Is Modern Worship Sort of Like A Cocaine Rush?

© United Methodist News Service

I once met with a man—let’s call him Adam—who described himself as a, “recovering charismatic.” His mother fanatically—maybe frenetically—flitted from one worship experience to another; she visited Toronto, Florida, Bethel Church in California, and anywhere she heard “something” was happening.

When she wasn’t traveling to Christian conferences, worship music blared throughout the house, or her iPod (filled with worship songs) was glued to her ears. She needed the euphoric “oomph” of worship music to provide motivation for the tiniest of tasks.

However, she remained anxious, self-concerned, and perhaps narcissistic. She’d say, “I just want to go where God is working,” but it seemed she really wanted escape, a place where her problems could be anesthetized.

Adam added, “A friend of mine became a crack addict. Frankly I didn’t see much difference between him and my mom. They got their highs in different ways, and their lives remained a mess.”

“I wonder,” he said, “if modern worship is just a cocaine rush.”

I’m sympathetic

Adam’s comment about his mother got me thinking. I was a worship leader for years. I admit I often tried to stir up experiences. I loved to hear someone say, “Wow, that worship was great; I really felt the Lord’s presence.”

Since talking with Adam, I began to wonder about worship euphoria. Then I read this in Mere Christianity,

It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do.… If you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life (C. S. Lewis).

It’s ironic; when our worship goal is emotional euphoria, we get less personal experience. The more we try for worship thrills, the less we get. So what are we to do?

What is wrong with the world?

The problem with the world is self-centeredness; from Hitler-like dictators grabbing for power to three year-old boys making a mountain of matchbox cars (to keep them from his visiting friend). We are all thinking of ourselves. Too much.

It is the cause of all wars, divorce, betrayal, theft, and every miserable part of human history.

Worship rush-seeking is simply another instance of this intense concentration on the self. We fail to recognize its self-centered nature because it’s disguised as “worship.”

It’s hard to stop it. Someone once told me to be less self-conscious. It made me more self-conscious. I became self-conscious about being self-conscious. Alas.

Our intense concentration on ourselves is our biggest problem, but we can’t stop it by ourselves.

What are we to do?

Real Christian worship is the solution for self-centeredness. It is fixing our mind on the Ultimate Other. It is a heart-gaze on God. It is contemplating the majesty and glory and goodness of God. It is consciously staring at the attributes of God, his unimaginable love, his unstoppable power, his ultimate justice, his attention to the sparrow’s needs, and his care for every human being.

Worship is attributing ultimate value to the Ultimate Being who is ultimately beyond us; and yet who is beside us as we sit in our desk chair and in us as we wash the dishes.

Real worship involves an intense focus—a furious thinking or meditation—on the beauty of God. It is looking, gazing, meditating, and reflecting on the majesty of God.

And worship changes us

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee is facing horrible evil, his hope is nearly spent, and he is about to give up. One evening he sees a star.

The beauty [of the star] smote his heart … and hope returned to him. For like a shaft clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end, the shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he had been thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him, and he fell into a deep untroubled sleep.

When Sam Gamgee gazes on a star and perceives it’s meaning of “light and high beauty forever,” his own fate—and even his masters’s—cease to trouble him. He is changed.

Likewise, when we let our heart gaze on the Ultimate Star, when we let its beauty and light penetrate our soul, then we’ll be changed forever. Anxiety, grasping for euphoria, selfish ambition, and even self-consciousness will cease. We’ll worship and adore the Creator not the creation.

I’m in favor of experiencing God. I hope I do more. I hope you do too. But the experience is a result of worship (at least sometimes) not the purpose.

Lewis said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Sam

What do you think?

  • Do you see how worship-euphoria may actually be self-centered?
  • What is the essence of worship?
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24 thoughts on “Is Modern Worship Sort of Like A Cocaine Rush?

  1. Interesting article. If you do some reasearch on the Brain scans during praise and worship, you will see how the frontal lobe lights up, just like when an addict is getting his high. God gives us a natural, non-addictive way of getting that “high” which we, as humans, tend to abuse!

    • Interesting comment about the frontal lobe. Again, focus on the “high” does nothing for our lives. I’ve known too many substance abusers whose lives are messy so they turn to something for numbing. But, the very numbing ends up making their lives MORE of a mess. It didn’t do anything good.

      On the other hand, true worship gets us out of ourselves, focused on Christ … and guess what; our lives are changed. The mess begins to dissipate. TRUE joy comes, not the counterfeit “high” that masks the messiness.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  2. This hits pretty close to home for me, and is something I think about at least weekly, and sometimes several times a week. As a member of a worship team, I would particularly apply your thoughts and challenges to those leading worship, which includes anyone on a worship team. Often times, we worship leaders try to “turn people on” in worship the way we leaders get turned on. Notice something missing in that last sentence?: God. Therein lies the difficulty of leading worship: taking someone on a journey to explore and enjoy God when all they see and hear is YOU. But I also don’t think we “do it all wrong” either. The highs we get from a great worship time are wonderful. And I think God really wants us to have them. But we just need to seek and worship the God of those experiences instead of the experiences themselves.

    • Hi Lou,

      I knew you would understand the tension, as you said, “we just need to seek and worship the God of those experiences instead of the experiences themselves.”

      This problem is like many Christian tensions. It is true that when we serve others, God rewards us. But, if we do the serving FOR the reward, we don’t get the reward. When we do it for Christ we are rewarded; when we do it for ourselves, it’s just one more selfish act (“Thank you God that I’m not like these other sinners…”).

      Good comments,

      Sam

  3. Best explanation of true worship I’ve ever heard is this: “Worship is what you give your heart to, with an expectation of life in return.”

    • Hi Tony,

      Yes, that IS a great explanation of worship: “Worship is what you give your heart to, with an expectation of life in return.”

      The problem then comes from WHAT we worship. We may worship money (or affirmation or sex…) and expect life from that. And some people worship the worship experience–worship euphoria–and expect life from that.

      The only true “life” comes from worship of God.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  4. Based on alleged brain scan evidence of physiologic similarities to drug use and worship experiences, does it not follow that when we “feel God’s presence” we are simply experiencing some measurable psychological/physiologic change in our brain? To take it further, how can we trust our subjective perception of “God’s presence” during worship at all? How can these experiences ever be trusted as proof of God’s presence to the scientific mind who would say that we are conjuring the subjective experience ourselves (which is an exceedingly common difficulty in people I have spoken to)?

    • Hi David,

      You raise a great point. Some “euphoria” may simply be a result of us talking ourselves into it, like the little engine that could … “I think I can, I think I can….”

      Our emotions (mad, glad, sad, scared, ashamed) are always responses to something else, usually responses to our deepest hopes, desires, or beliefs. If I deeply desire a promotion and fail to get it, I’m sad (maybe devastated, depending on how deeply I idolize the promotion).

      Real Christian worship involves attributing to God ultimate value. It is seeing Him in his glory, majesty, power, care, and love. As we gaze on his beauty, our BELIEFS in him grow. We begin to believe He is out for our good, and that whatever is happening to us, God will bring out something greater than we can imagine.

      The deep belief of the heart–strengthened through worship of his beauty–does create an inner strength. Our emotions respond: we can be at peace, our ultimate hope will be fulfilled.

      That’s why we have to focus on the worship–seeing God changes our heart beliefs–and that changes our lives. Merely living for good feeling doesn’t change us. It’s ephemeral, fleeting, like dust in the wind (to quote a 70’s song).

      But a deep change in the beliefs of our heart brings lifelong change.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Sam

  5. Hmm, I’d never thought about it as being “self-centered” when people complain/critique the music, the lyrics, the song selection, etc.

    Is worship about experiencing a certain emotion? Or is it about showing devotion to God? Or maybe it’s about experiencing God, and so it should have those good emotions? (Also by “worship” do we only mean the music-related stuff? The bible totally DOES NOT use the word “worship” that way- I’ve been working on a blog post about this.)

    • Hi Perfect Number,

      I think it is a huge–HUGE–mistake when we equate worship with music. In fact, there are multiple examples of worship without music. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples worship (where was the music band?), the magi say they want to worship (where was the organ?), a man is healed and he worships (where was the Gregorian chant?).

      Music can help worship, because the deepest worship involves our whole being–body, mind, soul, spirit–but it isn’t the same as worship.

      I play guitar and love worship music (well, some worship music). I just came off of a month-long “fast” from not using music in worship. It was GREAT!!!!!! Well, it started hard, but it became great.

      I learned to focus my mind (well, I BEGAN to learn to focus my mind) on God, his attributes, his character, his majesty, his action throughout history (including my own history). It let me to simply adore him. No music, no choir director, no drums.

      I don’t think worship is ABOUT experiencing God, but I think the experience of God is often a result. There is a difference between emotion and experience. Emotions come and go; experience teaches and changes.

      If I had a choice of pilots for my next flight, I’d pick the high school drop out pilot with 20,000 hours of experience flying over the PhD pilot with 100 hours experience flying. The experience makes one better; but it doesn’t mean emotion.

      When we worship, as we see, or gaze, or meditate, or come to know spiritual truths, we actually experience God. And sometimes it is accompanied by emotion, sometimes not.

      Thanks, great comments (as you can tell, I’m enthused by your observations!),

      Sam

      • Oooh, the “fast from worship music” thing is interesting. So instead of using songs, you thought about (I guess this is called “meditating”) God’s goodness and stuff he has done?

        I kind of have an opposite story- I was recently really sick, and I was so sick that I wasn’t able to go anywhere or do anything for about 2-3 months. I didn’t go to church, and I couldn’t even read my bible because I couldn’t hold up the book (sometimes I read on my laptop instead- that was easier). So, when I got better and I went back to church for the first time, I suddenly realized that I really really like worship music, and it had been missing from my life lately.

        And what was “missing from my life” was the part where I stop to listen to God, to have that experience and the feelings, rather than spending all my time online, just reading a ton of information.

        • Hi Perfect Number,

          Two things: first, in my worship-music-fast, I did meditate, but I did more. I tried to attribute to God all the value, so:
          – I would think of God’s goodness (his love, provision, death on the cross), and I’d say to my heart: God is all you need (Sometimes it’s good to speak to our hearts and souls, as in, “Why are you cast down, oh my soul?”)
          – I would read Psalms aloud, like Psalm 95, or 139. I would read them as worship, stating truths about God, his majesty, his power, his love, his care, his justice.
          – I would say spontaneous praises of worship (verbally, out loud) without singing; it actually concentrated my heart more, things like: you are majestic, you are the king, you are beautiful, you are all glorious….

          It was great.

          Second, wow! You sort of had an enforced fast vs my voluntary fast. But we both had the delight of returning to corporate worship…including singing!

          (And thanks for that reference to “just reading a bunch of information!” I loved it.)

          Sam

  6. I wasnt going to comment. But I think I will. I’ll apologise in advance for anything which may be due an apology- I only say this as I am aware of the perspectives that can be taken when something is read, not heard, and I am only trying to avoid that.
    The whole cocaine rush thing.
    As humans, we are able to experience such highs with the use of substances such as cocaine. God didnt make us with the abilities to experience such highs so that we could only experience them with the use of substances such as cocaine. Cocaine is not some supernatural substance that allows us to experience “highs” which are much more extreme emotions than what we are created to be able to feel. God created us with that ability. I believe he may have even created us with that ability to feel those intense emotions, even for the sole purpose of worshipping him.
    Why do we (or rather, why SHOULD we) worship God??
    I personally worship God because I LOVE HIM. I love him more than anything in the world or anywhere outside it. For me, worship is an outward expression of my love for God. I love worship (because I love God), with or without the euphoria, which I have experienced in such highs I have been left for hours on end laughing, crying, unable to walk even. I will note that my most significant experience of this was not after/during what would be traditionally recognised as a “worship” “session,” it was actually after praying in a group of around 8 people, for a couple of hours. Just continually praying, mostly for healings and revelations in the lives of those we know- bringing them before God- we were also praying for God’s presence to flow through us- and I tell you that surely did happen for me! 🙂 So I will testify to what you have said- that worship doesnt have to be with song. 🙂 I think it is a good view, one which I believe more of us Christians should grasp.
    A lot of the time I dont really “feel” anything. But I still love God, and for me that is my motive, not the experience of that “high.”
    I am a worship leader myself, but I dont view it as worship “leading.” I treat it just the same as worship, the only difference for me is the location in the building. Instead of being in the congregation worshipping, I am worshipping in front and facing the congregation.
    I have been to events where there have been technical difficulties and the leader’s microphone has stopped working. God has blessed me with a very loud well projected singing voice, and ability to sing, so I continue singing my praises to God, while in the back of the congregation, and I somewhat end up leading others in worship, from where I am. I just love God, and I love to worship him, because he DESERVES to be worshipped. (I do however realise the spiritual side of leading worship, where as a worship leader I am, “on the front line” and therefore more likely to come under attack. But my God is greater, He is stronger, and He is my protection- I dont neglect to pray and commit my worship to him however)
    So, worship is, in my opinion, an outward expression of ones love for God. Whether this is by singing, praying, preaching, witnessing, or even just loving others.
    For me, the euphoria is an added blessing from God. 🙂

  7. I have at times contemplated the fact the Lord, worship could amount to nothing more than a “rain dance”. “..I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol…..” I Cor.13 I worship the Lord out of love for Him and I want to honor Him. Otherwise it can amount to ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality

    • Hi Debbie,

      Indeed, we “worship out of love for Him” and the desire to honor him. Otherwise, it is a rain dance.

      There is nothing wrong with wanting and enjoying experiences of God.

      As long as we don’t confuse them with worship.

      Sam

  8. I think Sam comment doesn’t go far enough; I think from scripture we are made to need God, and we are missing the full expression of it that only a few have found in face to face encounters, Moses, Enoch, Jesus, the disciples, John and many more. To be complete we require this level of intimacy. We were designed to have person intimate relationship with God through Jesus (Colossians 1:27), and (Romans 8:29-30). The issue is not how worship effects us, but do we see Jesus inside us and our being conformed to His image. I don’t mean some religious duty or obligation, but the part of intimate fellowship Jesus show when he said I speak what I hear from the Father,and do only what the Father shows me to do. Personally, get every experience you can of intimacy with God, but see that the reason it even connects with you is that Jesus, via the Holy Spirit is in you (Immanuel!!!).

    Geoff

  9. Hello,
    I do agree with what you are trying to say about a worship “high” and that it is not the purpose of worship. However, I wonder since you are a christian why you do not use god’s word to prove your point? Instead of using either unrelated books, or a man’s opinions. After all, the bible is “sharper than a two edged sword.” Just a thought. Thanks.

    • Hi Jenny,

      I appreciate your commitment to God’s word. Thanks for encouraging me to as well.

      Most (not all) of my readers are believers. Sometimes I reference scriptural principles that most of my readers agree with. In those cases I work more for application than using the references (which they already know).

      In this case I “referenced” the following points which are commonly held scriptural principles: 1) Pride and self-centeredness are against God’s word, 2) Scripture says to worship God alone, and 3) We are sometimes tempted to worship “Idols” that appear good … but are not God.

      I then tried to apply these principles to a temptation for all believers: to worship the “feeling” instead of worshiping God.

      Next week (Tuesday, August 14th) I will reference some principles that are less well known, and therefore I’ll give the scriptural quotes and references.

      The two authors I quoted were both famous Christian believers who were talking about scriptural principles: CS Lewis was talking about the inadequacy of anything apart from God, and JRR Tolkien was talking about the eternal unconquerable God.

      I don’t mind sharing their thoughts. They have spoken to me.

      Frankly, many believers help explain God’s word to me. I love to hear a good sermon. In a sermon, the preacher is doing more than just reading God’s word; the preacher is expounding and unpacking it. They use the medium of “preaching” to expound God’s word while Lewis and Tolkien use the medium of prose and narrative to unpack God’s word.

      All are helpful to me. If you think about it, God’s word is filled with various mediums to speak his word, there is poetry (in the Psalms), wisdom sayings (in Proverbs), Propositional truth (in many of the epistles), and narrative (the gospels). Having all these methods in scripture makes a difference to me.

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your love of God’s word.

      Sam

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