I can’t help but think I am not alone in my story, even if my journey has some unique twists.
I grew up in the non-denominational tradition. For us, worship was the six songs we sang before the sermon, and the two after. We were encouraged to participate enthusiastically, to pour out our love for God in song. It was just assumed that, of course, we arrived every Sunday with a hopper full of it. I was a very earnest young believer, desiring to please God with my efforts, so I sang from my pew every week, sometimes with gusto, others just kind of plodding.
From time to time, if there wasn’t enough enthusiasm in the rank and file, a guilt trip might be issued. How could Christians just sit there in the pew and not praise God with every ounce of their strength? I would feel convicted, but also frustrated that my efforts were not being supported by the less enthusiastic.
Come on, people, let’s sing it like we really mean it!
You do mean it, right?
And so I labored in my vocalizing under the obligation of sincere thankfulness and genuine love that were supposed to naturally proceed from a personal relationship with Jesus. But to be honest, I didn’t come to church most Sundays feeling very in love with Jesus, and no amount of singing it over and over changed that one bit. Yet I continued to sing as best I could because I was convinced that it was what I was supposed to be doing. God really wants our singing, I guess. That’s how we glorify Him, whatever that means.
Those who led the singing seemed to have absolutely no shortage of love for Jesus. Like the Energizer bunny, these people must have hated to go home after church. Eyes were closed, hands were raised, facial expressions were strained— you’ve all seen the look; it’s about halfway between sex and constipation.
I suppressed a lingering suspicion that I was not as in love with Jesus as they were. Of course I was! I was a committed worshiper who did my best (which is all God ever asks, right?) to sing with devotion! But I never had the kind of “spiritual connection” with God that, evidently, resulted in such ecstatic grimaces. Until…
In 25 years of Evangelicalism, I can count them on one hand. That’s right, I did get the shivers. I remember it clearly, and there is no convincing me that it was not a real experience. A few times, while I was singing as passionately as I could muster, and had the guts to close my eyes, raise my hands, and tune out the world, even if none of my peers seemed interested. I don’t know how to describe what happened. I got the chills. I “felt the Holy Spirit pouring into me.” I had some sort of rush. I didn’t have to contrive a facade, I just began to feel this intense emotional connection to God, pulsating like an orgasm in my chest.
It went away by the end of the song, despite my best efforts to sustain it. And it didn’t come back again for a very long time. When it did, it was just as rare. So I sat in the pews week after week, surrounded by people for whom this apparently happened every time someone strummed a guitar. I began to wonder about myself.
“It must be my sins,” I thought, and certain Evangelical authors definitely agreed. “If I get rid of this in my life, or overcome this struggle, I’ll have more access to this connection with God.” Or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. I needed to concentrate more, be more sincere, pray more before worship, and read my Bible more during the week.
A part of me knew that wasn’t the answer. These euphoric episodes must be gifts from God, not something I conjure. When he wants to, he’ll show up an dazzle me with His presence in ways that will blow my mind, I imagined. But I continued to sit in rooms full of people high on dazzle with nothing but guilt in my heart telling me I must be doing it wrong. I must not have been spiritual enough that week. But it couldn’t be that. How could I possibly be the only person in the room who sinned himself out of “Experiencing the Manifest Presence of God (TM)” that week, EVERY week?
No, it must be something else. To this day, I haven’t found it, though I quit looking long ago.
After studying music in a conservative Evangelical college, I went into full time work as a “worship leader,” i.e. I strummed a guitar and led the singing. I believed that God inhabited the praises of his people, and you couldn’t lead people further in worship than you’ve already been. But these sentiments began to make me question if I was truly fit for the task. I consoled myself with the experiences that the people in the pews seemed to be having. Maybe it’s not true, God doesn’t need my worship to be authentic in order to use my music to create legitimate experiences for other people. And so I continued to strive, comforted that my efforts seemed to be doing some good, even if I wasn’t a recipient of it.
Enter my Reformed phrase. Suddenly, everything was ratcheted up to the highest extreme. Perhaps the reason I didn’t feel like I was encountering God in worship was that I wasn’t elect! Did I really even love God? Then why did I feel this way and have these concerns and doubts? How could I be sure I loved God if my emotions were all over the place?
I knew one thing for certain: I couldn’t get up there on Sunday mornings actually looking the way I felt. My growing desperation to feel the presence of God, and perceived alienation from Him, were leading to doubt, frustration, anger, despair, and depression. I’d have been one sorry sight, if you could have seen my soul. It got to the point that leading music on Sundays was painful. I dreaded it with every fiber of my being, and went home completely drained and exhausted every time. There were times I was literally choking back tears as I tried to sing, which ironically, probably just made my crooning appear that much more convincing. My song became a prayer, a desperate cry for God to touch my heart and heal the brokenness of feeling so disconnected from Him. My dark night of the soul had no light at the end of the tunnel.
I had been looking for God inside myself, in my feelings, my experiences, my spiritual faithfulness, and works of obedience. I’d come up empty. I had nothing. The game was over. The God I had been seeking was turning out to be an imaginary best friend whom I was outgrowing.
I finally reached the point where I couldn’t fake it anymore. It was tearing me apart to the point that atheism seemed preferable. I felt like such a hypocrite standing before the congregation every Sunday to lead them in the kind of “worship” that felt like leveraging commercial subculture to manufacture experiences that would hopefully be misconstrued as spiritual. I threw in the towel.
Five days after giving my two weeks, I received a phone call from a Lutheran church on the other side of the country. They wound up taking this religious refugee in and teaching me to worship God in a more emotionally and spiritually healthy way. A much older way.
Rather than pushing me deeper into myself to find my connection with God in emotions and subjective experiences, I am being pulled out of myself to behold something that is objective and external: A God who speaks to us in the sure and certain words of the scriptures, and gives us His grace in the visible and tangible sacraments. My navel-gazing narcissism posing as piety is being put to death by the constant reassurance that as surely as I can hear these words of forgiveness and taste this bread and wine, I can know that God loves and accepts me, because of Jesus, no matter how separated from Him I feel.
As a Lutheran “Cantor” now, I have the freedom to pursue my vocation as a musician untethered from the faux spirituality of manufactured zeal. I no longer feel the pressure to help people connect with God, because the Holy Spirit does this just fine without my help, through the means of grace.
I no longer have to worry about “leading people in worship,” because I have a Pastor who fulfills this responsibility well.
I’m just the music guy now, my job is to help believers sing the Gospel.
The burden is gone.
Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.” Read more from Miguel…