If I ever manage to reach my golden years, I have great hopes of being a curmudgeon. A writer whose name I have forgotten mentioned that being a curmudgeon takes a fair amount of practice, and thus I consider this post an investment in my future curmudgeoniness.
Being heavily involved in church worship and media production, I have the opportunity to view worship service post-mortems from a variety of perspectives and locations. Often these take the form of evaluating the logistics of a worship service, but social media also allows one to take a peek into the emotional perceptions of a worship service as well.
Social media is, of course, the curmudgeon’s best friend (or would that be bestie?), as it voluntarily provides an unceasing supply of cultural oddity to critique. And since I am only a novice curmudgeon, this not meant so much as a critique, but rather as an attempt at wry observation, to which the reader is left to decide the relative curmudgeoniness of each approach.
Curmudgeons also often take their time to get to point, meandering around leisurely as is their wont. It’s probably why they are so adorable.
As I view many worship service post-mortems (or even pre-mortems?) I have been struck by the sort of language we tend to attach to them when successful and the types of elements we lift up as demonstrating their value. I am personally trying to rid myself of this annoying habit, but we like to use “awesome” for everything, no matter how banal it is, demonstrating that The Lego Movie accurately identifies our cultural apprehension of everything. Worship is “awesome” or “amazing” or- as will be the foil for this post- “rockin’.”
Now, it is not the word itself which is objectionable (since it may very well never be used!), but rather the idea around which much of our descriptions of worship and worship services revolve. I tend to see this type of description accompanied by photos of elaborate stage designs with (to be honest) well done lighting, on which worship bands are prominently featured. It is often the quality of the music, the aesthetic import of the environment and the amount of emotional impact (which is often heavily dependent on the former elements) which allows one to use such appellations.
Thus, if the environment has a compelling aesthetic and the worship band performance exceeds a certain threshold of musicality and the songs have enough of an emotional grip in the musical phrasing and the lyrics can ply one’s heart with enough affectation, then “worship” can be considered “awesome” or “amazing” or “rockin’” or even just “really good.”
I am still in baby curmudgeon mode, since I still feel a tingling of obligation to nuance my observations here by delimiting the strength of my critique. To be sure, there is nothing inherently objectionable about any of these elements. It is tempting to ascribe these trappings to a certain era or a certain “style” of worship (whatever “style” is meant to entail). But the reality is that as aesthetic creatures we cannot help but be moved by what we see and hear, and thus- for better or for worse- our emotions and even our reason will be moved by the beautiful just as much as they should be moved by the true and the good. As the angelic doctor declared, there is nothing in the mind which is not first in the senses, and thus, all other things being equal, it is surely preferable to aim for quality in all that we do, even if it is a worship production.
But the obligatory caveats aside, what I find most curious is not that we have these sorts of experiences and emotional reactions to “worship.” Rather, I find it peculiar that the aforementioned descriptions are the ones we tend to use most when we talk about worship.
On some level or another, we consider worship (presumably in whatever form that takes) to be, among other things, an encounter with God. At least this is how we tend to market worship; we come to experience God (or experience worship), to connect with God, to let God touch our hearts and transform our lives, etc.
But then we turn around and condense this supposed encounter with the Ground of all Being, the Creator of All Things and King of Everything into something that is “cool” or “really good” or “amazing” or “awesome.” And when we try and get others to come have this same experience/encounter, this is basically how we describe it.
What happens is that we reorient worship- which is semantically something which we do and which is oriented towards something outside of ourselves- so that it is less about what we give to God and more about what we receive. Given that we are creatures marked by becoming, this is probably inevitable to some degree. Yet we form our worship marketing around this reorientation, which is why we tend to describe worship as something that is oriented towards ourselves rather than something that is oriented towards God.
Thus, we use the language of experience to describe worship not necessarily because of any particular worship style, but rather more because we have subsumed the duty of worship (which it primarily is) into the experience of worship (which it is only latently).
This is easily demonstrated in how using language like duty to describe worship immediately strikes us as misguided, legalistic, moralizing, etc. We see it as opposed to spontaneity or desire, which only further buttresses how we have reoriented worship as experience. But if worship is duty first and experience second, then we are in serious need of re-reorientation.
After all, if we really believe that God is the Creator of Everything, King of the Universe, the End-All-Be-All of everything that has being and existence, then we logically must conclude that God is not only worthy of our worship, but must be worshiped by us, irrespective of the particulars of that experience. This arises from our creatureliness, since we are not the source of our own being. A proper theological and philosophical understanding of God’s relation to creation as both its creator and sustainer entails that worship is really not an option for us. After all, if God is the True and the Good and the beautiful, then anything less than acknowledging and declaring God as such (which is the primordial foundation of worship) is to engage in a lie, to try and say that that which is, is not.
Worship is thus an inescapable part of reality and even of our experience as created beings. Thus, worship is duty first and experience second. It is somewhat characteristic of our era to perceive seemingly pejorative language like duty as somehow being opposed to more positive (read: buzzword-y) language like “love” and “freedom.” Thus, we tend to think that unless our worship is birthed out of some existential desire (whether love or whatever else), it is somehow not “authentic.” But this sort of understanding really inverts the theological understanding of love which is not opposed to duty but which is instead characterized by it.
After all, Jesus explicitly commands his followers to love God as the first and greatest commandment. He even goes as far as to say that one loves God by obeying his commandments. For Jesus, the language of love and duty has little to do with an existential experience birthed out of desire, but rather subsumes desire within the oversight and direction of reason. Thus, one’s desire is of little import, since desire is not meant to propel our actions but rather our reason is meant for this task, to which duty pertains primarily.
This is all a bit more meandering to get back to the main point. We tend to market and describe our worship under the semantics of experience; hence, our marketing almost invariably tends towards the aesthetic. And again, there is probably nothing inherently wrong with this, but the biggest problem is that the more we perceive and market worship this way, the more we come to think that this is what characterizes the value of our worship, which far too often is delineated by music style, rhetorical ability, or any other aesthetic trappings.
The result, of course, is that while we hope that this sort of marketing (whether it is intentional or not) is effective at “reaching” (another one of the buzzwords we love and employ so dearly and frequently) others, I wonder if perhaps it is not a double-edged sword. For if we have reoriented worship to be about the experience foremost at the expense of duty, and if we essentially put all of our eggs into the basket of compelling desire, then if we cannot generate desire, worship suddenly becomes very optional.
After all, no one can simply generate desire all the time, even if it’s for something that one really enjoys/desires/loves. Our emotional and psychological constitutions are simply not designed for this, which perhaps should be a hint that this approach is ultimately doomed to failure. Desire can at times be a fine starting point, but it does not guarantee love, and may even end up rendering it impossible. We tire of things very easily, or even get distracted by other shinier things. A worship experience, no matter how amazing, simply does not have the capacity to keep one’s attention forever.
Yet it is this all-too ephemeral aspect of worship that we tend to describe and market the most. We boast of how amazing our worship is, how good the band is, how great the environment looks. And it’s not like these things are bad in and of themselves. However, they can actually only have value if they are in service to the outward orientation of our worship. Too often, however, the have the tendency to cement our own natural tendency to turn worship inwards and recreate it as an experience. It is to this extent that our worship experiences can become problematic, and while some worship “styles” may have a greater tendency towards this than others, nothing is immune.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, if it were up to me I would perform the modern equivalent of iconoclasm and rip the projectors from the ceiling, flood the environment with candlelight and only sing some form of chant (which I believe is actually objectively superior). Yet inherent in this tendency is the germ of turning worship into an orientation of experience. It may not be worship that is “rockin’” in the social-media-shareable sense of the word, but it aims at the same goal. Rather than questioning how the aesthetics of worship can better bring glory to God, my tendency is to ask first and foremost how it might more appeal to my sensibilities and desires.
In the end it really comes down to the same choice with which Adam and Eve were faced in the garden. Does my love for God go as far as my desires and predilections are massaged? Or is my love for God founded upon an unconditional obedience that subsumes all other considerations to the greatest commandment God requires?
There is certainly nothing wrong with loving your church, or even with loving certain things about it; indeed, even its decisions regarding aesthetics. Worship can be awesome and rockin’ and amazing all day long and more power to you, but when the last chord plays and all tones fade away, why exactly are we there? If our churches weren’t rockin’, would we still darken the doors? Indeed, even if they are, do we actually do so?
Or is our amazing worship only skin deep, useful as a distraction when the right mood is struck but ultimately incapable of generating true and lasting love for God in our hearts?