Experience and the Tourist-i-fication of Worship

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If you drive across I-90 in South Dakota from East to West, you will notice a curious phenomenon. All along your route you will be bombarded with signs pointing you to something called Wall Drug.

Now Wall Drug is a tourist trap of sorts, although not an incredibly interesting one. There are some decent run-of-the-mill donuts to be purchased, a few dinosaur sculptures, and… well, that’s about it. Ok, it’s been at least 20 years since I’ve been there, but an animatronic gorilla playing the piano isn’t my cup of tea.

All that being said, a Trip Advisor review sums it up nicely:

It’s not a drugstore; it’s an experience.

The term “experience” is one that has undergone a remarkable change over the past few generations. In previous generations experience was seen largely as something accumulated over time, based on the choices you made, the things that happened to you, etc.

But experience did not have the currency it holds today. In earlier cultures production was what societies were largely based on, which necessitated valuing structures (both physical and institutional) that had the sense of permanence or at least inter-generational longevity. Property has always reflected this value as something which generally has stability and can pass from generation to generation, in some sense passing along both the stability of it as an asset and to some extent passing along the values which with it was imbued.

In such situations, experience as we understand it in the current day was not something you necessarily valued or sought out in its own right. At the very least, it was not conceptualized in such a way as to form one’s identity. One might attend church much as one would attend church today, but the attendance was largely more about the identity of the community of believers and structural institution of the church rather than any particular experience that might be had therein.

In the past couple generations, however, this sort of understanding has undergone a dramatic shift in that production (and all the attendant values) has been largely replaced with consumption as the means in which we interact with and understand the world and ourselves. As Charles J. Chaput notes in Strangers in a Strange Land:

The difference between production and consumption is what the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls the gulf between solid and liquid modern life. Older, “solid” societies based on production find their security in property ownership, delayed gratification, rational organization, methodological progress, and bulk power. “Liquid,” consumer based societies- children of the tech revolution and its rapid pace of change- feed on “incessant new beginnings” and experiences. (p. 60)

The upshot of this is that, in our day, experience is the new commodity, and with that is the concomitant reality that things that have permanence and depth can feel awkwardly out of place.

As an anecdote, I was watching several episodes of Tiny House Hunters on HGTV, and I noticed that one of the most cited reasons for choosing to build a tiny house was that the future residents valued “experiences more than things.” In some respects this is a superficially noble sentiment, especially when contrasted with much of the over-indulgence and materialistic narcissism of previous generations. However, in many respects it can follow precisely the same logic, just simply inverted. Chaput quotes James Poulos as noting that

Buying means responsibility and risk. renting means never being stuck with what you don’t want or can’t afford…There’s something powerfully convenient about the logic of choosing to access stuff instead of owning it… from flashy metros like San Francisco to beleaguered cities like Pittsburg, rising generation are… paying to access experiences instead of buying to own.” (pg. 61)

Intentional Transience

Experiences are not a bad thing in themsevles any more than things are a bad thing, but the difficulty with the liquid modern culture is that identity can become entrenched in the transient and ephemeral. Chaput quotes Bauman as noting that

…a society of consumers is unthinkable without a thriving waste-disposal industry. Consumers are not expected to swear loyalty to the objects they obtain with the intention to consume. (p. 60)

Apple (and likely many other computer manufacturers) provides a very real illustration of this in its shift in means of production for its Macs and Macbooks. It wasn’t that long ago (6-8 years) when Macs were very repairable and upgradable. My late 2008 Mac Pro- beast that it is- can easily have just about any component swapped out. If one is technically gifted, even the CPU can- with reasonable ease- be replaced as it’s socketed, although the procedure isn’t technically supported by Apple.   

Over the course of its life I have upgraded the RAM several times, swapped out the GPU, added an SSD and swapped an old HDD with a newer, larger one. The very form of this machine allowed for and encouraged this sort of activity, and even the bulk of the machine (which, believe, me, is a double-edged sword!) signaled a sense of longevity.

Moving forward to 2013, the most recent (yes, that’s right…) Mac Pro threw this sort of convention out the door, opting to lock down most of the user upgradable components. Even though things like the CPU are technically upgradable, the form factor can make this very difficult in having to account for thermal differences and the like. Even Apple recently admitted that the form of the machine backed them into a thermal corner.

Apple’s laptops are a different story, in that many of the components (like RAM in some models) are now soldered onto the logic board, making upgradability nearly impossible. Check out iFixit’s review of one model.

The point here is not to bag on Apple, but rather to illustrate how consumption-focused products have the effect of contributing to even the design of a product, in some cases intentionally crafting products that are meant to be thrown away.

Of course, products aren’t the end all of existence, and in some cases (like the Mac Pro) the desire for (at least the illusion of) permanence has somewhat resurged in some sections of the market. However, this consumption-focused mindset tends to reorient that understanding of reality from something in which we are a part towards something which we experience as external to it. Ownership- whether in terms of physical things or in respect to belonging to something over the long haul- expects a lot of us and places many demands upon or time, resources and the like.

Experience in the modern sense, on the other hand, inverts this order in that it places no expectations on us, but rather upon what is experienced. The world around us thus can become something which must fulfill our expectations as we generate them, providing us experiences to be experienced or ignored according to our whims and convenience. This of course bleeds into every aspect of our lives, including our relationships. Chaput argues that

…rapidly getting rid of past choices is the only way to make room for new ones. Inevitably, this approach to life shapes personal relations: Once the pattern [quoting Bauman] “to reject and replace an object of consumption which no longer brings full satisfaction is extended to partnership relations, the partners are cast in the status of consumer objects.” In this sense, nothing is more liquid than no-fault divorce. (pg. 60)

This sense of the atomized self which externally interacts with the world through intentionally sought “experiences” can have a substantial impact on our beliefs and imaginations and values. Chaput notes that

Technology has also played a big role- the decisive role- in disrupting and reinventing our economic lives. And it’s also changed the way we think. To put it another way: We use or tools, but our tools also use us. In half a century, the United States has gone from a manufacturing economy based on production, to a knowledge economy based on consumption. The impact on our imaginations and behaviors has been huge. Production is a joint affair. It requires guilds, unions, and corporations. It needs assembly lines, investment, heavy industry, and communities. Consumption is a private affair. It requires only self. (pg. 59)

What can happen is that our identities become rooted not in the community we live in or the religion we belong to or the family we were born into or any of the things that have characterized human identity over the centuries and millennia, but rather in the things we consume and experience individually. Liquid modernity can lead to the tourist-i-fication of our identities and our relation to the world, which becomes more and more externalized:

For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences. (http://routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/liquid-modernity)

The Tourist-i-fication of Worship

In terms of the way in which the church interacts with the culture in the modern world, the unfortunate result is that the church has largely taken on the cultural vernacular, both in its marketing and in its praxis. The paradox would be amusing if it weren’t real: we profess to believe something that is eternal and transcendent, but then largely wrap it in the ephemerality of experience.

This is easy to identify in much of modern church marketing, even with a cursory examination. As I drive along I-90 in South Dakota I am bombarded with the allure of an experience in Wall Drug, but I am equally assaulted with the promise of an experience when I go to church. I can pick up Experience Wall Drug postcards that are as kitschy as can be, but I get the same sorts of postcards in the mail from local churches, telling me about how I can come and experience God, experience worship, experience community.

Social media is an equally culpable partner in the tourist-i-fication of worship, in that I can be reminded anywhere about the experience that awaits me. In watching almost any church promo video, I can be introduced to so many experiences in terms of worship or family or service or whatever. All of the marketing push is what the church has to offer me, what sorts of experiences I can have that appeal to me as a member of X demographic. All that is required is for me to watch and attend.

We tend to prioritize the message of experience in our church marketing because that is the language that our liquid culture understands, and thus it is a tempting message to want to convey. After all, if that is what our target market values, isn’t that the message we should be getting out there?

The problem is that to a large extent we have imbued that message into what we do, and come to believe our own marketing that our worship is primarily an experience, even if our lips and mission statements don’t explicitly acknowledge it. But that’s certainly how we tell others about it. We talk on and on about experiencing God, or experiencing powerful worship, or experiencing community, which are not necessarily unlaudable goals in and of themselves. But the sinister deception lurking under the surface is that we can too easily buy into the understanding of liquid modernity that these things somehow exist external to us so as to be experienced in a no-risk, no-obligation sort of way.

Thus, we start to approach worship as something that is primarily an experience, and we can as a consequence start to subsume its reality and purpose to our own personal predilections and desires. Worship, discipleship, whatever, all become values only insofar as they are desirable experiences, and thus which broadly align with prior values and desires which may or may not coincide with the true purpose of worship/discipleship/etc.

However, since experience comes to be seen as external to oneself and thus one’s relation to the world as something equally external, every experience comes to be understood as isolated unto itself, with no little to no meaningful coherence with anything else and thus no permanence or overarching value beyond itself. There develops a lack of stability and rootedness, which smuggles in a quasi-Gnostic approach to living in which there is no correlation between our bodily experience and spiritual realities. Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option explores this dynamic vis-à-vis worship and liturgy and the decline of the church in the West:

The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as a key reason why the modern church is falling apart. If there is no real participation in the eternal- that is, if we do not regard matter, and even time itself, as rooted firmly in God’s being- then the life of the church can scarcely withstand the torrents of liquid modernity.

“It seems to me that contemporary Western culture looks at the things we see around us- every created object- as isolated,” Boersma told me. “We typically in our culture also look at every event , whatever it may be, as an isolated event, independent of every other event. Everything in our culture is in flux. Everything is unrelated to everything else. We have no anchor, no stability.” (pg. 108)

Of course, the problem with any experience is that it can always be trumped by a better experience, or sometimes even a new one. We instinctively understand this, which is often why we place so much liturgical emphasis on the novel or on the creative, anything to avoid the inevitable liturgical ennui.

However, what we can make up for in the experiential we can decidedly lose out on in the rhythms that the stability of liturgy can afford and the thick communities that can develop around shared practices, beliefs, rituals, liturgies and yes, even experiences.

While music in worship and the production thereof isn’t the end-all of experiential worship, many modern churches do tend to devote significant resources to it to ensure the best and most friction-less experience of worship and of God possible. But this can come at a cost of any sort of permanence, as the ephemeral necessarily takes center-stage, even if it isn’t intended.

For example, if you look at the song repertoire favored in many churches, it often heavily (if not exclusively) lands on the side of the new, and often on the side of the original. We quickly tire of the very songs we create for our experiences of worship, and thus must constantly be creating new ones, as our fixation on experiences prioritizes the novel. There is of course nothing wrong with creating new things, but too often I fear our mindset is directed towards consumption rather than production. We create things to be consumed and discarded; we play a new song a few times and it has to be shelved away because we start to experience it as stale. We reject out of hand the vast majority of the Christian canon of worship texts in favor of what we consider fresh right here and right now. We can even subsume dogma to the filter of experience, in our hubris imagining that the ephemeral experiences of the present can provide a universal hermeneutic. We ultimately enable our experiences to direct our worship and to determine the value of that worship.

The Failure of Experience

What gets lost is anything that forms a distinctive Christian cultus that has any value beyond itself in the time and place of its creation. In the midst of creating experiences to be had in the here and now, we are not creating meaning that transcends any particular time or location. We are not creating songs that can be sung outside of the production in which they occur. We are not crafting messages that can transcend the temporalization required to make them conform to our notion of relevance. We are not encouraging practices that reach beyond the marketing push. And thus we are not creating disciples that can exist outside of the experiences we continuously generate for them, assuming they haven’t sought out a newer, better experience already.

In any particular instance or church this may be hardly worth mentioning, but the problem is that much of the modern church has wholly inculcated the prioritization of experience vis-à-vis the phenomenon of liquid modernity, with the result that many of our churches have little to no connection to the past, and thus will have little to nothing substantive to pass on in the future.

Thus we can easily turn worship into a commodity that we try and sell to a culture (and especially our own subcultures) looking for experiences. The upshot is that we are constantly trying to reinvent ourselves to appeal to perceived desires for particular experiences, which in turn leaves little room for anything distinctively Christian about our worship services, since the culture with which we surround our worship and beliefs is reoriented to the self and its predilections and desires.

In many ways the modern church has lost the ability to tell its own story as we have become so focused on aligning ourselves with the experiences of those we want to reach. We’ve largely abandoned any true notion of a Christian culture (rather than the detestable Christian subcultures that our preoccupation with experience necessarily creates) with habits, liturgies, rituals, etc., that help to physically and spiritually underscore and cement the reality of belief and practice, which contributes to the loss of those beliefs and practices. Dreher comments on the power of rituals in a culture remembering its stories:

[Paul] Connerton’s study found that the most effective rituals do not vary and stand distinctly apart from daily life in their songs and language. And if a ritual is to be effective in training the hearts and shaping the imaginations of its participants, it has to be something they are habituated to in their bodies…

“Liturgical rhythm is a kind of music by which the truth of the gospel is inculcated over time,” writes [Simon] Chan in his book Liturgical Theology. He adds that the liturgy is a “journey toward an intended end” and constitutes “the living out of our baptismal faith in the body.” (pg. 109, 111)

Our churches have been great about providing all manner of experiences to be consumed, but what we have failed at abysmally is bringing people into the Christian experience. The distinction might be seen in that the Christian experience consists of fixed points that ultimately must be submitted to, irrespective of the value we assign to that experience individually. It is also something that cannot be experienced as external to ourselves, as we tend to do in liquid modernity, but must be something we go all-in with, an experience that we become a part of and which forms every other aspect and experience of our lives. It is not something that can be consumed, but rather must be produced in us. It cannot occur as an isolated event in respect to everything else in our lives, and thus cannot be commodified, much less tourist-i-fied.

Of course, it’s very difficult to market this sort of experience, as it goes against everything our culture values vis-à-vis experience and its ultimate end. None of this is to say that we intentionally take on this mind-set or have poor motives. On the contrary, ultimately sometimes the rationale for marketing worship as an experience is that it is the only language the culture understands. Thus, if we are to reach them, we have to speak and market in the vernacular.

The problem with primarily focusing on this rationale is that language- both in our words and in our actions- forms the context and the content of what we think and believe, expanding or limiting what we are capable of understanding and thus believing. Much as cultures without terms for abstract concepts have difficulty thinking abstractly, so churches without the linguistic and praxic vocabulary for Christian belief and praxis will find it difficult to actually form believers. If we only speak in the vernacular of experience that the culture formed by liquid modernity understands, it is exceedingly difficult to introduce them to or form them in ways of thinking that are necessarily distinct from and ultimately irreconcilable with such modes of thought. Dreher notes that:

Many Christians today (including some in liturgical churches) believe that Sunday worship is merely expressive- that is, it’s only about what we the people have to say to God. However, in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us. Liturgy reveals something of the divine, transcendent order, and when we submit to it, it draws us into closer harmony with that order.

All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental reflect Christ’s presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshippers. Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshippers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements. The liturgy feeds the sacramental imagination, reweaving the connection between body and spirit. (pg. 108)

When worship is commoditized through experience, it severs the link between worship and the sacramental, thus disentangling the transcendent from the immanent, leaving only the ephemeral husk of the experiential. If the sacramental imagination can be fed, so can the experiential imagination, with the result that worship as an experience becomes like any other experience, isolated and sectioned out relative to one’s desires and convenience.

Once the experience loses its ability to captivate or titillate, it can be safely discarded for another, as is happening all over the church in the West.

We thus end up feeding the experiential imagination and speaking in language that ultimately doesn’t allow for the transcendent. Our worship becomes another marketing ploy like Wall Drug signs along I-90, hoping to bait fellow travelers into stopping for the experience. Our worship thus asks little to nothing of the experiencer, and only becomes as inculcated into their lives as the potential satisfaction of the experience portends.

In the end, we create worship tourists who see worship not as a duty to submit their lives to nor as something which draws them into something larger than themselves, but rather as just another thing to experience external to themselves.

If you haven’t guessed, the experience of Wall Drug wears off pretty quickly.

Worship is no different to a tourist.

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Jason Watson

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