We often mistake emotional stimulation for divine interaction. This is why commercial pop worship is popular.
You might have heard the story told by the late Rich Mullins. A man in attendance at one of his concerts told Mullins afterward that he had really felt the Spirit on one particular song, especially right before the last chorus.
“That wasn’t the Spirit,” said Mullins. “That was where the kick drum came in.”
If you’ve been to a pop worship “experience” recently, either in a megachurch, or a miniature church that aspires to be mega, I think it would be hard to deny this. The ambiance, the flow of the “worship set,” the so-called “relevance” of the sermon, are all crafted in a way to make you feel good things, and to then relate those feelings to Jesus in the hopes that you like their experience and their Jesus better than any other jesusy experience found elsewhere. The high can be addictive, too. I’m convinced that dependence on this jesusy euphoria is one of the most destructive things going on in the church today. Pop worship experiences are a drug sold to unwitting people who think they’re getting a regular dose of the Lord.
In this pop worship culture, people, both congregants and leaders, project a lot of these feelings onto the Holy Spirit.
Ever heard something like this before?
“The Holy Spirit moved mightily in our midst today.”
“I felt God’s Spirit all over when she was singing.”
“The Spirit’s anointing was on that preacher.”
I even hear these kinds of things in more traditional worship settings, too.
That’s why you don’t just need worship that is “contemporary” or “traditional,” you need the rigor of biblical, historic Christian worship. You need to gather with God’s people, to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to sing and pray its truths yourself, and to receive the Sacrament. Jesus has promised to be present in those things, and that the Spirit will be at work through them, too. The actual work of the Holy Spirit is not authenticated by your experience of it. The Spirit is a gift, and a mysterious one at that, working miracles and creating faith in the lives of believers.
A worship experience that finely tunes everything to create feelings in people, even with the noblest of intentions, is downright manipulative. And, despite what these well-meaning folks will tell you, it is okay to be skeptical and to question what is really going on. Be wary. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing emotions in worship, but please make sure they are subject to your mind and your will, and ultimately, to what God has spoken in His Word. If you are in a place in which there is pressure of any kind to stop thinking and get swept away by or overcome with God’s supposed presence, you should probably get out. You have stepped into something that is more pagan than Christian, even with all the Jesus talk.
The presence of the Holy Spirit isn’t something that can be phonied up by a creative worship experience, it is an objective presence in the life of a believer.
I don’t know about you, but for me, this is terribly good news. I’ve dealt with depression since I was a young teenager, and the pop-worshiping megachurch my family attended was big on selling these experiences. It was horrifying to say the least, since I could never get excited enough about their jesusy experience to buy into it, and at the time I was convinced that my lack of “feeling it” meant I must not be “saved.”
Even the kick drum didn’t do it for me.
The fear induced by my childhood worship experience eventually convinced me of the necessity of liturgical worship, once I found it. I can know that the Holy Spirit is at work in me, and is at work through the liturgy, even when I can’t feel it, even if all I can do is muster the energy to show up and do my job. The liturgy, the Word and Sacrament, nourishes my faith at its weakest points, and gives me strength to carry on. It demands no false pretense on my own part. It gives me a language I can’t find on my own. It’s profoundly moving without all the emotional manipulation. As I speak and sing and listen and pray and taste, I’m filled with awareness that the meager groans of my spirit are increased on high by the deep groans of another Spirit.
And I find the strength to go on, and to trust that the prayers of the Spirit are at work in me.
Thanks be to God.