I’m a little tired of worship.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard a lot about it, and probably experienced the experience of worship in more ways than I care to count. I’m supposed to have some kind of reaction where I sense God’s presence or feel God’s Spirit, whether mouthing hymns or swaying to the elongated chorus of the latest worship song.
But the reality is that I very rarely do.
Oh, to be sure, I’ve experienced an emotional response. And I’ve been in worship services where the music was spectacular. Honestly, it’s pretty easy to worship (or at least feel like you are) when everything goes right, the band is in sync, and the music mysteriously carries you along, sometimes even against your will.
Growing up in youth group I remember the youth pastors trying to encourage us to really get into the worship experience. We shout and get excited and enthusiastic for our favorite bands at a concert or our team at a game. Should we give God any less, we were asked? And so the music starts up and we try to feel something that may not actually be there, and with enough effort anyone can feel something.
And it is terribly easy for us to confuse our emotions for God.
But after pondering such an exercise, it just doesn’t make any sense. Sure, we get enthusiastic for all kinds of things, but that is easy. It is effortless to generate excitement for something that massages our preferences. And so in our worship we end up easily mistaking worship for our predilections, jumping from church to church and service to service and worship leader to worship leader and song to song, always seeking that elusive scratch for the never-ceasing itch.
Sometimes we might even find it.
But how did music ever come to exhaust our concept of worship? Sure, it’s an integral aspect of it, but how did we sell worship so short as to inexorably link it to our desires and tastes?
The problem with enthusiasm, in the end, is that it really costs us nothing. Our favorite band or team asks very little of us, and we are glad to give it because of the feeling or the pride or the satiation we find. But finally the emotion fades and the lights dim and the enthusiasm wanes, at least until the next time which has to take it up a notch more, in a vain attempt to outrun our tendency to desensitization.
The prodding towards excitement and exuberance that I felt when I was young inevitably ends up hollow, for I begin to treat God like any other thing I desire or prefer. How many times did I experience a ‘bad’ worship service, marked only by sub-optimal music or performance? Suddenly God is hostage to my moods and my predilections; that’s why a ‘moving’ worship service is ‘good,’ and a less than than exhilarating one is not.
Somewhere in there I really forgot about God and turned my worship inward, focused on myself, which is hardly above blatant idolatry. The only difference is that this form of blasphemy is more subtle, since the sacrilege is couched in more pious language; I can even deceive myself in thinking my worship is pleasing to God.
And we wonder how Adam and Eve were so easily led astray.
As I grew up the rationalizations became more sophisticated. We noticed that Jesus told us we were supposed to worship in spirit and in truth, which, of course, meant exactly what we wanted it to mean. The worship wars were in full swing, one of the more obnoxious and shameful bits of American Christianity’s history. For those of us who liked the music we liked (which was pretty much all of us, if we’re honest), to worship in spirit ended up meaning that our musical style was in sync with what we enjoyed and wanted to worship to. This was usually juxtaposed with the Catholics or Lutherans down the road and their stuffy ritualism. But our worship was spontaneous, if for no other reason than it’s a lot easier to improvise if your song only has three chords.
Jesus’ worshiping in truth became synonymous with that ever moving target of authenticity, which was so nebulous as to be undefined, even though we all knew it ultimately was meant as a way to justify what we wanted to do. Swaying to worship music seems free and ‘spiritual,’ whereas really getting into it and feeling the worship was surely a guidepost to the truth of it. We could belt out the same fluffy chorus over and over because of our emotions, never giving the mind a chance to jump in or even sound the alarm. And why should we, we are worshipping in spirit and truth.
Eventually I moved into leading worship (saints preserve us!), without having really learned much of anything about worship at all. I certainly read a lot of books and tried to become as knowledgable as I could, but in the end I had never really grown up. In my mind and in my heart worship was still a moving song, a way to engage the heart (read: emotions) and connect with God.
By now there were even more refined rationalizations, replete with the latest buzzwords I picked up in the worship leading magazines or at the really cool conferences I attended (and they were really cool). Worship was now best defined as an experience, and the role of the worship leader was to facilitate that experience of God. Experience is, of course, a really cool word, and so worship became the next promising hope to reach the world. There was even a ‘worship evangelism’ movement that, unfortunately, utterly failed in its mission.
But experience is still king, and I truly wanted to help other people experience God. Writing thrives on hyperbole, and this reflection is no different, but I would like to think my motives were mainly pure. I wanted to do everything I could to facilitate those experiences, which meant lots and lots of planning. Researching and learning new songs. Practicing my (ahem) ‘skills’ day in and day out. Crafting sets and services that I hoped would touch people in meaningful ways.
Getting people to get into worship isn’t really all that hard. After awhile you begin to pick up on the right songs to sing, the right flow to schedule, the right way to position and time all the elements to best “usher people into worship,” as the common saying went. And let’s be real- we human beings are not simply minds. We are not like the angels who perceive natures as they are without discursive reasoning. We have to muddle through things, and our emotions and intuitions are wholly wrapped up in our experience and apprehension of the world and of God.
The rhetoricians of old understood this concept well, and became masters at using words and settings and timing to influence an audience. Some of the greatest saints of the early church could hang with the best of the pagan orators, and no doubt God’s purpose was accomplished through what might be considered abject manipulation.
Because that is what a lot of worship leading is- manipulation. Manipulation usually has a negative connotation, since it usually means getting people to do something harmful to themselves that they would not otherwise do. But manipulation can also be good- we more politely refer to it as persuasion- when it is used for another’s good. At bottom it really means to be a skillful handler of something; whether of objects or of persons. And that is what good worship leaders embody- skillfully handling both their craft and their audience, in this case to worship.
I truly hope that I sometimes succeeded. After all, God can take anything and do something with it, probably most often in spite of our best efforts. But I think I began to go wrong after awhile, or perhaps I just eventually began to notice.
It started quite a bit after I had stopped leading worship for some time. I began to wonder what I was doing, and more importantly why I was doing it. I would stand at a worship service as the lights moved in sync with the music, the screens skillfully displayed lyrics, the band played in sync and the lyrics of the song climaxed with the music. I felt overwhelmed and overcome by emotion, wanting to breathe in this experience, to regain that ‘worshipping in spirit and in truth’ that I remembered from my youth.
But then I stopped. Everything here was meant to be an experience, but what was this experience for? I know it was meant to lead me into worshipping God, and perhaps it did, but as I surveyed everything I was struck that almost nothing here was for God but was rather almost entirely here for me.
The music played to my preferences; in fact, I was probably here precisely because I knew that it would. The aesthetics evoked a sense of both belonging and excitement, like it was cool to be in this place. And sure, it probably was. The songs were mostly about my experience or about my longing or about how God does all these things for me. And yes, it was all probably very true. The worship leaders and the band were front and center, the focal point of the room. In other words, I was off the hook, since I could simply look and listen and be carried along, since the feeling could come either way.
And the feeling did come. But for me it was empty. It really had nothing to do with anything in the room by itself. Rather, it was the realization that I was here for an experience; after all, that is the encouragement we give to people so they will come. We can experience God’s presence, we can connect with God, we can worship God more deeply or more fully or whatever the buzzword du jour is.
And all of that is probably fine. But what struck me was how much everything about worship was really for me and about me, and how little seemed to be for God and about God.
Granted, we cannot completely get away from that. To worship God is an experience and worship requires a worshipper and the one worshipped; otherwise worship would be a meaningless concept. But perhaps we have far too often subsumed our worship to our experience. The danger with making worship an experience is not that it is an experience, but rather that it simply becomes an experience among all other experiences. But God is not simply another experience; he is the author of our being- he is Being itself.
Our worship becomes far too small if it is simply about experiencing God or experiencing worship. If God is the artificer of the universe, and if we really think he called all of the universe into being, then our experience of God should probably be nothing less than unequivocal awe, coupled with complete and utter adoration. Creation itself exists and moves in worship and honor reserved only for the Almighty, but we too often exhaust our reverence with music and mistake our duty to love and adore God with the quality of the worship experience, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
In St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans he tells them that they are to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice; this is their spiritual act of worship. I’ve always kind of enjoyed the juxtaposition St. Paul uses here- giving your body to God is what constitutes a spiritual act of worship. But on closer inspection St. Paul seems to reveal what Jesus told the woman at the well about worshipping in spirit and in truth.
Authenticity, if it is truly authentic, can only be so in accordance with the truth. And the truth is that we belong completely and utterly- body and soul- to God alone. Our problem, of course, is that most of our lives we live as if we don’t believe this is true. It is interesting that Jesus’ conversation at the well brings out the woman’s sins- she has been married five times and is living with a man who isn’t her husband. As he probes deeper she deflects the conversation to worship preferences- whether one should worship at the temple or on the mountain. Her preference was clear, and perhaps she truly did to desire to know which. But Jesus’ response is not about worship preferences but is about completely reordering her life to be in conformity with the truth, which would require a lot from her. To truly worship in spirit and in truth would mean she had to let go of her sins, had to leave the comfort and security of her preferences, and had to align her being with the one who was offering her the water of life.
That is precisely why tweaking and massaging our worship in order to draw people to our churches has often failed so miserably. We are pretty good at getting the Christians from other churches who are looking for a different experience; I have been that person far too often in my life. But we are pretty awful at drawing anybody to know God because our music is so great or our experiences are so powerful, precisely because worshipping in spirit and in truth is not an experience like our other experiences. Rather, like Jesus’ invitation to the woman at the well, worship is meant to lay bare all of who we are, to bring our lives into conformance with the truth, and with the one who is the truth. The call to discipleship is not about the songs we sing or the experiences we have, but is the willingness to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
Anything less than that is really just a hollowed out shell of worship.
And worship that requires nothing of us is really not worship at all.
By giving our bodies to God and not conforming to the world but being transformed, as St. Paul says, we worship God spiritually. By conforming ourselves to the truth, by following the one who tells us to “go and sin no more,” we finally stumble into the experience of worship that God truly desires of us.
Ultimately, worship requires everything of us. How tragic it is that we too often bastardize this all-encompassing reality and conflate it with the styles of music or the types of experiences that we prefer, too often substituting our preferences for the posture of worship that God really wants of us. The aesthetic trappings of our worship are probably neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but do we ever stop to wonder if we are really experiencing God, or merely pantomiming the too limited conception we have of our Maker?
Interestingly, the same Jesus who wanted worshippers who would worship in spirit and in truth was the same one who told us to take his yoke upon us, and he would give us rest.
Worshipping God requires a lot, but anything else is just exhausting.