Thursday, January 27, 2005

Evangelical Capitalism (part 2): Sensual worship...

In Evangelical Capitalism: how the “bottom-line” determines our action, I criticized the Western concept that, essentially, a church’s success is inherently tied to its size. In this post I would like to expand on that notion and address how we tend to view the “popularity” factor in terms of both worship and evangelizing. Specifically, how does our approach to music in the worship service reflect our attitudes towards both believers and non-believers? Oh, what dangerous ground I tread. While a quick perusal of the radio dial will reveal a variety of musical styles being broadcast over the airwaves, it should not come as a surprise that certain forms of music (or variations thereof) are more popular than others. While there are many people who enjoy classical music, one would expect that a Mozart festival would draw fewer people than a festival of the latest hip-hop artists (so-called). I’m not declaring whether this is right or wrong, although I certainly have an opinion, but merely stating that this is the current state of our culture in the West. The reasons for such a phenomenon are, to be sure, quite diverse. But I think that if one were to unpack the phenomenon they would see that the driving factor of this popularity contest is grounded in the experiential. Hip-hop outdistances classical music because the population at-large (at least, the population willing to spend money on the genre) likes it better than other forms of music. Now I’m certainly not criticizing the fact the people like one form of music over another, I’m simply illustrating that such liking is rooted in how the music makes one feel. Does this relate to the church? In Please Me, O Lord, a May 2004 article for Touchstone Magazine, S. M. Hutchens writes about witnessing a young, Christian woman sing a solo in a church worship service in, as interpreted by him, a very seductive manner. He writes,
A handsome young woman, attractively dressed, stood before the congregation with an eight-inch microphone, the head of which she held gently to her lips while she writhed and cooed a song in which she, with closed eyes and beckoning gestures, begged Jesus, as she worked her way toward its climax, to come fill her emptiness. The crowd liked it.
The effect of music can be quite dramatic. Try turning the sound down on some of your favorite movie scenes to see how the visual effect is diminished. Now I’m not stating that modern popular music is alone in its capability for inciting the sensual. I’m well aware that certain classical compositions are linked with such phenomenon. Rather, I am stating that if one desired to set a certain mood, then music can be a very effective tool to use. Consider the use of music in our worship service. Why are certain songs used at the beginning of a service vs. at the end? Why does it seem necessary to have background music, usually played by the church pianist, while the pastor makes a final emotive appeal? Why is this background music used at all during some prayers? Are the songs chosen primarily for their musical style or for the words they contain? If for the words they contain, then why? For the theological truths they convey or for the emotions they stir? Or both? Is this simply a cultural and generational issue? Am I simply whining because I’m stuck in the mud of my cultural view of music and, as such, am ignorant to the reality of how such popular expressions of worship truly touch other members of our society? I don’t think so. Hutchens states,
The young woman displaying herself before the faithful with her sexualized—and hence secularized—religion is not simply an example of unfortunate excess, but, I believe, a symbol of a whole tradition gone awry, caught now in the glaring intensification of what it was in its beginning, and what wiser heads, in those beginnings, often warned it against. It is a tradition in which religious affection is the measure of faith, where preaching is paramount not because it teaches but because it “blesses the heart,” where the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not the center of the gathering of Christians on the Lord’s Day, but rather is minimized in favor of replenishment of emotional capital, where the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed are not customarily repeated, not because they are not believed, but because they, being “rote,” like written-out prayers, contain not a minim of the spontaneity alleged to characterize true worship. (emphasis added)
I would argue that we tend to mimic the popular genres of music in our worship styles not only because we like them, but also because we are all too aware of the impact of ignoring such genres – namely, a loss of congregants attending worship service. Our over-emphasis on the experiential aspect of Christianity, combined with the self-centered notion of “feeling blessed,” has led many Christians to conclude that such emotionally power-packed services are valid expressions of worship to God. While I am not claiming that such services are necessarily invalid expressions, I wonder what basis we could have to consider that our obligation to give glory to God is somehow linked to the level of emotional satisfaction we receive. The issue extends, though, beyond appealing to the believers in our midst. Keeping in line with the evangelical capitalism theme, we also find that the popularity argument is used as justification for why we must maintain such dynamic forms of worship. Given that the typical non-believer is wary of showing up to church, so it is argued, we must strive to make their experience as comfortable, pleasant, and exciting as possible. Otherwise we run the risk of scaring them off or, at the very least, boring them to the point where they want nothing to do with Christianity. I understand the motivation for such evangelical marketing, as couched within the tenets of evangelical capitalism, but I wonder how sound such motivations are theologically. S. M. Hutchens has a recent post at Mere Comments titled, Attractive Worship, in which he relates an experience he and his wife had while attending a worship service at the church of his youth. He states,
We didn’t like it, not one little bit. It’s not simply that it impressed us as orgiastic—for that there might be some justification—but as shallow, stupid, irreverent, and ugly. Responsive to popular taste? No question about it, just as any entertainment enterprise must be to remain in business. This was the religious equivalent of AM radio. (emphasis added)
I suspect it’s been a while since Hutchens has listened to AM radio, but the point is clear that he considered the music in the service to be primarily directed at satisfying popular tastes. But, you may ask, if such a service appeals to non-believers, what better reason could we have to utilize such a powerful tool? Evangelical Capitalism 101. Hutchens answers this criticism albeit with a slight twist. He explains that having church with a bottom-line mentality will necessarily marginalize certain sectors of society. He states,
What of the people who likewise need Christ, but are horrified and embarrassed by the loud, crude, simplistic, and juvenile performances they meet at churches like this, and who, if Christ is to be met at them, will never meet him there, and are thus placed in danger of going to hell in the same handbasket that has just been used to transport heavenwards those graced with arrested development? This is to say that the service-of-worship-as-attraction-evangelism knife cuts both ways—there is always a backstroke of repulsion dysangelism. To note that those who are sent scampering off by the liturgical ordeals they must face in such churches are only a minority, like people who favor classical music, is no argument in its favor. To endorse attraction evangelism is in fact an attempt to justify such programs theologically by asserting that they attract far more sinners than they repel, which is no justification at all.
Perhaps in focusing so closely on what appeals to both the believer and the non-believer we have missed the point of worship itself. Please understand that this concern has nothing to do with whether a “traditional” form of worship is better than a contemporary form or whether one should show up for church wearing a tie rather than a baseball cap. To see this issue at such a superficial level is to miss the point entirely. Consider that the two greatest commandments, per Jesus himself, were to love the Lord God and to love our neighbor. Before we can love our neighbor we must love God. And before we can love God we must understand that we are obligated to love Him. J. Budziszewski considers such an understanding to be something we can’t not know. However, even though we are inherently aware of such an obligation, I think we can misunderstand the implications of such an obligation. Do we approach worship with a Biblical understanding of who God is, and what He is owed? For an alternative viewpoint on Hutchens' Please Me, O Lord article, read Bill Wallo’s, A Love Song for a Savior, at Walloworld. Update: In the Sidesspot post, Why We're Here, Mark Sides states,
Happiness, or more accurately joy, is our response to God--not the duty he owes us. We owe Him worship, love and fealty. God owes us nothing. He gives us lots, but he owes us nothing. He's the alpha and omega. We're the created things.
HT: Walloworld


Anonymous said...

I haven't witnessed the "sexualization" you mentioned--or maybe I just didn't realize it--but I have to say that I cannot stand that new kind of music (some sort of soft rock) they are playing in churches. I didn't go to church for 30 years. I recently started going to a church--and I have to tell you--I absolutely have to fight myself to go to the worship service because of that music. It seems so shallow.

Barry said...

I have a difficult time separating my emotion from my life. God made me an emotional being. Now, that doesn't mean that my worship should be solely based on emotion, but I don't understand why displays of such are bad.

I have a feeling many of us would have been uncomfortable with a Jewish worship service in the Old Testament.

Rusty said...

Hi Barry,

Let me reiterate that I am not advocating we ignore the emotional aspect of our psyche. I agree that we are emotional beings as well as rational beings. My complaint has more to do with not only our tendency to over-emphasize the emotional, but to attribute to it supreme importance. In other words, I think we've put the cart before the horse.

While I would probably feel uncomfortable in an OT Jewish worship service, does that discomfort, in and of itself, indicate cultural differences or theological misunderstanding? I posit that it's a little of both... and if we can strip away the cultural differences we should be able to understand the basis of worship. Once that basis is understood, we should then be able to enter into worship and enjoy the emotional aspect as intended. But, I'll have to admit, I have yet to get to that point.

Barry said...

I certainly agree, and even as an evangelical Protestant I struggle with the balance. I appreciate you willingness to be open. Others seem to be more rigid, even to the point of judging the "worship attitude" of other believers based on outward appearance.

That is dangerous ground.

Anonymous said...

Brother Rusty has brought out a much needed truth in this latest blog but the only criticism I have is that he apologizes all over himself for standing up for the truth.

The real problem this blog brings into relief is that the evangelical church here in the US and actually worldwide has lost touch with sound and in depth Biblical teaching of any kind. The mega-churches are at least 75% all charismatic. That being said the rest of the evangelical church has the same paucity of Biblical teaching. This phenomena of sensual(natural) worship started some time ago. To drop to the bottom line and shorten this the whole phenomena is that believers today have not learned the difference between the natural man and the spiritual man. Things are opposite from what people think. The natural man is "earthly and sensual" The spiritual man is logical and uses the frontal lobe to think and determine the will of God and Christian practice and doctrine from the Word of God. The emotions are not sinful but they are the last thing that we should have lead us. Emotions are too often influenced by our corrupt wills and the evil one. Worship was never intended to be sensual or natural. This outrageous example of this woman singing this
sensual and emotional song drags Christianity down to the lowest and in fact heathen level. All of this is an effect of Christianity ignoring the Scriptures wholesale on the Holy Spirit in the church and the ministry of women and the whole idea of NT worship which has allways been and should be the domain of the Spirit and the mind. I believe our minds are spirit and we mush never divorce the Spirit from the Word as in fact Scripture never does. I put these comments under the anonymous heading because I didnt have the time to fill out the blog form or etc. Send comments to