How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills

Guest post by Les Lamkin.

I briefly attended a church that, every few weeks, would drag a kiddie pool onto the stage, fill it with water and offer impromptu baptisms. One Sunday morning after such a session, the assistant pastor and I talked about their approach to baptism. She said, “We can’t find anywhere in scripture that says you must go through a class before being baptized, so anyone who wants to be baptized gets baptized.”

Are the Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans, with their ideas of catechesis wrong? Had they just pulled some set of rules of out thin air? Why shouldn’t we just baptize anyone who expresses a desire to be baptized?

My questions lead me to Matthew and the Great Commission. Jesus told the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Nope. No catechism there. Except, if we believe that scripture is important not just in what it says, but how it says it, then this short passage merits further attention. The phrase “make disciples of all nations” precedes the command to baptize. The making of disciples implies a regimen of discipleship, of teaching and training regarding both the content of our belief and the application of those beliefs into holy living.

So why did the Kiddie Pool church do it? It took very little research for me to come to this conclusion. Did the leadership of this church just lack the ability to analyze scripture? I know these folks. They’re not stupid. They’re not shallow. What gives?

I think it’s this: the impromptu baptisms were a powerful experience, and that made it right.

Even though I had doubts about what they were doing, I found myself moved by what was happening on stage. I was playing keyboards in the worship band at the time, so I had a bird’s eye view of the action. A young man, the son of a friend of mine, stepped forward. His mother joined him on stage, joined the pastors as they dunked the young man into the pool, watched as he emerged dripping wet, joyful. Mother and son embraced. The joy, like a contagion, spread through the darkened auditorium. The audience applauded. People shouted and wept.

As I reflected on the event, I came to the sad conclusion that the practice echoed a common belief: you can argue with a doctrine, but you can’t argue with an experience.

Or, as the 1960s counter-culture Hippies would have put it, “If it feels good, do it!”

My purpose isn’t to argue for a particular catechism or engage in discussions about whether or not baptism is regenerative, symbolic of somewhere in between. In the context of this discussion, I don’t care.

Our culture places a premium on experience. John Wesley said that that Christianity is an experiential religion and once allegedly claimed, when questioned about how he would approach a discrepancy between his doctrine and his experience that he would have to reexamine his doctrine. The Wesleyan Quadrateral, Wesley’s paradigm (although the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” came much later) for discovering religious truth, consists of scripture, reason, tradition and experience.

I would argue however that experience has trumped all other criteria for determining faith and practice. Baptism, historically considered to be a Christian’s “birthday’” into the church after a protracted period of discipleship has been replaced by an impromptu kiddie pool, not because our view of scripture has changed (I think it has, but that’s another discussion for another day), but because doctrine, tradition and theology have become dirty words in most evangelical congregations and experience, expressed emotionally, is now the primary criteria for the legitimacy of our practices.

Nowhere has this substitution of rational, historical and biblical practice with emotion manifested itself more prominently than in the substitution of the sacrament of communion with the new sacrament of music. Bryan Spinks in The Worship Mall, examines the contemporary worship movement and quotes blogger Sarah Koenig as saying “Praise and Worship time is a means of coming into close contact with the mercy and love of the Divine – one might even consider it a means of grace. It not only replaces the service of the Table as a primary ordering liturgical element, it also in some sense functions eucharistically for its participants.”

In all fairness to the contemporary worship movement, Koenig’s statement would appear to represent an extreme view, at least in any explicit sense. But even though most adherents of contemporary worship are not as explicit as Koenig, the underlying assumption in the CWM appears to be just that: music, because of its emotional impact, dominates all other possible elements of worship and assumes a preeminent place in our worship.

I do not question music’s power. I do not question that it touches us deeply and profoundly. I question its fitness for shaping us into Christ-like people both individually and as the Body of Christ. I question the idea that raw sensuality is what Jesus had in mind when he said that true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth. I question the idea that somehow drawing people into church with cheap, “sanctified” parodies of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga is going to shape us into the Bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle.

For the first time in history, we have, via our smartphones and iPods, the ability to listen to just the music we enjoy and escape the music we don’t. And should the unthinkable happen in our Pandora or Spotify playlist, that an undesirable song show up, we can hit the ‘thumbs down’ button and never have to hear it again.

In the church, this has helped produced a culture of preference. Why subject ourselves to a liturgy we don’t enjoy at Church X when Church Z offers just the music we like, a pastor who offers a ‘talk’ instead of a homily and a multimedia smorgasbord instead of candles and incense. Or, as I’ve heard the senior pastor at the kiddie pool church exclaim several times, “Church should never be boring.”

It’s a hard claim to argue with. After all, who gives me the right to decide what is right in worship and what isn’t? Isn’t worship a matter of style and preference? Am I not being judgmental? Maybe what excites one worshipper bores the next.

For me, here’s the problem: the Bible never connects worship to preference. Or emotion. Or music.

What about John chapter four? Doesn’t Jesus talk about worshiping in spirit and truth? Yes, but I don’t think his reference to spirit applies to some vague, emotional sense of interiority. I think our theology of worship is drawn more from popular songwriting over the last few decades than it is good, solid biblical exegesis.

Consider the following:

There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord
There’s a sweet expression on each face. And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord.

Or perhaps this one:

Holy Spirit you are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord.

Don’t these lyrics imply that the Holy Spirit exists primarily to serve our emotional needs, to “fill us with His presence” thus leaving us with a sense of spirituality? Isn’t worship about expressing our love and adoration to God?

I disagree. Worship is supposed to be the Body of Christ accepting God’s invitation into His life, the Divine Life of God as it is expressed in the selfless and absolute love of God lived out forever in the Trinity. It is supposed to be formative and the experience derived from is meant as a means of grace in which the Divine Life of God is imparted to us, individually and as the Body of Christ.

I discussed this with a friend some years ago. I told her that I get the same emotions from a worship song that I do from my favorite rock and roll song, that there was no difference in the quality of the emotion. She said otherwise, that worship music made her feel “different” somehow. If that’s true, then all of us who advocate for a biblically-based liturgy are just reactionaries living in the past for the sake of the past.

But it isn’t true. There is no such thing as a “holy” emotion. C.S. Lewis claimed just the opposite, that our emotions, because they are so volatile, are susceptible to fostering all manner of abuse. “The higher the angel” he said about our more powerful emotions, “the greater the devil when it falls.”

Our emotions are powerful influences. Scripture encourages emotion as a response to God, His greatness, His glory, His love. But we must recognize that scripture also warns against allowing emotion to be our sole, or even a significant, guide regarding faith and practice. Kevin Watson, in his blog Vital Piety, discusses Wesley’s use of experience. He describes the modern misunderstandings of Wesley’s use of experience and claims that, “Experience is…used to describe one’s encounters with the world around them, which often results in confirming the prevalent perspective of the current popular culture.” And the current popular culture has duped us into substituting the Divine Life of God with a life of raw sensuality foisted upon the church by the likes of Chris Tomlin, Jesus Culture and Hillsong.

What a cheat! What a scam! God wants to give us Himself in our worship. We choose to reject this profound gift and instead engage in the sanctified equivalent of “do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight”.

I’m a musician. I led my church’s worship team for nearly 30 years. I wish I could take it all back; all the rock and roll from the stage, all the outpouring of raw emotion in the name of worship, all the—do I dare use the word?— idolatry.

Idolatry?

Les, aren’t you getting a little out-of-hand, a little judgmental?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Consider what (not who, but what) is being adored in our contemporary worship. It certainly is not God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the King of Awful Majesty. It is certainly not God’s great saving work celebrated throughout history and in our own lives. It’s our own emotional status, our own emotional wants, our own psychological selves, our own desire for raw sensuality.

Worship is supposed to be about God and for us.

It is about God in that God is supposed to be the only subject and object of our worship.

It is supposed to be for us in that worship is formative, not expressive.

However, the contemporary worship movement has reversed all this and made worship about us, our wants, our feelings, our emotions, and for God.

There is a great deal at stake. What does it mean to be drawn into the Divine Life of God? Is it through the sacraments that we come to know God? Is it through the sacraments that God knows us, both individually and as the Body of Christ? Is it through the church, the corporeal Body of Christ, that I am drawn into fellowship with God and my fellow Christians?

St. Augustine said ““Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised. . . . And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You. . . . You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” We are created for worship. To worship God is not only our highest possible calling, but, according to Jesus, the most important commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” If this is true, then for our own sakes and for the sake of the world, we need to get this right.

Photo:
Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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