.
“We have borrowed the language of entertainment to describe sacred, weighty, serious, holy joys.”
If anyone thinks that I want ministers to become boring or somber or gloomy or melancholy, let me close like this: Unbroken seriousness of a melodramatic or somber kind will inevitably communicate a sickness of soul to the great mass of people, and rightly so. This is partly because life as God created it is not like that. There are, for example, little babies in mothers’ arms or lying on the couch in the world who are not the least impressed with John Piper’s passion or zeal or earnest looks. They are cooing and smiling and calling for their daddies to get down on the floor and play with them. And the daddy who cannot do this with abandon and joy and fun and having a blast doing it will not understand true seriousness of sin because he is not capable of enjoying what God has preserved from its ravages, the ravages of sin. He is really sick. He is a man unfit to lead others to health. He is, in the end, earnest about being earnest. He is not earnest about being joyful. The real battle in life is to be as happy in God as we can be, and that takes a very special kind of earnestness, since God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.
So, my lament is not a lament about the word fun. It is a lament about the loss of the capacity to feel and express the fun of cotton candy and roller coasters at the fair with our kids and the tear-stained joy of soul-saving ministry in the service of a crucified, triumphant King. There is a difference, brothers. There is a difference. And it would be a good thing to use words that help people feel the difference.