Two weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I suggested much of contemporary megachurch-style pop worship could be called “masturbatory.” Then last week, I gave a rather extreme example from Bethel Church of what this kind of gathering would look like.
Let’s just say that now a lot of people are unhappy with me. Again.
The account found in 2 Samuel 6 of David dancing nearly naked before the Ark of the Covenant has long been used by pop worship apologists as carte blanche approval for wild and unruly behavior in corporate worship. And they continue to do so in response to my post. Over and over and over.
“Surely King David would also not meet your approval . . . King David expressed his determination to become even more undignified in worship.” – Wade B.
“I wonder what y’all’s thoughts and comments would have been on David’s dancing. Likely, the same as his wife.” – Rachel B.
“Ya God would never use a leader who got carried away in worship!
Especially one who would dance around like a crazy person! Especially one that would strip down to being almost naked!
And He would never curse someone to fruitlessness who was criticizing such a leader as that!” – Curtis A.
“We SHOULD have an emotional response to God’s presence! David responded so emotionally to God’s presence arriving, that he danced fervently in his undies!” – Chris B.
“When I am in the presence of God, I cry, laugh, dance, run, shout, shake and sometimes just sit quietly in His presence. No one has the right to tell anyone else how they are ” supposed” to worship. Davids wife criticized him for dancing before the lord and God punished her. I would be very careful.” – Randy H.
“ Would you also call David dancing before the Lord half naked an act of masturbation?” – Eric R.
“I find it fascinating that the author uses accusatory sexual innuendo in describing contemporary worship and worshipers he finds objectionable, in much the same manner Michal accused King David when she was displeased with his worship. I think I’ll roll with David.” – tds
All of these responses can”But David danced before the Lord all wild and free, so who are you to judge what Bethel or anyone else does?” I don’t for a second doubt the sincerity of these good folks, but this is no justification for “worship” that has all the ethos of a Maroon 5 concert.
David’s jig is a response of pure joy, but it is anything but spontaneous or neutral. From the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary:
“David’s dancing before the ark as it is transferred to Jerusalem, the city of David, points to a pivotal transfer of political power and a transforming possibility for new theological understandings of God’s power in relation to public power. David’s intense personal involvement is either a genuine recognition and honoring of true power in the Lord (represented by the ark) or a manipulation of religious symbols for the sake of his own enhanced power. This account invites us to reflect on how thin the line is between these two possibilities.”
The dancing might have been a legitimate outburst of joy in God’s presence. Or it might have been politically motivated. My guess is that it’s somewhere in between, which is a tenuous place for us to be, to say the least. What is clear is that the joy David feels is hard-wrought; it is also fleeting, as we will find out if we read further.
And what about Michal? Well, the temptation to liken Michal to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day is certainly tempting. Who is she to question how someone else behaves in God’s (symbolic) presence?!? And her barrenness is an easy example for us to warn people (like yours truly) who would dare ask questions of those swept away in pop worship trappings.
It’s actually too easy. Don’t forget who Michal is. She’s Saul’s daughter, and as for her relationship with her husband, well, there’s lots of water – not to mention lots of other wives – under the bridge. She’s not merely mocking David for dancing around with no clothes on (which seems a reasonable reaction, to be honest…), her resentment toward her husband has boiled over. Her barrenness isn’t so much a supernatural curse as it is a reflection of David’s unwillingness to have anything to do with her. Saul’s house is a thing of the past, and good ol’ Dave is going to make sure of it.
Either way, this is not simply not a normative, stand-alone example of free-for-all worship, nor is it an example of what might happen to those who can’t help but be skeptical of it.
Let me be clear. I am in no way suggesting that liturgy should be lifeless. Joy, mirth, laughter, along with the entire spectrum of human emotion can and should be expected to show up. Can movement, exuberance, even dancing, be a part of that? I can’t see why not.
But corporate worship is a serious endeavor, and must be marked by a genuine clarity and sobriety. We must take a good look in the mirror to see the extent to which our cultural contempt for ceremony and respect has a detrimental, desacramentalizing effect on the church’s worship. As in every other aspect of life, our emotions must be continually subjected to our mind and will if liturgy is to fulfill its intended function.
Even more important is the need to understand that emotions, no matter how strong and seemingly supernatural, no matter the ratio of goosebumps to congregants, can be assumed to be the tangible presence of God among God’s people. God is there with us, regardless of emotion. God is present in word and sacrament. Really, truly present. If we really believed that, I’m convinced it would make all the difference. We wouldn’t need music, ambiance, or anything else to phony up a tangible sense of God’s presence.
If the swaying, pulsating, writhing, dancing, and shouting looked more like historic liturgical song and dance and less like a crowd at a rock concert…
If it wasn’t basically scripted to occur during musical high points…
If it wasn’t completely devoid of the decorum and fear with which we should greet the Almighty…
If it didn’t seem to be an expected side effect of pop worship music…
If it wasn’t out of line with the biblical and historical function of worship…
And if it wasn’t such an obvious substitute for God’s presence in word and sacrament…
…it wouldn’t represent such a theological compromise.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Rock show worship is self-gratifying pseudo-liturgy. It is narcissistic, masturbatory, and vacuous.
I’m terrified, but not because I’m worried I’ll be cursed like Michal.
I’m terrified for souls who are so superficial that they can be drawn in by the spectacle.
I’m terrified for a church that is sacramentally parched.
I’m not worried that this is all some sort of conspiracy of church leadership. Like I said, I’m not questioning anyone’s motives. But motives don’t mean jack in the whole scheme of things.
My suspicion is actually much worse, much more terrifying than that.
I’m terrified that most of the church doesn’t even recognize what the hell we’ve done.
Forgive us, we pray.