How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills

Worship is supposed to be the Body of Christ accepting God’s invitation into His life, the Divine Life of God as it is expressed in the selfless and absolute love of God lived out forever in the Trinity.

Source: How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills

I am aware of the saying, often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (although it is not found in any of his extant writings), that “He who sings, prays twice.” As a former Methodist and continuing respecter of John Wesley, I am aware of the high premium he placed on congregational singing, as found in his “Directions for Singing.”

However, as I read the “Directions,” I am not at all sure he would find much to approve in a lot of what passes for “Christian music” these days. And I suspect he might share my suspicion of the assumptions underlying the concept of “praise music” – and the idea of “praise services,” generally: are not traditional services also filled with praise for God?

But they are not unbalanced in that direction; to use the oft-used acronym “ACTS,” traditional liturgies balance Adoration (praise) with Contrition (confession and repentance), Thanksgiving, and Supplication (asking God for His aid for the concerns of ourselves or others). And I am quite sure Wesley would look askance – as do I! – at blogger Sarah Koenig’s assertion, quoted in the linked post, that

“Praise and Worship time is a means of coming into close contact with the mercy and love of the Divine – one might even consider it a means of grace. It not only replaces the service of the Table as a primary ordering liturgical element, it also in some sense functions eucharistically for its participants.”

“Replaces the service of the Table”…? “Functions eucharistically”…? Hmmmm. I have a problem with that. Christ did not say, “Sing this in remembrance of me!” Rather, I agree with Patheos guest blogger Les Lamkin, when he writes,

“I do not question music’s power. I do not question that it touches us deeply and profoundly. I question its fitness for shaping us into Christ-like people both individually and as the Body of Christ. I question the idea that raw sensuality is what Jesus had in mind when he said that true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth. I question the idea that somehow drawing people into church with cheap, ‘sanctified’ parodies of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga is going to shape us into the Bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle.”

More generally, to quote Lamkin again, “here’s the problem: the Bible never connects worship to preference. Or emotion. Or music.” As a wise priest once commented to me, part of our problem, or at least challenge, as Christians is distinguishing between feeling our heart “strangely warmed” (a la Wesley)… and heartburn.

We live in a society that teaches – sometimes explicitly, almost always implicitly – “if it feels good, do it.” We are trained, by our current society, to associate “warm fuzzies” (to use the old ’70s buzzword) with what is good and right, “cold pricklies” with what is bad and wrong. “How does it make you feel?” is the dominant question – not, “is it right or wrong?”

This is problematic, when dealing with theology, and related concepts like morality. Because often, our faith teaches us – or should, if it is itself being taught correctly – that there are times when we need to feel bad!

We need to experience the guilt, pain, and sorrow of understanding ourselves as sinners, so that we can truly repent; we need to feel the awe – and even terror – of realizing the power of God, literally the Creator of “all things, visible and invisible,” even if we are also grateful and reassured by his goodness to us. We need to mourn the fact that our sinfulness led to the death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in order to fully experience the joy of His Resurrection, and all that it means for us.

We cannot do these things, we cannot have these experiences and the understanding that comes with them, if we equate worship with a giddy emotional high. And we cannot even understand and appreciate that we as humans go through times of spiritual drought – what has often been referred to as a “dark night of the soul” – if we key our religious experience primarily into being made to feel good.

“I really felt the Spirit’s presence there” can mean exactly what it says… and it can also mean that we particularly enjoyed the music and fellowship that day. Can you reliably tell the difference? Is your heart strangely warmed, or do you have a case of heartburn? Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes to us in the midst of that dark night of the soul. Sometimes His presence isn’t even discernible to us, except in retrospect.

And we also need to reflect on these things, intellectually, using our God-given rational faculties. We need to understand their implications. We need to internalize not only feelings, but the truths of the faith, and their personal as well as doctrinal implications. This requires rational thought, cognition, reflection – not just emotion.

I am reminded of an excellent essay by David Mills, which I posted here on the blog a few years ago, entitled “A Defense of Traditional Worship.” In it, he writes,

“The concert ended with everyone singing an old hymn, swaying gently from side to side, many holding hands with the strangers beside them. Someone turned out the lights, and people began holding up lit matches, as a feeling of brotherhood descended, it seemed, on everyone in the hall. Out in the parking lot a few minutes later, many of them were fighting, stealing, and selling drugs to small children.

“It was a rock concert ending in the then-popular style. It taught me, a new Christian, that feelings of worship were easily aroused and often almost completely transitory and insincere, in the sense that they did not reflect any change in the will, or any desire in the worshipers to turn from their wickedness and live. Such feelings may be spiritual, but they are not always Christian.

“People are easily moved but not easily changed. The most elevated feelings are no guide whatsoever to the formative value of an experience. To be changed people need to be made to see the world and to act in certain ways and not in others, and this is the reason that Christians ought to worship traditionally, that is, in formal, ordered, regular, heavily textual liturgies designed by a central authority in its historical tradition.”

This is as true now as it was when Mr. (now Dr.) Mills wrote it, which was a good few years before I posted it here on The Anglophilic Anglican. I strongly encourage you to read his whole essay, if you have not already done so! It is well worth the “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” treatment I recommend for particularly seminal readings.

To return to the present essay, Mr. Lamkin reminds us that

“Worship is supposed to be the Body of Christ accepting God’s invitation into His life, the Divine Life of God as it is expressed in the selfless and absolute love of God lived out forever in the Trinity. It is supposed to be formative and the experience derived from is meant as a means of grace in which the Divine Life of God is imparted to us, individually and as the Body of Christ,”

and then warns us, aptly, of the hazards of using emotion as a guide to this:

“Our emotions are powerful influences. Scripture encourages emotion as a response to God, His greatness, His glory, His love. But we must recognize that scripture also warns against allowing emotion to be our sole, or even a significant, guide regarding faith and practice.”

He even goes so far as to assert,

“I’m a musician. I led my church’s worship team for nearly 30 years. I wish I could take it all back; all the rock and roll from the stage, all the outpouring of raw emotion in the name of worship, all the—do I dare use the word?— idolatry.”

“Idolatry”? Really? Yup! Some powerful stuff here. And and he writes “from the inside,” as it were: from the perspective of someone who’s been down the road, and trying to dissuade other travelers from taking the same unproductive detour.

Here again, I encourage you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” I think you may find it interesting, helpful, illuminating, and perhaps even… to cite a “cold prickly” that is nonetheless an important part of faith… convicting.

Author: The Anglophilic Anglican

I am an ordained Anglican clergyman, published writer, former op-ed columnist, and experienced outdoor and informal educator. I am also a traditionalist: religiously, philosophically, politically, and socially. I seek to do my bit to promote and restore the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in a world which has too-often lost touch with all three, and to help re-weave the connections between God, Nature, and humankind which our techno-industrial civilization has strained and broken.

6 thoughts on “How the Church Exchanged Worshiping God For Cheap Emotional Thrills”

  1. Because I do enjoy today’s popular Christian music, I had a conversation with our Canon for Music about it. She pointed out that the popular stuff is all about us, what God does for us, how we feel, and does nothing to talk about God, what we can do for God and His creation. The “traditional” hymns are more in line with that, than self-centered modern songs tend to be.

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    1. I have to agree with that assessment. One of the issues I had with contemporary Methodism, when I was struggling (as a “cradle” Methodist) with whether or not to make the switch to the Anglican tradition, was that the local Methodist church had decided (and it was not alone in this) to re-brand the worship service as the “worship experience.”

      Of course that “experience” included praise bands playing contemporary Christian music, etc. – most (though not all) of which sets my aesthetic teeth on edge – but that was not my core beef with it. My core beef was and is that “service” reminds us where the focus should be: serving God and others; “experience” is something that *we* have, we do it for *us*. I have to be honest, I have a problem with that.

      Secular society is narcissistic enough, I don’t think we need to extend the problem into the Church as well! But unfortunately, it seems that that’s what a great deal of contemporary Christianity (especially non-denominational, but it has moved into the so-called “mainstream Protestant” and even some Catholic churches) is about: having experiences. Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite what our Lord had in mind…


      1. I have to wonder though, because of the tremendous growth of those types of churches, is that a method of attracting them? And then potentially helping them to grow into more developed concepts of service, worship as more than musical, and putting God first? The charismatic/evangelical branches of the more liturgical churches are the only aspects that are growing within *this* country. Do we meet people where they are, or do we expect them to be where we are? Definitely all things I’m struggling with here too. 🙂


      2. There is, of course, more than one answer to that (and it’s a question I’m struggling with, too, and have been for years). One such answer was provided by David Mills – have you had a chance to read his essay, which I linked from this? He distinguishes between “seeker-friendly” services, and the regular worship of the church, writing:

        “This claim does not apply to ‘seeker services’ and the like, intended to reach the lost. It applies to the regular worship of those who have committed themselves to Christ, the Church, and the local community, in which they commit by word and action their minds and hearts to God. Formative worship is, like tithing and the other disciplines of the Christian life, for those who want to be transformed into the image of Christ and are willing to pay the price.”

        To which I would add, did our forebears in the faith meet people where they are, or expect them to be where they were? The answer, of course, is “both.” They did reach out to people, in a variety of ways, but then they also expected them to conform to “the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ, as this church has received them.”

        Offering Mass in Latin was not very “seeker-friendly,” when coming among Celts or Germans! (And in our present age, we could also look at the example of the growth of Islam, whose proponents are highly dogmatic about learning the Quran in Arabic – more dogmatic than most Christians would ever dare to be – but is growing rapidly, perhaps in part *because* it is dogmatic: offering certainty in an age of doubt.)

        I think that in some respects we may be under-estimating seekers by trying to “dumb things down” for them, sometimes obviously so; and I think also we may be missing the fact that a lot of folks may be thinking – either consciously or subconsciously – well, if they’re going to change the way they do things to suit me, they must not have the courage of their convictions. Does that make us more attractive, or less…?


      3. I would further add that the contemporary, “praise”-based, largely (though not exclusively) non-denominational churches may be growing, but I wonder how deep their roots are. I’m reminded of the old saying about “a mile wide and an inch deep”!

        Yes, it’s possible to attract a lot of people with cotton candy and ice cream. But is that as good for them as offering nourishing meals, with healthy, organic, local foods…? (Note, again, the distinction between “seeker” services and regular worship. Offering cookies and donuts during social hour is one thing; offering nothing but cookies and donuts is another!)

        Or to use another metaphor, you can pump on the Miracle-Gro and end up with big, bright, shiny veggies – but will they be as nutritious as if you nourished the health of the soil, digging in compost, minding the pH balance, etc. …?

        Please note, I am not suggesting a “bait-and-switch” routine! But what I am cautioning against is the lure of offering what are, in effect, nothing *but* “seeker-friendly” services, that never actually get into the Christian formation aspect of worship – which is, after all, supposed to be about glorifying God (in a mature, not an overly-simplistic, way) and edifying His worshipers, in a way that leads them into what Martin Thornton called “Christian proficiency.”

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  2. I would agree, of course. Interestingly, the Baha’is *do* have two types of services. The first is called a Fireside, where seekers can come, and learn about their faith, and determine if it is something they would like to explore further. They *used* to have deepenings, where one would go to study particular topics in more depth. Things have changed since I left the Faith, although I would not say it’s for the better. However, as one of the tenets of the Baha’is is that all things done in unity will be corrected by God as needed, because it is important to stay united. (They have not entirely succeeded at that.) In any case, there are also services specifically for Baha’is only, called Feasts, which occur every 19 days and consist of a spiritual portion, an administrative portion, and a social portion (usually food). All Holy Days are open to everyone for worship, as Baha’i Houses of Worship have a door for all major religions, recognizing the oneness of God.

    As with seemingly most religions these days, Baha’i growth is higher in other countries, where spirituality is given more weight than money in those societies.

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