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.
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.”
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)