A Call to Reject Sensual Worship and Return to Liturgy

A Call to Reject Sensual Worship and Return to Liturgy April 20, 2018

Worship: A Prelude to What?

Though I’m not reaching for shock value, the comparison between modern worship and sexual intimacy might be shocking.

Good. It should be shocking. Because what is passing for worship in many of Christianity’s largest churches is nothing more than a pseudo-sexual experience.

The comparison is nothing new. Even when I was growing up in an evangelical, ultra-cool megachurch youth group, contemporary worship detractors had begun using epithets like “Jesus-Is-My-Girlfriend” music. Their reasoning was not unfounded, but it brought about a stereotype of individual “worship” songs – that they were all romantic, shallow, and juvenile – that often did not hold.

But this phenomenon I’m calling the orgasmic worship experience, one that is so commonplace today, is much more covert and sinister. It’s not chiefly about words or lyrics, but an entertainment package that includes the implicit promise of a musical, quasi-spiritual high under the guise of legitimate Christian worship.

A friend recently sent me a document published by Worship Artistry, a group marketing itself as a training resource for modern worship leaders and musicians. The strategies in this document are are not new, but they are unbelievably transparent. The title is “How To Build An Engaging Worship Set.” Frankly, it should be titled, “How To Please Your Lover With Jesusy Music.” What they describe isn’t historic Christian worship in any sense, but how to deliver an orgasmic worship experience.

From the introduction:

“Have you ever heard a song and been unimpressed, only later to fall in love with it? The song didn’t change, your state of mind did. You rediscovered it when you were in a mental and emotional place to hear it. Sometimes we can be confronted with the majesty of God and not be in a place to engage it. Our job as worship leaders is to help our congregation reach that place. Believe it or not, our set list can have a powerful impact on this. The order in which we introduce concepts and, more importantly, dynamics will either draw the listener into engagement or push them away.”

How To Liturgically Thrill Your Partner

(The numbers 1 through 5 represent the emotional “intensity” level of each song.)

Set the Mood

“Your first song is a focus-shifter. It lets everyone know you are about to start. Most people are still finishing up their conversations or dropping their kids off at childcare. It’s a mistake to expect anyone to really engage here. This song is a simple ‘we’re starting now’ message. A good medium tempo ‘3’ is the perfect choice – not too mellow, but still gives you room to go up.”

Musical Foreplay

“Nothing feels more wrong than flatlining or dropping the dynamic after the first song. It’s time to build momentum.”

Experience Ecstasy

“If you’ve got the time, this song should max out the dynamic at a 5. You’ve built momentum and with that engagement. We’re about to take it down, but resting doesn’t resonate nearly as well if you haven’t spent your energy first. Give it your all on this one and end with a big trash can ending. It will signal both celebration and that this leg of the journey is over.”

Bask in the Afterglow

“This is my favorite part. We get to listen. We get to linger. We get to see and hear with our hearts. This is what it’s all about. Stay here as long as you can.”

Get Up and Make Breakfast

“It can be jarring when you are in the midst of an intimate time of worship and you switch gears into a sermon. I like to finish the set with a song that starts at a ‘1’ but ends at a ‘5’. It’s like slowly bringing up the lights rather than just turning them on. It’s also a great way to put an exclamation point on a set and celebrate the connection we have all made together with our Creator. If you do it well, there is one more moment to be had.”

Again, I am not trying to be crude here, but I find the correlation to be unavoidable. What they are describing here is how to lead a congregation in an emotional experience that mimics sexual arousal, release, and afterglow.

Here are a few examples where we can see this process in action. Viewer discretion…well, you know…

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not always the case in every congregation that claims to offer “contemporary worship.” Emotion in worship isn’t bad, in and of itself. Quite the contrary. But the search for the emotional high, the worship orgasm, is what the modern megachurches are enabling, and it’s what the worship industry is selling. They are telling us a lie. They are saying that worship is whatever music gets you to that point, that perceived ultimate pinnacle of intimacy. And they facilitate the experience with high-tech A/V and professional-caliber musicians.

Liturgy Instead of Love-making

The liturgical church doesn’t do that. Not that it stops short of the peak; it’s an entirely different proposition. That’s the beauty of the historic Christian liturgy. Week after week, season after season, year after year, we participate as new covenant people in the drama of salvation history. Our history. It’s not supposed to produce intense emotional response. It’s not supposed to make us feel amazing sensations. It’s a microcosmic, disciplined, anticipatory remembrance of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be.

Even the historic order of worship is shaped by the covenant relationship.

Entrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, sending.

Gathering, proclaiming, breaking bread, returning.

Every week.

Every. Single. Time.

Dear people of God, corporate worship – liturgy – shouldn’t leave us all in a state of emotionally-exhausted afterglow, in which all concerns are minimized and we rest with our partner in some post-ecstatic bliss. It must open our collective eyes to those around us. It must bring us to a point where we are ready to go out, our senses keen to the work God has for us to do.

Otherwise, it isn’t worship. It’s all an emotional experience. It’s nothing more than the pursuit of a weekly orgasmic high.

But that’s what the people are after, Jonathan! This intimate experience is what brings them into God’s house!

There’s no nice way to put this. They have been sold a lie. The church has baited them with the promise of emotional ecstacy. The worship industry has gotten rich by telling them how, and selling them on an endless supply of products to hook congregants on a pleasurable experience.

This is heresy.

It is idolatry.

It is gross ministerial malpractice.

It is a self-referential, self-seeking exercise in prurience, pleasure, and profit.

There is no way to shift gears. There is no way to bring pop worshipers down from the mountain peak into a better understanding of worship. This is no small tweak. It’s a fundamental shift. Orgasmic worship music be thoroughly rejected in favor of true worship that recounts the story of God’s work in human history. People must come to church as if their lives depended on it. Because if we’re really in tune to the work of the gospel around us, it will scare the hell out of us.

If church leaders are courageous enough to carry out this wholesale rejection of the orgasmic worship experience, it will have results some will see as catastrophic. Bastions of evangelicalism (and mainline copycats) will collapse. Church attendance will crash. But it’s unavoidable if we are to worship with the sobriety and discipline the gospel demands.

Being a Christian isn’t about happy time with Jesus. It’s about saying yes to God’s agenda of abundant life, justice, and peace for all of creation. And true Christian liturgy shapes us in that image. It refocuses us. It reorients us after a week in the dizziness of life. It gives us the sacred repetition we so desperately need (and so rebelliously avoid) to be kingdom people in an ugly world.  It unites us beyond the superficiality of entertainment and cultural milieu. It allows us to orient our lives around a cycle of our sacred texts, instead of the latest and greatest in pastoral banality, sentimentality, and pop psychologizing. And it reminds us that we are in this together, as a group, preparing in earnest for the gravity in the situation on the outside.

Orgasmic worship is ultimately a denial of God’s reality. Ultimately, it leads us to the worship of the experience itself.

Church, modern worship is making us sick.

It’s time for a liturgical revolution.

Flickr, creative commons 2.0

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