Unreal Worship Experiences

In my class a couple of weeks ago we focused on the place and practice of worship in the local church. As in most academic settings the starting point began in generalizations seeking to find the nuances that help shape future practices of students in the class. In the spirit of academic critique Dr. Fitch became highly critical of mega-church worship styles that have infiltrated even the smallest of churches. These elements are easily recognizable: low lighting, high volume, prolific use of technology, a high-quality band, an all-around great concert experience.

Dr. Fitch’s point was that worship has been narrowed in this format to purposefully manipulate the individual into having an individualized, existential experience without much, if any, substantive direction or teaching about how to submit to King Jesus. He used an example of a man who is cheating on his wife but comes with her to church. He believes himself to be a Christian, and though feeling a little guilty over his adultery, is coaxed into an existential experience by worship leaders. This experience reinforces his belief that though he is a sinner he has worshipped God, has been in God’s presence by virtue of worshipping, and is forgiven by grace even of his continual adultery. There is no challenge to the man to repent or become a true follower of Jesus as King and Lord. In fact, he may be worse off because worship has placated his guilt with therapeutic feelings of acceptance!

The second example Dr. Fitch offered was a critique of churches’ use of technology to affect the worship experience of the individual. His example here was a baptism video. In such a video a person who is not known by most, or any, of the assembled people in the service has a curated life story presented in way that makes baptism a climatic solution to former life issues. The video is expertly created in a way to manipulate the those watching in the crowd to want to mimic the event of baptism. The setting of a large crowd, participating in mega-church style worship manipulation, and this baptism video are meant to lead individuals in the crowd into intense desire to culturally capitulate.

No one argued against the generalized notion that concert-style worship must be careful to not manipulate the individual into a mass-produced experience. But these more specific examples set the class into a larger discussion about the role of art, experience, and technology in the worship time of Sunday mornings. It was argued that art as beauty glorifies God and deserves a place in the service objectively. Others, in a similar vein, contended that good service is due to God by Christians as servants in ministry, and such service will always illicit an experiential response. Some went further saying that all art produces an experience so in some way it always manipulative, but this was refuted by another student pointing out that art does not intend a specific type of response like contemporary worship sets intend.

In this conversation I saw one fundamental issue under all the rest. A concept every other question assumed and was fighting against, but not openly. How does Dr. Fitch know an experience generated by manipulation is not a viable experience in the Christian faith? How do those fighting for art and technology know that the experiences of congregants, while genuine, are substantive? This epistemological question of ‘how do you know what is real?’ must be answered before any of these methodological questions can been settled.

The western (particularly American) culture that everyone in the class interacts with continually trumpets the idea that the individual’s experience is always an experience with reality. It is important to trace the philosophical backdrop to this assumption. The modern obsession with the autonomy of the individual resulted in all structural authority being overthrown, particularly on the governmental and religious level of societies. This empowerment of the individual and the destruction of all authority eventually climaxed in Nietzsche’s belief that there was nothing but the individual who happens to exist by being formed of broken pieces of structural power. These structural powers were figments of social imagination meant to control the individual and the individual had the right to deny their reality and amass power for itself, seeking to be a creator by creating a new identity of its own design and desires.

The philosophical response to Nietzsche resulted in what is considered the first post-modern understanding. This post-modernism looked into the nature of the individual’s autonomy and found the individual is wholly dependent on social structures to be formed. Whether it is expectations laid on the individual on account of birth order, sex, class, or family status the individual is formed and grown in particular directions by their social contexts. Some even began to show how linguistics plays into this social constructing of the individual by controlling ways of describing and understanding events and objects.

Eventually a second step in post-modern philosophy occurred. These philosophers accepted that the individual was wholly constructed by the social structure, but pointed out that if the structure mediates reality to the individual, through relationships and language, then the individual can have no confidence that there even is a reality behind the structure. In fact, post-structuralists are open that they do not believe in an objective reality that can be interacted with directly by the individual. Within such nihilistic realization, Nietzsche arises again as a guiding philosophical spirit.

Post-structuralists follow Nietzsche’s lead accepting that the structures are simply contrived by the social to create order through controlling the individual. These philosophers end with a strange near hyper-modernistic response to structural nature of the individual, again following a path similar to the one Nietzsche trod; while the individual is created by the structure the individual should seek to amass power in order to overthrow the power of the structure’s control, and while not ever actually autonomous, seek to create its own desired life. The structure should be forced to break under the power of individual choices because only then is there any hope to truly be free.

I contend that the most contentious battles in the Western world come from the cultural war between modernists who believe in the autonomous self-creation (usually believing structures should just leave them alone and not impose on them) and the hyper-modernists who have learned from post-structuralist nihilism (those who seek to force the structure to transform so as to actively accept radical individual choices or lifestyles). Both modernists and hyper-modernists believe that the experience of reality is located in the individual. For the modernist, this is an experience of the objective reality that everyone populates. For the hyper-modernist, an individual’s experience is only subjective reality, the inescapable prison of the individual’s construction. It is particularly important for the hyper-modernist that the individual have the power to shape their subjective experience since it is their personal prison. The think is people should have the right to make such a prison better since they can’t escape it. This is why hyper-modernists are more likely to be activists for structural change and is usually draped in the language of self-expression.

The philosophical assumption that the experience of the individual, while genuine, is a valid and substantive interaction with reality should be highly suspect to Christians. There are many texts in the Scriptures pointing out that humans outside of the liberation offered by God through King Jesus have dubious hearts,[1] empty and darkened minds,[2] and are enslaved to the body’s desires.[3] Many reject the Scriptures as pre-modern texts far removed from the intelligent philosophical and social conversations of our era. Yet, those who recognized that the individual is socially constructed and that reality is mediated to the individual through relationships and language were saying something very similar to the ancient peoples.

The ancients understood that humans were raised into the community through language and tradition. The children had to have social expectations placed on them to fulfill those roles, and it was the responsibility of the community to mediate the correct understanding of reality. Christians should learn the importance of the structures from structuralists, then learn from the Scriptures and the ancient peoples how to use the structures to shape the future of Western society.

The early Christians new they were redeeming these structures within the common life of their communities of faith. The ancient structures were oppressive in their forced obedience, especially to women and slaves, but in the Christian community these relationships and language were being recast through the self-sacrificing service of King Jesus.[4] Redeemed these structures through willing oppression, rather than destroying them by activism, became avenues of honor and dignity rather than forms of oppression.[5] Christians interpreted hardship as participation in the life of King Jesus assuring the worst of oppressions would be the greatest of resurrections.[6]

Experiences of events by individuals, such as worship, must be interpreted through the teachings of the community of faith. Since reality is created, sustained, and participated in by God it is a good creation that humans are a part. But it should not be assumed that any experience by the individual is a good, positive interaction with reality. The Christian faith has provided a host of language possibilities for interactions between humanity and non-reality (or things that are ever passing away into non-reality): sin, evil, darkness, abyss, evil spirits, etc. While these are genuine experiences by the individual only the community of faith is able to teach the individual how to interpret and understand these situations.

There is no question that performance-based or technology-based experiences are genuine and subjectively real to the individuals in whom they occur, but that doesn’t mean they are actual experiences with reality or an interaction with God.

The question for the communities of faith in the West is, Is there a place in the structure of Christian faith for technology and performance to mediate the reality of King Jesus as Lord over creation? And, how should communities of faith define non-reality in relation to technology-based experiences, especially if it is being used to convince (manipulate?) people toward the gospel?


[1] Jer. 17:9; 1Jn. 3:19-20

[2] Eph. 4:17-18

[3] Eph. 2:3

[4] Eph. 6:5-9; Philemon

[5] Acts 5:40-41

[6] Col. 1:24; Phil. 3:8-11

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