Fast Food Worship

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The other day Megan and I went to Sonic to grab some slushes. We brought both of the puppies along, with the idea of getting them what I call “Puppy Tots,” which are basically just tater tots that become fodder for gaping puppy maws.

Of course, they loved them.

Curious as to Sonic’s version of tater tots, I tried one for myself.

Of course, it was terrible.

At first it has a reasonably good taste- lots and lots of salt, and- if you’re lucky- some actual crunchiness on the outside. But after the initial savor it goes quickly downhill, and, like most fast food, you regret the whole experience, especially if you rarely consume it.

Sadly, the slushes are almost the same. At first the rush of frozen flavored sugar water is delightful, but then it just starts to taste saccharine and then turns bitter. It’s difficult to even get through the whole thing (even if it’s a small!).

Pleasure is something that drives us as humans, both in our animal nature as well as in our rational nature. The animal part seeks the pleasure in and of itself; we might say it seeks the “experience” of pleasure, and as far as one’s lower nature is concerned this is its good. Thus both I and my dogs often share these same impulses for pleasure in and of itself.

And we both like ice cream. Sonic will give you a huge “Puppy Cup” full of ice cream that would likely send them into shock if I let them eat the whole thing.

Unlike my puppies, the rational aspect of my nature is meant to perceive that the good transcends mere pleasure, and consists in actions that correspond to the end of our natures, rather than simply the gratification of one aspect of it.

This will, naturally, often involve foregoing what the animal nature might deem “good” for the sake of a greater good. Thus we often deprive ourselves of some lesser immediate good (say, the “pleasure” of Sonic tater tots) for the sake of achieving a greater good (say, one’s health). The lesser good is not necessarily always in opposition to the greater good, except for when it subsumes a greater good to itself.

A constant diet of tater tots does not a healthy body make, although my puppies would eat tater tots all day long if I let them.

And no, I don’t just feed them tater tots, although i think they wish I would…

Worship exists in a similar relationship to our pleasures and rationality. There is obviously the experiential aspect of it: we engage in an act of worship and it affects us in some ways, sometimes on an emotional level, sometimes on an intellectual or rational level. Nor are these responses always the same, even given the exact same stimuli. This experience is thus concomitant with the act of worship itself, and thus one cannot absolutely set experience up against worship, anymore than one could set experience over against duty. The greater good will contain the lesser.

The danger, however, is that much like our lower animal nature has the tendency to override our rational nature and seek after lesser goods for the sake of the immediate pleasure or experience, so in worship we can easily be made content with lesser experiential goods, perhaps even thinking that those goods constitute the meaning of worship. The experience itself comes to define what worship is, how “good” it is, and can even provide the motivation for engaging in the act of worship itself.

It’s not hard to see why either; after all, the emotional catharsis that can often accompany worship is powerful. Such catharsis can seemingly provide a temporary glimpse of the transcendence we seek. It can even cause us to euphemize the experience: we “felt” God’s presence, the Holy Spirit “rained down” on us. And if the emotional catharsis is understood as the evidence of those realities, why wouldn’t someone want that experience over and over again?

The regrettable “church shopping” phenomenon is often at least partially motivated by this impulse. After all, all things being equal, wouldn’t it be preferable to have one’s experience of worship line up as closely as possible with one’s preferences? The answer is very clearly almost always yes, and our churches themselves tend to reinforce this yes, given that the marketing tends to accentuate these types of motivations. 

The deception lies in our natures, however, in that our emotions are absolutely poor judges of the value of any particular good, especially the more powerful the experience. This is amplified in much of the modern church’s tendency to play upon these emotional impulses, to attempt to draw attendees and visitors alike in with the promise of these types of experiences. It becomes easy to mistake an emotionally moving experience for something that has actual depth and substance.

The truth is that it is absolutely effortless to bring about emotional catharsis. During our musical “worship,” for example, the right kind of songs, melodies, transitions, lighting cues and the like can so predictably elicit emotional responses that it can become practically formulaic. Add to this the tendency of humans to go along with a group, and all one must do is reach a critical mass and one has created the perfect experience of worship.

Lest one think I over-exaggerate, simply browse Instagram using the hashtag #churchstagedesign and note the types of stage designs, lighting, architectural foci and the like that tend to cluster around the types of experiences offered. Or search #sundaysetlist and note the songs and artists which tend to populate/dominate these lists.

A further thought experiment would be to notice the types of imagery and similarities employed in fast food commercial commercials.  

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this in and of itself; it’s when it becomes done for the sake of itself that it becomes problematic.

The other day I received a large postcard in the mail for (what I presume is) a newer church in the area. Always interested in how churches market themselves, I studied the postcard for a bit. Almost the entirety of the language was meant to appeal to some lower part of my nature. The church even described itself in three primary ways, one of which was “fun.” Aside from a passing reference to God, I might have been forgiven for mistaking this for an advertisement for some community event. The unmistakable takeaway was that the purpose of this place was me, and that my desires and preferences were the compelling reasons to attend.

Much like an ad for a cheeseburger and supersized fries and drink, the entire thrust of much of our church marketing is the quick emotional catharsis that we often mistake for spirituality. The focus is heavily on what I want, what I will get out of it, what I will experience now. Worship becomes an on-demand experience. I can get in and get out and still get something that tastes good.

In the fast food example, as bad as fast food ultimately is for one’s health, there is a modicum of nutritional content. And, all things being equal, if one was starving it would certainly not be the worst thing in the world to eat this fare.

However, the point of fast food actually has nothing to do with any particular nutritional content (or lack thereof), but rather in selling one the experience of eating. The consumption itself (that is, the experience and pleasure thereof) is precisely what fast food markets itself as.

Worship can take on the characteristic of fast food when it becomes the experience itself which is marketed and consumed. Unfortunately, this tendency constitutes the majority of the marketing the church does around worship. We even talk absolutely blatantly about coming to X church to “experience worship” or to “experience God” or “experience God’s presence.” Just like fast food, we are selling the consumption of worship itself as the good to be had. 

And just like fast food, it can become addictive. The high salt and sugar content, while perhaps jarring and overwhelming at first, eventually becomes normalized. And while we might not actually assert that it is really a healthy choice, sometimes the convenience or the catharsis (or both) overrule what better judgment might deem a better course. If not consumed in moderation, one can become sluggish, out of shape, and even develop serious health problems.

Worship in the modern church, unfortunately, is all too often nothing but a constant serving of fast food. Any good that may exist in it obscures other greater goods. The saddest thing is that we can become so accustomed to it that we remain ignorant of what greater goods are available. It’s usually easier and more convenient this way. Thus we create a generation of fast food Christians who are sluggish in their faith and really don’t know what they are missing out on. 

It’s likely in many cases that we don’t either.

Far worse, our fast food approach to worship can make things worse than if it didn’t exist, as it can obscure what worship is for and too easily orient the experience of worship as something that is for and about me. Anything which reinforces our already natural tendency towards self-centerdness and self-absorbtion should be avoided, yet it is often precisely what we market for spiritual consumption.  

A result is that a real question must be raised as to whether our fast food worship can actually sustain a vibrant and robust and healthy faith. Judging by how often the liturgical pieces change, it’s hard to think that even those who consume it the most aren’t constantly sick of it. It creates an idea of worship as consumeristic and disposable. We constantly have to create new songs because we get tired of the old ones, or else we are seeking new experiences through these means. We are always experimenting with different aspects of worship, chasing that elusive experience which we quickly tire of from week to week. We try to make things fun and light-hearted, somehow thinking that a faith which demands one’s life can somehow attract with a soft-sell.

We consume and throw away and then come back and do it all over again, rarely allowing the space to actually move on to weightier or deeper things. The food that we eat may be barely keeping us alive, or it may be slowly killing us. But it’s difficult to imagine it’s something that can be handed on to another generation, and judging by the majority opt out, it is perhaps already proven to be lacking.

But yet we keep slinging the same worship burgers, so to speak, even though we are already tied and bored of them.

After all, good food takes time and effort. One does not simply naturally develop a palate for better things; it has to be carefully cultivated over time. Many times it means forgoing the easier and (at the moment) tastier options for something that ultimately is more satisfactory.

Nor should this surprise us when it comes to worship. Our animal nature desires the emotional catharsis of experience and is content of itself to leave it there, but worship is intended to engage the totality of our being.

We naturally crave beauty and truth and transcendence. We need mystery and wonder and a cosmic vision that opens up beyond our own myopia. These things must necessarily move beyond mere experience, beyond simple emotional catharsis. These are goods which can only be apprehended by the spirit, and which experience must quail before so as to ultimately be enabled to enter in.

This means that experience must be allowed to accompany worship, rather than direct it. St. Paul completely invalidates the modern obsession with experience when he writes:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

 

(Romans 12:1 NRSV)

The term “spiritual” here intends the meaning of “reasonable” or “rational.” In this manner, the totality of the human person in both his animal and rational natures is engaged in the act of worship, an act which St. Paul envisages under the figure of self-immolation. In other words, the act of “spiritual” worship involves a complete emptying of oneself and one’s desires, as if one’s act of worship is a means of putting those things to death as a sacrifice offered to God.

In this respect, fast food worship completely misses the meaning of worship, which is a service and an act of adoration owed to and given to God, a sacrifice offered up to him. When experience comes to dominate the motive for worship, it effectively cuts us in two as rational beings, appealing primarily to our animal nature. We are left with the greasy dregs of what should nourish us, transformed into something merely to glut our already bored and fickle desires.

Understood in this way, worship becomes a lot like giving tater tots to a puppy.

 

*This post is adapted from some ideas developed here, especially those involving the relation of experience to pleasure. I wanted to take an approach that additionally encompassed marketing and its relation to how worship is perceived within the “fast food” paradigm.

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Jason Watson

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