Worship Should be Boring

In Philosophy, Theology
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For all of its flaws, social media can often provide a covert yet revealing look into how things are perceived by means of what people choose to share and their reactions to what they share. No doubt previous generations would think us mad for perpetuating and participating in such unsolicited dispensation of opinions, feelings and the like, but they also didn’t have fun and mindless memes to share instantaneously, so the joke is certainly on someone. Past civilizations might have silently mocked our penchant for imagining the world revolves around our stream of consciousness, but I guess at least we cannot be accused of being miserly in its dissemination.

As part of many social media groups related to all things church production, I am perhaps skewed towards a certain end of the spectrum, but I have noticed a similar tendency among people in other walks of life as well. To wit, one of the primary ways in which we tend to market our worship and worship services is by means of entertainment. The way in which this occurs will of course vary widely, but I think it’s a tendency the modern church finds it difficult to escape.

I see this on social media frequently. Sometimes it is subtle, usually a picture of the worshiptainment in question in which there is an amazing stage setup, excellent lighting, professional photo of a worship band, etc. Bonus points for subtlety if this is accompanied by some kind of scripture verse, promotional message or any of its ilk. (I know, as I have made many of these types of graphics over the years, mea culpa.)

Then we move to the characterization of worship as a “party.” There is usually the same sorts of imagery employed, along with a very excitable statement about how “we’re at church tonight, ready to party!,” the enthusiasm often punctuated- appropriately enough and with pun firmly intended- by copious amounts of exclamation points. The idea is that if you come to church-as-a-party you will experience “awesome” or “amazing” worship, which- as the imagery and promotional language belie- actually means “amazing” or “awesome” musictainment. It should, of course, be noted that the style and musical and cultural predilections of the event are often indicative of this sort of marketing; after all, I have rarely (if ever) seen an Evensong service marketed as “coming to church to party!” (It should also be noted in addendum that the tendency towards worship as entertainment is not necessarily absent in this case either.)

Perhaps the terminal stage of worship marketing comes when we straight out state that the worship experience is intended as entertainment. I am usually surprised when I see this blatantly admitted, but there it was as the many headed hydra of social media rose from the murky deep, and in my Facebook feed I saw someone actually recommending their worship service rerun as excellent “afternoon entertainment.” In some respects the honesty (whether intentional or not) is somewhat refreshing.

At this point I would be remiss for not admitting to a bit of a bait and switch with the title. I mention that worship should be boring, but I certainly don’t mean that it should be a mind-numbing experience (quite the opposite, in fact). Rather, the difficulty comes from the poverty of my mother tongue, in that there is not really an appropriate word to describe the opposite of entertaining besides “boring.” Let me rephrase that; in the way in which “entertaining” is usually employed, boring is the natural antonym.

I will hopefully be forgiven yet another foray into etymology: “entertain” as a verb comes from the late 15th century in which it held the sense of “to keep up, to maintain, to keep someone in a certain frame of mind.” (Online Etymology Dictionary) This came through the Middle French entertainer (hold together) from the Latin entretenir (to hold among) (the root of which is the verb tenere, from which “tenet” derives). The idea lurking here is that to entertain someone is ultimately to try and keep their attention, to have them hold a certain thought in their mind or to stay in a certain frame of mind.

Importantly, there is actually no indication here of the quality of what action or state is required to entertain.

Boring (in the sense of ennui), on the other hand, has an unknown etymology and a recent pedigree, not surfacing until the mid 19th century. It is speculated that it is meant to use the identical term in relation to the action of boring (that is, piercing) in a metaphorical sense, perhaps alluding to the monotonous action of a bore in motion, as if the monotony or lack of interest inherent in a situation or activity has the effect of relentlessly piercing and/or hollowing out one’s state of contentment, which is perhaps a fine description of the ennui “boredom” is meant to mimic linguistically.

Now, it is certainly no bad thing to act in a manner in which to keep someone’s attention; entertainment, after all, is meant to bring someone to a state of mind and keep them there. In other senses of the term we entertain guests by giving them attention, providing for their needs, offering friendship and conversation.

The danger of entertainment, however, is that it can very easily become an end in itself, and even as a means to an end can easily go astray. In the modern world this is especially evident. We joke at ourselves how we all have very short attention spans and dart from stimulus to stimulus like a dog noticing a squirrel. We face constant distractions that each seek to bring us into a different state of mind, yet no matter how alluring we often find it difficult to concentrate on one thing for much time.

There are so many things around us competing for our time and attention, and yet for the sheer amount of entertainment available we often find ourselves bored out of our minds, hoping for the next cool thing to stimulate us once again.

In a linguistic irony, what is meant in entertainment to appeal to the mind ends up being hijacked by our lower nature almost entirely in that we find our entertainment increasingly oriented towards our animal nature.

My dog Luna is easily distracted and also fairly easily entertained. Every so often I get her a new toy, and when I show it to her she immediately starts shaking and whining with excitement; this new thing is so shiny and new and exciting that she can barely contain herself. When I toss her the toy she is overcome by excitement, and for the next five minutes she will be utterly absorbed with that new toy.

However, after that five minutes or so expires that toy becomes old news. Our house is littered with toys that she was so excited to get but now barely even gives a passing glance to. There are a few she will still play with of her own accord, and a couple that she will play with if I say the magic words “Luna, do you wanna play?,” but for the most part if it’s not new and exciting it has ceased to exist.

Having no rationality, the entertainment of a toy appeals only to her animal nature. Her every response is dictated by her appetites (and her training- or lack thereof!). I often rhetorically ask her why she gets so “bored” even amongst such riches of entertainment possibilities, and every so often I swear that she sighs out of boredom. In this sense entertainment is merely stimulus and response; there is nothing about it that can get into her mind (as she lacks one).

We humans also have an animal nature, and in many respects our responses share the stimulus and response of our fellow creatures. But we also possess rationality, and thus perhaps as a consequence bear the burden of actual ennui. Entertainment for us appeals to our animal nature, to be sure, but it can also appeal to our minds, and this is not a mutually exclusive exercise.

In this sense, entertainment does not have a pejorative meaning, for a false choice need not posited. However, I generally fear that a good deal of worship has chosen (or perhaps merely atrophied due to sloth) to appeal to the “squirrel!” aspect of our nature.

Our goal in worship is usually pretty simple and often fairly noble- we want to bring people into God’s presence and help them to worship and to (buzzword warning!) experience God. The logistics and techniques of worship are thus intended as a means to an end.

What generally concerns me is that much of our worship production (to whatever extent that is) seems far more geared towards stimulus and response and less towards really allowing for a deep and meaningful state of mind. And in saying this I don’t intend to single out any particular style of worship, since I don’t actually think it’s about style at all. Rather, it’s often far more about intent and the way we think about the means by which we will lead people in worship.

Worship evangelism of yesteryear seems a good foil at this point in this post, as it provided a wonderful glimpse into how we tend to market our worship as entertainment. The idea was that to be relevant to the increasingly secularizing culture, our worship needed to come more fully into the modern world, whether by choice or dragged kicking and screaming. If our worship could seem more relevant and interesting then we could attract more people to darken the doors of our churches.

This of course was ostensibly not the only goal, but in all practical reality it devolved into this. We spent so much effort trying to craft a service filled with relevant things that was so impactful and experience filled that we could get along without God ever having to bother to show up. And of course, it didn’t really work, because there is always another squirrel ready to grab someone’s attention.

In Isaiah’s worship vision he encountered God’s presence, presumably in some sort of tangible way. The experience of his senses led to a transformation in his reason: he recognized his own sinfulness and unworthiness in God’s presence. Worship that is (another buzzword warning) holistic needs to contain a similar effect; it is in this sense truly entertaining in that it leads us into a certain frame of mind and keeps us there.

I worry that we have become so good at making worship entertaining that we have mistaken the high of the “this is awesome!” experience for worship that might bring us to our knees in conviction. These are certainly not mutually exclusive, but I think there may be a shrinking amount of space between the two. After all, we can be extremely successful at a worship experience in that hearts are touched, feelings aroused, etc. But all of these things may only touch the animal part of our nature, without ever going deeper (or higher, as the case may be) to engage the rationality. In this sense our efforts at creating engaging worship might be more akin to me getting Luna excited about a new toy, which is admittedly an easy thing to do. And then we are left with the challenge of what to do five minutes from then.

If we insist on making our worship entertaining, then let’s do so in a way that engages the totality of the person. This will probably look tactically different in many situations, but I think we have to start by dispensing with making worship something that is meant to appeal to X demographic or Y constituency, in which we exchange worship for preference marketing.

In a rather egregious bit of equivocation, worship should be boring in that it should consistently and relentlessly bring us into that state of mind that entertainment in its higher form is meant to. This will often mean that it is not entertaining in the sense that we commonly use the term. I think we have to come to the understanding that our worship is meant for God first and foremost, and this as a duty first and foremost, as we are commanded to love God with everything we have.

This command is a peculiar one, for love as an appetite is not something that can commanded. This would seem to indicate that our worship must rise beyond the animal nature, which means that it will necessarily transcend our experience, our predilections, our desires, until it is an act of the will which in its action behaves like the appetite it supplants (and in the eschaton perfects).

My desire is for worship that is boring; for worship that consistently drills into my mind and thus (as the scripture says) transforms it, until it can be brought into the state of mind that God desires for me, and then keep there.

At which point worship can truly be entertaining.

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