Might Modern Worship Be Sort of Like A Cocaine Rush?

I once met with a man—let’s call him Nathan—who described himself as a, “recovering charismatic.” He was open to it; but his experience of modern worship gave him pause.

As he grew up, his mother frenetically flitted from one worship experience to the next.

© United Methodist News Service

© United Methodist News Service

After Toronto she visited Florida, then Bethel Church, and then anywhere she heard “something” was happening.

Worship music unceasingly blared throughout the house. She seemed to need its euphoric “oomph” to motivate her for the tiniest of tasks. Wiping kitchen counters took the combined efforts of Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Paul Baloche.

Don’t ask what spring cleaning required.

But she remained anxious, fearful, self-concerned, and neglectful of her husband and sons. She’d say, “I just want to go where God is working,” but it really seemed she just wanted an escape, a place where her problems could be sedated.

After describing all this, Nathan 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 continued, “if modern worship is like a cocaine rush.”         

I’m sympathetic

Nathan’s description of his childhood experiences startled me. I was a worship leader for years, and I often tried to stir up feelings. I loved to hear someone say, “Wow, that worship was great; I really felt the Lord’s presence.”

Now I wonder about our pursuit of euphoria in worship. Oswald Chambers says,

If we continually try to bring back those exceptional moments of inspiration, it is a sign that it is not God we want. Never live for those exceptional moments. God will give us His touches of inspiration only when He sees that we are not in danger of being led away by them (My Utmost For His Highest, emphasis added).

Most catechisms that I’ve studied say humans are designed to worship God and to enjoy him. But the purpose is to worship God—joy is simply the result. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the purpose of modern worship services is simply to stir up good feelings.

Do we want worshipers to give their lives in adoration? Or are we competing with our media-dominated culture by using musical abilities to titillate the emotions of the worshiper?

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 a younger brother. (Not to mention what you and I do.)

Self-centeredness is the cause of all wars, divorce, betrayal, theft, and every miserable part of human history. We are all thinking of ourselves.

And seeking the “rush” in worship is simply another example of concentrating on ourselves (though we may fail to recognize it because it’s disguised as “worship”).

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, contemplating the majesty and glory and goodness of God. It is consciously staring at 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 (of heart, mind, soul and strength) on the beauty of God. It is looking, gazing, meditating, and reflecting on the majesty of God. It is seeing him for all his is, Lord, Master, King, Father, Shepherd, and Friend.

And, yes, seeing his glory often move us to joy as well.

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. He is joyful. He is peaceful.

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.

Real worship of the real God does, in the end, bring real life. 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.”


(Edited and re-posted from Beliefs of the Heart, June 2012)

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What do YOU think?

30 thoughts on “Might Modern Worship Be Sort of Like A Cocaine Rush?

  1. Sam, isn’t it fun to get “lost in the music”; instead of being found by God through worship? Worship can certainly have the sensation of finding God, but it also involves the reality of finding that God has found you—with all your depravity and glory. Neither of which is healthy for any person can take for too long in concentrated doses. ; )

    • Hi Danny,

      Yeah, I agree, the best thing is to find that God found us (in all the depravity and glory).

      I don’t mean to pick on the music (well, not too much); I love worship music and I love being a worship leader.

      But: it is very easy to confuse the things OF God with God. The bronze serpent was a gift from God for healing; it eventually became an idol. The temple was a gift from God; it too eventually became an idol.

      But as you point out, the good news is that God is pursuing us; we don’t have to do it perfectly.


      • Gotta pick on you for just one little thing. If you are leading music, then you are a MUSIC leader. Worship is 24/7, or can be, and it involves a million activities other than music! Maybe it’s because I’m a lover of words, but that misleading label always rubs me the wrong way…. and frankly I think contributes to the very problem you blog about, especially in examples like the mom who can’t do anything without music blasting, because without music she can’t possibly be “worshipping.” My most profound moments of Worship are often completely silent–“be still, and know that I am God”!!

        • Patti,

          I love what you “picked” on me for. I am thrilled that you brought it up. I agree with you.

          Worship is what we give our hearts to in order to get life (as one definition goes … there are other good ones). And everyone is worshipping all the time: we might worship success, money, romance, family life, our kids, reputation, being liked, etc.

          We think, “If I had that…” and that “that” is what we worship.

          Singing is an expression of worship; and so is giving money or time; and so are our thoughts.

          I agree that the wording of my title is perhaps misleading. Most people today think that the Sunday morning service is worship, and everything else is just life.

          (Interesting, some even think the singing is the “worship” part of the service, and the rest is teaching.)

          A key point in my article is that some people consider worship to be the euphoria they experience, and they keep trying to recreate that feeling. But that ‘feeling” isn’t worship. It may not even come out of worship (though it can). It may simply result from a type of self-hypnosis.

          Real worship is what we give our hearts to; it is a giving. Yes, sometimes it means we also “get” something. In fact, I’d say we always get something. Sometimes it’s an immediate feeling; more often it is a life that comes under the authority of God–we become who we are meant to be.

          Thanks for a great comment.

  2. Very well said. The cacophony of banging symbols and drums and the growing volume of sound at the end of many worship songs, all designed to bring worshipers to a crescendo of excitement…make me squirm. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not natural and I find the whole thing offputting.
    Almost as much as lengthy prayers designed to sound good to the church, rather than the Lord, and pastors who try to drum up the crowd by having them “giving the Lord a hand clap,” when really it’s just a device to get the audience into the sermon.
    Modern church has become a concert led by a barker and funded by ever-increasing expansion projects and “missions” because we believe that a “growing” church, is a thriving church.

    • I thought I said it strongly, but your comment takes first prize: “Modern church has become a concert led by a barker and funded by ever-increasing expansion projects and “missions” because we believe that a “growing” church, is a thriving church.”

      The problem–or quandary–is that good music (including contemporary) can help us worship. It’s just that it can also distract or disguise or slightly mislead.

      I recently took a multi-month “fast” from worship music in my own personal time of worship. It was amazing and a bit illuminating. I found that worshiping with songs I knew had allowed me to sing by rote and not be fully engaged, heart, mind, soul and strength.

      It forced me to be personally engaged directly with glorifying his majesty and getting off the emotional roller coaster of rhythmic music. It was great.

      (Of course, it was great to worship with music again too.)

  3. Your last comment “real worship of the real God, does in the end, bring life” is the key. The mom’s experience you describe was not life giving or life changing for her or her family. But my question is, why has this type of worship been the focus of modern churches for so long? Music has always stirred the human heart/soul/emotions. And churches over the ages have often included the singing, playing of worship as an integral part of any church service. Corporate worship of God can be and has been expressed in many forms such as verbal prayer, teachings, giving of time/money, bible study, art etc.. Why now, in the past thirty years, has worship music taken on such a bigger emphasis as the primary form of worshiping God in many church services? We need church leadership to lead us in this area and not worry about losing church membership when other forms of worshiping God are equally emphasized. Addiction of any kind occurs more easily when there is a lack of balance. What would modern churches look like if we could see balance applied to our forms of corporate worship?

    • Hi Rose,

      Thank you so much for you great comment. The odd part of this discussion is that we do experience joy when we worship (though not euphoria every time).

      The issue has to do with what we pursue. Is it God, or is it what we get from God?

    • Corporate worship serves two purposes: to ascribe praise and glory to God and to preach the gospel to one another. Christ-centered worship is not brought about by emotions, it’s the other way around – which Sam stated in the article.


      Corporate worship music has lost its gospel focus over the years, you’re correct. Part of this is attributed to some of the forefront leaders and their charismatic or Pentecostal roots. You noticed in the 70’s that worship started to take a “me-centered” and “feelings/emotion-centered” approach that many people were attracted to. Kauflin would describe this as vertical/horizontal worship, which can be helpful in thinking about the purpose of our worship.

      But, recall that some of the loudest voices in the room right now (no pun intended) are Hillsong and Jesus Culture, mixed in with popular worship music that’s not particularly coprorately helpful – like Crowder. Great music and good content, but it’s not gospel-centered worship and not always good for corporate worship. Hillsong and Jesus Culture are associated with very charismatic theology that, frankly, isn’t intentionally trinitarian and doesn’t always reflect the gospel. Again, their songs aren’t necessarily bad, they just aren’t gospel-centered. Consider that your worship service is a reflection and rehearsal of the gospel. Does this change what kind of songs you should sing as a corporate body? Absolutely. Your theology propels your doxology. A proper understanding of God’s character and the gospel leads to healthy worship for a church.

      Chapel’s “Christ-Centered Worship” is one of the best books on liturgy and worship out there, combined with Cosper’s recent “Rhythms of Grace” and Kauflin’s “Worship Matters.”

      There’s really more to say here than I have room to type (or you have time to read). There’s incredibly helpful resources and literature for worship at The Gospel Coalition’s Worship Blog, edited by Matt Boswell. I can personally attest that Boswell is an excellent pastor with a robust theology that is reflected in his worship and hymnody.

      • I agree that the lyrics of the music has in a large part started to focus on the self and less on God. Namely it has to do with people failing to recognize the ultimate power of God. We want the easy way out of our sins. The songs of today are littered with the concept that God does everything and nothing is required of man which completely neglects what the Bible teaches. As was stated by someone earlier we are commanded to love God with ALL of our soul, mind, body, and strength. The songs of today teach mediocrity in the christian life which is why so many enjoy the songs. The words make you not feel bad about being displeasing to God (committing sin). I think of the older songs like “All to thee” in which we are claiming at the end of the song that we have given all to thee (God) and left none of self. To today’s churches this song would be highly offensive because it speaks against the lives the members are currently living. Today’s “christian” culture has crept so far as to even change the words to “Jesus loves me”. The last verse has always said “Henceforth I will live for Thee” and now in the new song books it says “I will try to live for Thee”. When an individual says they will try, it is only on a very rare occasion that person will truly try. I am sure glad Christ didn’t try, He did. Again the reason for the members of a church feeling lifted up is because it gives people a cop out when it comes to sin in their lives. We are to live for God completely. If we live the way the churches teach today which is “we will all continue to sin and fall short of the glory of God” the Christ’s death on the cross and the sending of the Holy Spirit is pointless. Ask yourselves this question, why did Christ die on the cross if He knew we would only continue to live like those who lived before Christ? What was the point of Christ coming and leaving the example for us to follow if we can not follow it? The members get a high on the worship because it is self centered and makes them fill good about themselves while they continue to live in sin.

        • Hi Byron,

          Nice comment and great thought that went into it.

          The purpose of worship is not our feeling good, but the long-term result of worship is … we actually do feel good because we are doing what we are made to do.

          I would say that true worship (which is more than just songs) should begin with focusing on the attributes of God (his glory, justice, beauty, love, righteousness, majesty…) and not focus on what we will do for him (though I agree, saying we “will” is more of a commitment that saying “we’ll try”).

          When we “see” God in worship, that is what empowers us to then “do” our all for him.

          Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks
    Sam I have been enjoying your emails and they have been encouraging to
    me. I do feel that too many believers or those that say they are live in
    the me first world without really knowing it. The self-centered pull
    the worldly ‘I can handle it’ is huge and only a few can recognize it.
    Thanks again for the heart talk look forward to more as always.

    • HI Pat,

      Thanks for sharing. I love your line about, “too many believers live in the me first world without really knowing it. The self-centered pull toward the worldly ‘I can handle it’ is huge and only a few can recognize it.”

      Yup. You nailed it.

  5. If you want to see true and meaningful worship, visit a Christian Church in Haiti! I just came back from there and completely felt like they are doing “church” right, and us Americans have it ALL wrong! Their worship is genuine, and authentic while most of our churches cater to our culture. I’m becoming more and more aware of this especially as our church rebounds from terrible turmoil for the last 2 years. It’s quite evident that a growing church does not equal a thriving church, because the minute turmoil hits a third of the congregation is out of there because they don’t want to be a part of the solution…they’d rather jump ship to a church that they “think” does not have problems. At least for now they might not…but have you ever heard the saying, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t go there, or you’ll ruin it.” All churches have problems…so in turn are we teaching our people to be true disciples of Christ, and to grow roots in Christ, and to find some depth in their faith or are we just filling pews to look like we are doing good? Because when the end of times come, I’d rather be a church that knows the word and is equipped to help people who need Christ than be a church that has a concert for worship. Are we teaching people to truly worship the KIng, like the Haitians do, or are we catering to our culture and just giving people what they think is the next best thing in church? The Haitians can sing a song 20 times, without getting complaints from the congregation…they can sit on hard wooden benches for 3 hours, without time constraints, to worship God, and they can lift their hands in praise to the Holy one and thank him over and over and over again for all of his good gifts, when these people live with nothing by our standards! Yet, they have complete joy! I am humbled by these people and for what they have taught me…and I’m afraid for us Americans…that we may have it all wrong!

  6. Worship is not an action or a song, it is an attitude of your heart. I can worship while shoveling pig manure or dancing on the mountaintop in the presence of God.

    The key is not to try and camp on the mountaintop, but to go back down the hill and pour yourself out to the needy and hungry! (Mathew Ch. 17)

    • Hey JB,

      Good comment. Worship cannot be restricted to a “worship service” because we are actually worshiping all the time in all we do.

      Unfortunately…sometimes we are worshiping idols!

  7. Love this post, it was very challenging and thought provoking to read through, think upon, and examine mine own life with. I reposted this post on my blog and gave credit and linked it to yours, I hope you don’t mind, thank you for the tremendous reminder to worship God, be enamored with the beauty of Christ, and grow in our adoration of the God who saves rebels.

    Here is my blog. http://delightinchrist.wordpress.com

  8. As long as we mistakenly equate music with worship, we run into this problem. One can worship in music, but music is not worship. A music lover can be swept away by a good ‘worship set’ of songs . . . whether they worship Jesus or not. Worship is inner adoration AND outer service. If you haven’t been worshipping in your heart and actions through the week, the best you can hope for in a gathering is an emotional rush. Singing songs together is fellowship. Whoever first called music worship set us all on a bad path.

  9. Over the years there are more and more things we have stopped worshiping. Some people see that as a bad thing. I see it as a new beginning for mankind. I made a video about the end of worship as well.

  10. Nearly all contemporary churches has lost their “Awe” of God. Their songs sound like the Who’s Tommy album. Tommy can you see me … Tommy can you feel me … Tommy can you touch me … Tommy? Tommy?

    I am unable to attend charismatic services with all the “raised-hands, fill me” type of worship. It seems very aboriginal, shamantic, freneticism to me. It’s not worship at all. It has more to do with self than God.

    • Hi Zxerxes,

      Thanks for your comment and insight. And I love you Tommy reference.

      I don’t think charismatic worship–even with all the hand raising–has to be frenetic. But lots is. In the end, the real question concerning worship is, “Who is this about? God, or me?”

      It’s the age old question about blessings and their giver. Are we going to God simply for the things he gives us (whether they be emotional-highs during worship or money, success, fame, etc.); or, are we going to God simply to give him glory?

      As C. S. Lewis said (roughly paraphrased): “We can aim for heaven and get earth thrown in, or we can aim at earth, and get nothing.”