There are rare moments in life where you come to a place of complete clarity, when suddenly the disparate pieces of reality seem to fit together and at least one thing makes sense of it all.
I have had precious few moments like this, but one of the most memorable occurred when I was 16. (Kind reader will forgive a story probably recounted elsewhere, and thoughts refined from previous posts.)
I had just returned home from a weekend youth conference (Acquire the Fire, I believe), and my adolescent self could only describe the experience as “awesome” (I’m hoping beyond hope that- it being the mid-nineties- I didn’t use some form of “rad”…). And an experience it certainly was, what I would probably have described as “experiencing God.”
Naturally, it is nearly effortless to experience God in an awesome way when you are surrounded by thousands of your peers having the same awesome experience, all buttressed by the production, the venue, the music, etc.
But all these highs are only a mist on the moors in the morning, for eventually reality hits back, often with a vengeance. The following Sunday morning I was in the little church my family attended, my 16 year old self still basking in the radiance of my experience, believing all the promises I had made (to God or to myself?) and thinking it would last forever.
And then we started singing.
There is probably little that is more jarring than going from the experience of a really high end production to the experience of something with similar elements that the light from the star of high end production would take 9.76 billion years to reach. And when you’re 16 without the wisdom to bridge the gap, it can be somewhat earth-shattering.
Only hours before I was surrounded by thousands as we sang our lungs out to great music, while we had a well produced worship concert going on in front of us. Of course it is easy to get into that and flow along with it. God can seem very near when the experience aligns with what we want it to be. How could I not worship God in this environment, when it is so effortless to experience God in worship?
But suddenly I was faced with music that was awful, off-key, off-rhythm, off-whatever. The dissonance of that experience can conversely make God seem really far off, and the shadows of disillusionment can creep in so quickly, especially when you don’t have the theological grounding to deal with it.
I vividly recall standing in the pews, feeling kind of betrayed, as if God was playing a cruel trick on me. Where was the experience I had had only hours before, when God seemed so near and it cost me nothing to give myself entirely to him?
But then the moment of clarity came, in the form of rebuke. It was as if I was suddenly stripped bare of all my pretensions, left exposed in the open. And like the voice of God out of the storm to Job, it as if out of all the dissonance and disappointment around me I heard God speaking. The gist of it was this:
“All weekend you have been singing at the top of your lungs that I am worthy of worship. Am I any less worthy because your experience is different?”
I was a bit taken by surprise by this clarity, like the unfiltered sensation of sudden pain and no drugs to mitigate its assault. Here in this moment, immature as I was, I couldn’t help but discover what I really thought worship was about, and it certainly wasn’t about God.
That experience stuck with me as I creeped into adulthood, although sometimes blinding clarity loses its luster as the days and years wear on. I would repeatedly find myself falling back into my old habits of thought about worship, which was especially punctuated as I moved into becoming a worship leader (saints preserve us!) myself.
I was eager to craft worship services that “led people into worship” and helped them to “experience God,” and ultimately there is probably nothing wrong with that. I can only speak for myself, for in my moments of introspection (aided immensely by hindsight) I knew in my heart of hearts that this was all for me. To be sure, it was no doubt mingled with good intentions, and due primarily to overwhelming grace perhaps some good came of my efforts, no doubt completely in spite of myself. After all, we are not a single motivation, and I truly wanted to worship God and help others to do so as well.
But where I think I tripped up (and perhaps have not yet found my footing again) is that my efforts were primarily focused around the experience. That is, what sort of subjective value will such and such worship element contain or deliver? I found myself more and more subsuming “worship” to “experience,” completely inverting the order of things.
And let’s be honest- this is ridiculously easy to do. In my worship leading experiences I was blessed (perhaps?) with audiences/congregations who were eager to worship, and- for the most part- whose aesthetic preferences largely coincided with my own. To feel the energy in a room or to witness a crowd collectively participating in something lends credibility and validation to it, and it’s quite easy to get swept up in that.
In my own experience I found myself always critiquing the worship set: Was it good? Was the music performed well? Did the elements move people into worship or distract them? And no doubt these are valid questions to ask. But for my own part it wasn’t about worship at all but rather about experience. And in my own honest and shameful moments, it wasn’t really about the experience of others but rather about my own.
After all, it is relatively easy to sell a good experience of worship music. Leading worship is simply another form of rhetoric, and to some extent it is completely valid to try and rhetorically move one’s audience. After awhile you come to realize what sorts of cadences are moving, what sort of flow is most conducive to a worshipful “mood,” how to structure the transitions, beginnings and endings along with lighting, set design and the like to really make the worship experience happen. And since it is a form of rhetoric, there is a certain science (as well as an art) to leading a congregation in worship.
And so the question I was always asking myself was how to create a better worship experience. I went through a lot of phases, from trying to put together large bands with unique instrumentation, to smaller groups with a more “intimate” feel, to ancient prayers and songs to reworking hymns in a more modern bent. Yes, it was fun, and exploring different worship styles/techniques/whatever has a certain thrill with it. Sometimes one’s experimentation blows up (either in a good way or a bad way!), and other times it becomes another useful tool in one’s worship repertoire. In all of these techniques and elements and such, how can we more fully lead people into worship, and help them more deeply experience God?
It is perhaps not a bad question on some level, but it took a long time for me to realize that ultimately I was really asking the wrong question. Instead of asking how I can create a better experience of God, the real question was far simpler and profound:
Am I worshipping God well?
In my understanding of worship, I had envisioned the experience or encounter with God as something sublime, which it certainly is. But if I scratched beneath the surface of my words, what I was really thinking of was good feelings and the high I got from doing something I liked and having the feeling of it being validated in some way. Sometimes there may be tears, but that is because we are emotional beings, and sometimes when you are in the throes of an experience the waterworks cannot be helped.
But as I thought more and more about the “experience” of worship in the scriptures, I realized that encounters with God are rarely associated with good feelings; instead, for most of the biblical characters who have an experience of God they fully expect to die any moment because of the unmitigated encounter with holiness and the concomitant realization of their own sinfulness.
The quintessential worship passage in Isaiah illustrates this well. Isaiah is in the temple performing his duties, and suddenly he has a vision of the divine, and immediately presumes himself to be about to die precisely because he has seen God and is a “man with unclean lips.” Isaiah’s experience of God is by no wise dis-attached from its ethical moorings; in fact, one really cannot have one without the other.
This became a really intriguing theme that I began to see over and over. One passage that I had always puzzled over was Jesus’ statement to the woman at the well that true worshippers would worship the Father “in spirit and in truth.” The whole “in spirit” part always betokened a sort of emotional experience to me for whatever reason, since it is easy to contrast the “spiritual” (read: emotional/what I like) aspect of worship with the material (read: liturgy or whatever worship bogeyman I don’t like). If anything this passage always seemed to confirm me in what I wanted to do, since the “spiritual” can be so emptied of meaning as to be a placeholder for whatever we want.
The part I always seemed to miss was that true worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth. But what does it mean to worship in truth? I had always suspected it meant some sort of sincerity or authenticity, which of course was convenient since authenticity was (and unfortunately still is) a mighty buzzword in regards to worship. But looking back at Isaiah and placing Jesus’ words here in the context of a real encounter with God, the truth is not sincerity or authenticity as the buzzwords depict them, but is rather a more frightening experience. True worship entails that one must come to grips with the awful truth that God is holy all through and we are but sinful creatures with unclean lips.
Going even further, Jesus elsewhere states that he himself is the truth, which means that to experience Jesus brings the same meaning that Isaiah discovered. There is an ethical component to worship that cannot be divorced from the experience if it is to be true worship. We often describe our worship as a way to demonstrate our love for God, and it surely is, but love is not merely emotions or words but- as it must be rooted in the truth- carries with it the same ethical component. No doubt this is what Jesus says that if one wishes to love him, one must keep his commands.
St. Paul develops this theme further when he states that the transformation which results from the renewing of our minds is our spiritual act of worship. This transformation is likewise ethical through and through, as he opens this passage by commanding his readers to not conform themselves to the world- which, incidentally, St. John describes rather bluntly as characterized as the lust of the eyes and the desires of the flesh.
Worshiping God- and further worshipping him well- is thus an act of purification if it is to be worship at all, for like Isaiah we must come face to face with our sinfulness and God’s holiness.
As I think back through my life and all my experiences with worship, I can’t help but think that I have treated it far too cheaply and casually. Perhaps not all the time, but in my attempts to craft the right experience I almost always missed the experience that is the result of true worship. I have mentioned that when I was young if was easy to “worship” with my peers and the music I liked and all that. The reason, of course, is that it ultimately cost me nothing. I didn’t have to feel discomfort, I was led into an experience I wanted to have by means that I preferred.
And so now that haunts me every time I darken the door of a church. And to my great shame, I still find myself searching for the experience and hoping to be led into God’s presence so I can encounter him. And this is probably not a bad thing. But very rarely do I actually ask myself if I am worshipping God well, let alone worshipping him in spirit and in truth.
Because let’s be honest- I absolutely do not want Isaiah’s encounter with God. Who wants to come face to face with the depths of one’s depravity and despair of one’s life in a worship service? I certainly don’t. If I am honest with myself, what I want is the Beatific Vision without the purgatorial fire; I want holiness without the loss of the sins that tie me down; I want the goodness and sweetness of God’s presence while still having both feet solidly planted in the world with its lusts of the eyes and desires of the flesh.
But we have become experts at marketing this type of worship experience. We spend a lot of time trying to make our worship services relevant and interesting, which is fine. We agonize over how to be welcoming to everyone and reach them where they are, which is also great. We plan out our worship to the second to minimize the distractions and accentuate the experience, which probably is fine too.
Except that in all of our efforts to create relevant and meaningful worship, perhaps too often we are really only creating an experience of worship that is effortless. It seems that this often forms the lion’s share of our outreach efforts. We highlight the services and programs we offer, have differing music styles to cater to different tastes, develop resources that make becoming a disciple more easy, and have loads of ways to deepen one’s faith or serve others.
And all of these things are great.
But do we even have the space any more for someone to come face to face with God like Isaiah did, where he was forced to recognize his sinfulness in the presence of absolute holiness? Do we ever lead people to understand that an experience of worship carries a simultaneous ethical imperative? Do our experiences of worship help us to unstick our feet from the world, the flesh and the devil, or do they confirm us in our preferences and allow us to worship God without any cost to ourselves?
To be sure, marketing worship like this probably doesn’t get many butts in the seats. If I were honest with myself mine would probably not be in one.
If worshipping in truth means that we must conform ourselves to the truth, and if our love for God is evidenced by our keeping his commandments, then worship is far less an experience and far more a duty. We bristle at that term in regards to worship since it tends to steal the “spiritual” aspect in our common misappropriation of its sense. But Jesus actually commands us to love, which means that our worship is not an experience we have to feel good or to bolster our spiritual life; rather, it is an obligatory act owed the one who is holiness straight through.
Understood in this light, worship is not a causal experience but should probably prick some fear in us. To be sure, God is a loving Father who cares for his children infinitely, but he is also a consuming fire. A mountain is no less majestic and praiseworthy for its terror, but also no less terrifying for its beauty. As Isaiah learned firsthand, you simply cannot have God without the fire.
But we are usually quite content to treat God casually, to have the majesty without the fire, and our worship perfectly reflects this. Too many times I find it hard to even drag myself to worship that I like, let alone to a purifying fire that strips bare my pretensions and exposes my still-too-strong love for the world.
In all this I only speak for myself, for I am dense and slow to realize what is probably far more obvious and “duh!” to others. I am also so fickle as to want all of the worship goodies for free.
No doubt I’ll be a long while in the fire of purgation for my sins and the half-heartedness I can barely summon the energy to want to shake. Maybe someday I can actually worship God in spirit and in truth, along with all the attendant pain of realizing my own depravity that this demands, but that may long.
Because too often it seems that for now an experience will do.