This is the fourth installment in a seven part series. The first part may be read here.
The fourth plague I’ve identified that is causing sickness in the Evangelical American church is what I’m calling “experience-driven worship.” This problem is really a subset of the larger problem of elevating one’s spiritual experience over the truth of God’s Word.
Experience-driven worship is the act of congregations, pastors, and worship leaders, allowing the worship gathering to become a place where one’s emotions and feelings outweigh logic and truth. To be fair, a proper worship service should be aimed toward the heart and the head. But much of modern worship, with its extremely loud music, performance-based worship leading, and emotionally-driven response times directly bypasses the head (if it even allowed the head in the building in the first place). True worship engages the head and the heart both equally. Indeed, proper music and preaching from God’s Word leads to proper response.
There are many reasons why Americans have elevated personal experience over God’s Word: from the effects of the Enlightenment, to the spirit of American individualism, to the attack on the reliability of God’s Word. Therefore, this sickness really is a combination of several mitigating factors:
(1) Post-Enlightenment Thinking
The cultural enlightenment of the 18th century had a lot of positive effects. But one negative effect was replacing God as the center of the universe and one’s life, and replacing Him with man. While many are still devoted to God in one way or another, one’s feelings and needs are typically the center of one’s life. Indeed, one is instructed through many influences to be true to one’s heart and live how one sees fit.
Therefore, it’s not hard to see how a worshiper can start asking questions like, “What’s in this for me? What gets me interested? What do I like?” This way of thinking permeates our western society in general, thus, it permeates the church.
(2) American Individualism
The American spirit is all about freedom and liberty. We have the right to personal happiness. This, of course, is a good thing in the context of government and general living. However, the Kingdom of God does not afford its residents the same type of freedom. This is where Americans, in particular, start to confuse American Individualism with following Jesus.
(3) Attack on the Authority of God’s Word
For those believers who simply do not believe in the inerrancy of God’s Word then why would they hold it as any sort of authority over their lives? However, some believers do affirm the reliability, inerrancy, and authority of God’s Word but they do not live like they do. They do not believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word in faith and practice. Therefore, one elevates his or her experience over God’s Word and thus in the worship experience, the experience itself is the standard by which one measures truth.
In order to give a prescription for what ails the Evangelical American church in this area we must look at the Kingdom of God and what worship is like in it.
God’s Kingdom has a very strict and narrow entrance requirement. People do not have the right to enter the kingdom however they see fit. One may enter only through repentance of sins and saving faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those who are in God’s Kingdom make up His universal church. Individual churches are to be led by Jesus Christ as the head, pastors as the shepherds, and deacons as the servants. One cannot simply design entrance into the kingdom of God (or the organization of His church) as he wants.
When it comes to gathering for worship, we see much variance in denominations as to what that looks like. However, biblical worship typically consists of God’s people gathering together and singing hymns, songs and spiritual songs, prayers, and God’s Word being preached. Also, periodically (or weekly) worship involves observing the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Again, the frequency of these elements may be debated. However, the elements themselves cannot.
What or who should be the center of worship? Jesus Christ. Everything we do in a worship service should be directed towards Him for His glory and our good. However, much of modern American worship has started to drift. Instead of Christ being the object of worship, the worshiper has started to be the object of worship. We see this in sermons where the main idea is the worshiper. We see this in worship songs where worshipers are singing mainly about themselves. And this drift has led us to elevating the “experience” over Jesus Christ Himself.
Therefore, when it comes to designing a worship service where God becomes the center we must do several things:
(1) Choose songs which talk about the work Christ did on the cross or the character of God
We could fix a lot spiritual health problems if we sang more songs whose content and lyrics were about God and what He has done or who He is, rather than what we feel. It’s never out of bounds to sing about how we feel, but the majority of our worship should focus on what Jesus has done and then we rightly respond to it
(2) Choose songs that are as less repetitive as possible
It’s a well-known truth that if one wants to be wrapped up in a trance, he or she must simply repeat a phrase over and over. Zen Buddhism, for example, instructs this as a way to enter the spiritual realm. Some of the praise songs will ask worshipers to repeat the same phrase over and over and over. There is a hypnotic effect when this happens. And it’s not necessarily good. Our emotions go unchecked and we get into trouble. We start to worship the “feeling” and not the object
(3) Intentionally structure the worship service around the centrality of God.
Sermons should point people to God. Songs should point people to His work. We sing, preach and receive His revelation of who He is. And then we respond with appropriate emotion. Emotion rarely whips people up into proper worship. But proper worship of God and the work of Jesus Christ will certainly effect one’s emotions in a God-honoring way.