How Worship Music Destroyed Me: From Bitterness to Blessing

How Worship Music Destroyed Me: From Bitterness to Blessing July 31, 2012

Worship Week continues here at Bill in the Blank with a guest post by Dustin Germain. His blog is The Paperthin Hymn.

The following is a response to the post Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your Church:

I remember going off to youth events such as YC, Richter, Revolution, Re;vive, and worshiping for hours to what I had considered back then phenomenal worship music. It was loud, it was catchy, it was about my love for Jesus, and some songs would last over half an hour. Rhythmic. Pulsating. They would build and build and then when we could not bear it any longer — when the weight of our tears and composure were straining at the seams, it would come crashing down in a crescendo of key changes and pure white hot bliss.

Getting a Spiritual Buzz

In the aftermath, I would feel warm and spiritually buzzed. I felt drained, spent, and yet so very, very happy. In those moments I felt close to God. When people said “The spirit really showed up” I couldn’t help but echo that statement, as I knew exactly what they meant. I remember being a teen and later a young adult in a church which had a very talented worship team, and while perhaps not to the same degree as the big conferences, they were usually able to match the intensity and whip me and my friends up into a frenzy. More often than not all they needed was the right Hillsong song and we were good to go.

But those moments of being buzzed and feeling close to God did not last too long. When we would have youth on Friday, I was high all night. That feeling would wane a little on Saturday, got a small uptick on Sunday, sag on Monday, and then by Tuesday it had all but dissipated. I did not feel close to God. I did not feel spiritual. Half the time I didn’t even feel like a Christian.

I found myself longing for that spiritual high that I felt.  Instead of basking in it, I found myself chasing it. Needing it. Coveting it.  I found myself counting the hours until Friday would come, so that I could worship and get back those feelings that I had lost. On Friday I was loved by God and I knew he was happy with me — on Monday I was depressed and sensed his disapproval. On Friday he was pleased with me — on Monday his disappointment was tangible.  Because, after all, if God and I were tight then I wouldn’t be feeling so disconnected from him. I would feel the same way I did during worship.

This was, upon much reflection, a very strange time.

Worship as a Weapon?

Yet in the years since then I have learned some valuable lessons. Chief among them is the realization than an emotional high is no substitute for true spirituality. No one tells Church-kids that, but its true. I’ve learned that absent knowledge, even the worship of Christ can be used as a weapon against me. When we treat the worship-high like heroin in an addict’s hands, people are going to get hurt.

I’ve learned that often worship music can be little more than manipulation and is used that way to varying degrees consciously or unconsciously. I’ve learned that most variations of the expression “the holy spirit really showed up” in particularly intense worship session is a Christological joke and is theological poison.

I’ve learned that a kid can attend youth group, spend two hours in heaving sobs while on her knees with hands raised, and not once have tasted anything close to a true, legitimate encounter with the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned those experiences can mess her up, and that same kid can, after youth is over, smoke a joint and have sex with her boyfriend, the last two hours seemingly forgotten.

I’ve learned that the point of worship can be not to teach doctrine and to deepen our knowledge of God, but rather to recite silly and shallow lyrics about nothing.

I’ve learned that chasing the emotional high can crush a soul. That it makes people think such experiences are normative for the Christian life. When they fail to experience it consistently, they grow bitter and disillusioned. It can foster depression and angst and whets the sharpening stone for the knife that slaughters the sheep. Instead of developing depth it breeds shallowness, immaturity, and confusion.

I’ve learned that because worship can become the biggest draw for the church, worship nights will steamroll over Bible studies and adult Sunday school. That a church oftentimes will pour much more resources, energy, thought and time into making a killer worship service than they will into developing deep, thoughtful, meaty, mature, theologically precise and provoking Bible studies.

Warning: Worship in Progress!

I’ve learned that parents and pastors will send their children away to youth group and conferences without ensuring that they have solid teaching on what worship is, how it functions, and how it relates to the gospel and God’s pleasure with you. There are no warnings of “Don’t mistake the spiritual high for biblical sanctification. Its not real!” but rather they will tacitly endorse that sort of confusion. They’ll let the seedy underbelly of mainstream evangelical goofiness swallow up their kids and spit out the bones. Then they’ll wonder why their sons and daughters leave the Church after high school.

I’ve learned that there are tons of people out there like me who have been burned by this sort of thing — who have been beat up and are fellow bruised reeds — victims of men and women with good intentions but no discernment. They thought they were doing us a favor but should have known better.

True Worship Is Beautiful and Satisfying

Lastly, I’ve learned that worship is beautiful and that giving praise to Christ is satisfying. That giving him glory is right. That honoring him is freeing and rejoicing with him is like a warm blanket to the soul.  That communicating with our Savior though this medium is a wonderful and powerful thing. That when we worship in spirit and in truth we will grow through it. In the years since then I’ve been blessed to understand that the emotions and feelings that can be associated with worship are no substitute for the actual work of the Holy Spirit in our life, even as those feelings and emotions can be a very important part of it.

Most importantly, I’ve learned  that God’s pleasure in me is not predicated upon my moral behavior or in some hype and emotional subtext I feel, but rather on the cross of Christ, which is the kindness of God that leads me to repentance.

Have you known the church worship experiences Dustin describes? What do you think of his warning against becoming addicted to an emotional worship-high? Leave a comment to share the growth.

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  • Shane

    Dustin, I am sorry. I wanted to be a part of this discussion, but it is far too one-sided on this website. I have always made it my goal to give Christ my all in worship. Maybe there was hype, but that was never my intention. Instead of trying to see things through the eyes of the people who get up on that stage week in, week out, you harp about how they are wrong and you are right. Leading worship is not a simple as picking a list of songs. Your responsibility involves leading a diverse group of people before the Throne of God. People who judge you because you didn’t sing a deep enough song, or a current enough song, or a hymn, etc, etc, etc, need to understand what it is like to be in the middle of all of this disagreement. Worship is not about singing complicated words or simple words!!!!!!! (unlike the blog “why i’ve stopped singing in church”) Instead of us arguing about the proper mix of detailed songs or boring songs, worship leaders get up on their stage everywhere and try to lift God up; even with all of these diverse sides arguing about what is proper in worship. Worship leaders are people too, therefore they are trying to serve God in the best way they can at that time.

    This all hangs on trust. Most of the bloggers on this site apparently do not trust God. It seems this way because (for this discussion anyway) they feel that they only way that worship will change is if they write one-sided blogs about it, instead of praying and trusting that God is in control. I will be praying that the hurt writers in our world would learn to see others as hurting broken people (as we all are) needing the life giving blood of Jesus. Nothing can compare with His love!

    I know there are worship leaders that focus on the hype, that sing songs without content, that make people feel an emotion. (I am sorry that my worship leading years ago made you feel this way.) I believe this is not for the “writers” to judge, but for God. I for one will not change just because a blogger wrote an angry post about me. I will seek the Lord for his direction in my ministry no matter what. If you want to have a valid discussion about these things, don’t start by insulting the people you want to discuss with.

    Worship is more than all of this petty talk about how a worship service should go down. Jesus is deserving of praise no matter what! This can be displayed with music, preaching, sharing our faith, and simply lifting up and honouring each other. This is something that critical writers could learn i think.

    Okay I am done now. I am not angry at you Dustin, just hurt that you would be a writer first, instead of a fellow brother in Christ. If this was the way you felt, why hadn’t you shared it with your leaders back then? We could have all grown together. I am glad that God is leading us forward and not men. Let’s trust Him today!

    • For those who are interested, I posted this link of my facebook and Shane is my old worship leader from 2001-2004ish, and was involved in the tail end of this in my late teens/early 20’s, as well as a friend of mine who has moved away. While we don’t keep in touch very often, he and his wife are very dear to me and I pray for them always.

      Shane, I don’t blame you at all, even a bit. I’ve never held any resentment or apprehension regarding your role as worship leader and as worship pastor. Rather, the issue is the whole…culture…that we were wrapped up in. It was a vortex of joy and confusion and ignorance. I don’t know what it was like being the worship leader and all the judgments and pressure that goes along with that, and I don’t pretend to understand what that feels like. I can only suppose that it was complicated, for lack of a better word.

      As for the bloggers on this site [I think you mean] I’m not sure. I’m just a guest poster and as this site hosts a wide variety of them, I imagine that there is a curious mix of atheists, catholics, progressives, fundamentalists, and everything else in between, and I think you’re probably right that many of them don’t trust God or don’t have love.

      As for the other thing, I’m not hurt or angry with or at you. I don’t think my post is one sided-merely emphasizing one facet of the journey that I’ve taken regarding worship. The reason that I didn’t share it back then, was because I didn’t know. Like I said, I was caught in a vortex of hurt, confusion, ignorance, and a culture that eventually force me to leave Besides, I didn’t want to be just another person trying to pull you in every which way. I was just a kid and wanted to be supportive and edifying, not tearing down or ungrateful. I don’t regret my time spent there, perse, only wished that it could be different. I do have more wisdom now though, which is why I thought it important to articulate some of these thoughts and speak of the things that I have learned

      In love, Shane- always in his Grip

  • Rich

    I have no doubt at all that the author is right about some worship teams and worship music. But he is incorrect to blame them for his own spiritual deficiencies. He seems to think that because he didn’t receive good teaching about worship that the worship is to blame. I woould assert that had he received good teaching, the emotional connections he felt would have been coupled by a good grounding in the Word and as a result he would have been worship in Spirit and in Truth.

    It’s too easy to blame others when things aren’t going right. There certainly is blame elsewhere, but let’s start in the correct place: our own hearts.

    • Hi Rich. Thank you for your feedback. I don’t think that worship is to blame for anything. As I stated in the last paragraph, I believe that worship is beautiful and right and good. You do bring up a salient point though- and one I tried to make. That what I would define as “right teaching on worship” now, did not exist back then. There was teaching, and some of it was helpful. but as a whole the whole culture was permeated with less-than-helpful teaching on worship. Like I said- I was a kid back then, 13-17 years old, and the ones who should have known better, the pastors, teachers, elders and parents did nothing as we went off to christian retreats and wrecked ourselves and developed nasty habits of emotional conditioning from this, without anyone helping us see the truth. In a very real way it contributed to the more messy aspects of my spiritual life, and now, 10 years later, while thankfully little of that remains, I can see now how awful it was, and how that whole mentality let down so many people. I’m not blaming others when things didn’t go right- rather reflecting on a time in my life a decade ago where I was not sheltered and protected from these things as a youth, and discovered that worship can indeed be a weapon against me, as I suspect all good and godly things can be, right the right amount of twist.

      • Dustin, Good point, I thought, about how the good can quickly become the enemy of the best — even the spiritual stuff.

      • Rich

        Thanks for clarifying. Well said.

        It has been a pet peeve of mine that worship is so poorly taught if taught at all. We hear sermons on every conceivable subject, except worship. I can’t remember the last time I heard teaching on worship.

        I happen to think that the trend towards deep extended worship is a good thing if it is coupled with the Word taught with power. Maybe a lot of churches jumped the gun by emulating what they saw in Hillsongs videos. Maybe they need to establish the truth and principles of worship, then dive in.

        I really don’t know, but I do know that we are called to be worshipers. We just don’t do it very well.

  • Steve Wilburn

    I really appreciate your comments and perspective, Dustin, and am thankful for the conversation Bill. As a church Worship Director, I do agree that worship can be manipulative and almost drug-like in it’s serotonin producing highs. And I agree that this can be dangerous at a certain level.

    That said, I do want to relate one story that might also provide some balance. A good friend and fellow worship leader works for a prominent missions organization in leadership training and development. A couple of years ago he led a conference in Amsterdam for a group of missionaries who were working in closed countries in the Middle East. Most of these individuals had little if any contact with their home churches in a year, let alone time to worship corporately in their own language. As the first night of worship started, and my friend and his band began to play, the reaction was incredible. Almost instantaneously people were on their knees and faces. They were singing wrong lyrics and wrong notes because they were trying to learn songs that were new to them. Yet they were singing so loud that the band could barely hear themselves in their monitors.

    What they were experiencing was undoubtedly an emotional high. And it probably felt a tad narcotic as well. Yet, for them it was born from a deep thirst that couldn’t be quenched in their particular missions fields. To that end I would argue that while, yes, worship can be emotionally manipulative, this isn’t always a bad thing. Certainly a disconnect between emotional highs and a sinful lifestyle is problematic. But perhaps there are also times when it is not only appropriate, but also necessary to experience our worship of God spiritually, cognitively and emotionally.

    I know the missionaries who attended that conference were refreshed and edified by their experience. And that is what I pray for all those I lead in worship every Sunday.

    • That sounds like a wonderful, wonderful time. I hope I didn’t give the impression that any emotion is manipulative or is out of place. Far from it! How can we not get emotional when we sing for our savior? How can our soul and sinful heart not cry out for the bruising beauty of Christ and his loving faithfulness? I am thankful that nowadays, it cannot.

      What I am talking about is attending youth events where knew without a doubt that the evenings would be intense. So much effort went in to creating an atmosphere that was conducive to a particular purpose, and that wasn’t to deepen our relationship and knowledge of God.

      Rather it was a kamikaze of blue lights, key changes, tears, sweat, and a 23 minute rendition of Michael W Smith’s ‘Let it rain’, replete with soaring guitar solos. It is a collusion of blood, bone and brain matter; fused with flickering lights, heat, glowsticks and D-chords. The synapses are firing. The skin is getting prickly. The resounding bass is reverberating through your internal organs. This is the kind that would leave me on my knees, my chest heaving and my body crumpled on the floor because I could not stand what I assumed was the weight of the glory of God in the room. The air was too thick with it and it was too much for my heart and legs to bear.

      The focus was on feeling, not on growing faith, and that was what crippled for me for many years.

  • I should also add, Shane, that not all of it was bad. In fact, some of my best memories were from that time. Oftentimes the worship music functioned as a warm balm on my soul, and it helped and healed me and drew me closer to the Lord. The adoration of Christ through the music drew me to Him all the more deeper and it helped develop a passion and ferocity for his word. Mostly though it enabled me to adore him as the good one, as the merciful father that he is, and to give him praise and glory for no other reason than he was and is good and always be good. Having worship music helped me do that, the Holy Ghost working through you and the band and his Church- and I will always be grateful and appreciative of that. Like I said though, the time I am speaking about is predominantly in my early-late teens, and only to a lesser and diminishing extent in my late teens and very early 20’s. Our Church and Church culture bore some of the blame, sure, but this post was specifically referring to an earlier time.

  • I wonder if you articulate writers on worship have thought about the system of theology which you have been inducted into? Is the Gospel really quite what you have been told? What about the Gospel as Jesus preached it? He did not start with his death and resurrection, but with the Gospel about the Kingdom (not “heaven when you die”). Could it be that truth is in small supply in that “evangelical” system you know as church.
    I write as one who has pondered all this for the past 50 years, and coming originaly from a C of E background where the Bible is not something we learned at all. Jesus was a Jew, and he makes the claim that his teachings are the basis of everything. But is the Church really listening to Jesus? Is it defining God and Messiah and Gospel with accuracy?
    As a musician (oboist) I entirely agree that the “Jesus is my boyfriend” choruses ought to be scrapped!
    The pop culture was just imported into church! Feels good but gets us nowhere. No substance. How many bands and guitars did Paul have when he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom from dawnt to dusk (Acts 28:23, 31). “Many evangelicals,” FF Bruce wrote to me many years ago, “speak as if they have given up on tradition, but they often do not recognize that what they have learned may be nothing but tradition”

  • Thaddeus J. Chwierut

    Worship is breathing, living, loving. Worship is taking every thought captive unto the obedience of Christ Jesus. Worship is the attitude you hold while serving others.
    Singing Praises? Yes, singing is a one way to express adoration. But, if you don’t live what you sing, is it not better to be quiet?
    Frankly, I’ve experienced a lot of emotional moments. Not all of them point to Jesus, but they are still rapturous. I outright reject today’s notion of worship = singing. The Beatles also sang. So did the Stones. And they entranced large crowds. Was that the spirit? What spirit? Why do we so naturally assume it’s the Spirit, or God’s present. My take is simply this: If God is present it is because the people brought him. God’s Spirit resides in His people.
    I think questioning this is good. That is my 2 pennies worth.

  • Tiglathpileser

    Having taken a good look at worship per se both experimentaly and biblically, I have come to some conclusions, which you may or may not agree with and they are this. What you sing and how you sing is not relevant if the foundations are not right. I have to admit a lot of what passes as worship, you know, that warm fuzzy feeling you get when all the perameters are right, is nothing more than hyper manipulation of emotions.

    So what is the right foundation. I think it is this. Worship is not singing songs…or hyms…or hers…or…The key point about worship which is found in scripture is….wait for it, SURRENDER. The illustration I use is the army general who has lost the battle and is taken prisoner. He is presented to the victorious King and kneels before him to indicate that he accepts he has been defeated.

    Worship is to kneel before the one who has defeated us. If I have not surrendered my life to Jesus, all the singing in the world is not going to make any difference. All it will do is give you a “warm, fuzzy” feeling which is passed off as the Holy Spirit.

    If I come to a meeting surrendered to God and his son Jesus, in the midst of the praises, I will, you will touch heaven. If I am not or you are not surrendered, all you and I will touch is our emotions. They come and go, like the writer said, but the real presence of God by the Spirit will last and last and last.

    So the moral of the story is, it pays to be dead to self before coming to the meeting if you want the real deal. If you are not, you only get a poor substitute.

  • Stephen

    We should just can music from evangelical worship circles. We can’t get it right in any generation. The songs are too slow, too fast, too thin, too new and not Biblical enough. Now we’re at a point where the worship team is responsible for a kid falling on the ground in sobs and not too long following “smoke a joint and have sex with her boyfriend, the last two hours seemingly forgotten.” Lets ditch the music. Maybe the church leaders of old had it right when they banned polyphony. Things would be different if Picardy had never introduced that darn third. Worship Music didn’t “destroy” anyone. I’ve been moved to tears several times when the preacher had a crack in his voice while telling that deep emotional story (and somehow moved into the hook without any further cracks). It made me want to make a change, but many times I didn’t. I don’t blame it on his intentionally moving presentation. Come on… Not taking ownership of ones faith and walk is what destroys; not the newest Hillsong song (awkward ending there). If the pastor and youth pastor never preached a sermon from the Bible it’s their fault. If they did, but one chose to listen to the music, lay on the ground and then do nothing else when they heard the Bible. Well…

  • As a music minister myself, I can totally relate to this. It is always a struggle to convince a teen, or adults alike, that the music might be the open door, but they need to step through the door and into the daily presence of God. For me, it has been apparent that some churches as a whole make this door huge, so everyone can see it, be in it’s presence and bask in the graces that pour out, which is all good. But there isn’t much beyond the threshold of the door (more churches don’t care, about that, as long as they can pay their power bills for all the lights they set up). But there are some Churches that offer more beyond the threshold of the door that, face it, no other churches can. A Catholic Church, for example, has DAILY services, often many times a day. Believe in it or not, they have confession sacrament times scheduled throughout the week, not just a line said at the Sunday service. Also, Catholics have the liturgy of the hours which is designed to have the whole Earth praying common prayers throughout the world 24 hours a day (talk about unity and solidarity). They pray for fellow Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and all other denominations. On top of that, there are the typical weekly bible studies, retreats, conferences and youth groups that all other Churches have (The Catholic Church is also the largest philanthropical organization of all time responsible for starting hospitals, schools, universities and even reprinting the bible for the “average person” to be able to own a copy – talk about living it outside the CHurch walls.)

    I think we can all agree that 1 hour on a Sunday is the bare minimum and if you expect an hour of Entertainment each week, your life will not be changed. An ongoing pursuit of the heart of Christ is the only way to keep your heart close to His day in and day out.

    You can dislike the Catholic Church for it’s scandals, for it’s stance on the Saints, or Mary or the Eucharist and the other thousand reasons you may have. But there’s one thing that you have to respect: followup and day to day opportunities to grow deeper into the DEEPEST traditions of Christianity; that’s impossible to do for only one day a week, it’s something you have to do every day. A rich Christ-centered life, not a church-centered one, not rooted in technology, not based on one pastor’s ideology, but one that has stood the test of time has got to be doing something right, right?

    • Agreed. Much to respect in the Catholic tradition that Evangelicls ignore at their own loss. Thanks!

  • Well said. Much to consider. I agree that emotion is a critical component of our relationship with God, but emotions come from what we think and believe don’t you think?