Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Worship - looking for the next hit?

Now I know where I’ve been going wrong. All the time I thought I was leading a church, but have just discovered that instead I could be running ‘powerful purveyors of emotional religious experience.’ Puzzled? Let me explain...

An intriguing new piece of research, reported last week by Christianity Today makes the suggestion that the experience of many worshippers at American megachurches is akin to that of addicts looking for their next high. You can read the full paper, written by University of Washington research staff here.

The article draws on previous work by American sociologist Randall Collins, and begins with the hypothesis that what drives and motivates humans is their desire for ‘emotional energy,’ defined by Collins as ‘confidence and enthusiasm.’ It’s important to note that EE is not presented as just a narcissistic quest for warm and happy feelings; the writers also note the theories of Emile Durkheim, suggesting that EE has a ‘powerful and motivating effect upon the individual,’ which could lead to a change in moral behaviour.

But the Washington researchers also  offer the theory that our feelings of EE are closely linked to our levels of oxytocin, a hormone related to a variety of actions including social recognition, pair bonding and tribal behaviour, including bonding with insiders and the distrust of outsiders. And having established these factors, they then get to the heart of their argument, with the suggestion that megachurch worship effectively offers an ‘oxytocin cocktail’ to those attending, through its carefully choreographed blend of a large number of people, the sharing together of an intense emotional mood and time spent in the presence of a charismatic senior leader.

The sort of techniques referred to in the article may be familiar to many of us. The music is upbeat and loud, not unlike a concert, the lighting is low, all around people will be raising hands and swaying along. In some venues, large screens will even project images of the most intense worshippers in the auditorium, reminding those present of the appropriate response to be making at any given moment. The impact on those present is often deeply intense, and reflected in the testimony of many interviewed for the purposes of the research: ‘Expressions relating to the sensory experience were common—tasting seeing, feeling, touching, listening, feeding, thirsting—and words related to the emotions—loving, longing, feeling, moving, vulnerability, wanting, crying, joy—were not only peppered throughout the interviews, but rather were the driving force behind nearly every description and often the punch line to every story.’

But it also needs to be noted that the article isn’t just about the experience of gathered worship. Those attending megachurches speak passionately about the friendliness and love of others in their community, and also bear witness to a strong sense of purpose they’ve found concerning their personal morality.

So are there any lessons we can learn from this? The suggestion that emotional hysteria, and even manifestations which could be labelled as ‘signs and wonders’, can be generated through manipulation techniques is hardly new news. Inducing fear, failure or hopelessness before introducing the answer, the effect of a large crowd, these are techniques which have been employed by some of the most cruel and unscrupulous political regimes our world has seen. There’s no place for such practices in Christian worship.

But we need to be careful not to dismiss the experience of megachurch worshippers too readily. Reading their stories, I was reminded of the words of Barth in Church Dogmatics, VI/2: “The Christian community, can and must be the scene of many human activities which are new and supremely astonishing to many of its members as well as to the world because they rest on an endowment with extraordinary capacities.”

This doesn’t mean that the experience of church is reduced down to offering an intense hit for spiritual adrenaline junkies. Discipleship, of course, needs to consist of the death of self and the forming of disciplines, as well as the ability to think in depth about issues of faith. In his moving book, A Churchless Faith, Alan Jamieson has chronicled the tragedy of those who have walked away from apparently successful evangelical and Pentecostal churches, disillusioned and stifled with no safe place to talk about their doubts and questions. But surely Christian worshippers also need to feel some sense of intimacy with God, some inkling of having been in his presence, when they gather with others in the community of believers. This doesn’t have to mean making judgements on the worship service on the basis of ‘how I felt’ or ‘what I got out of it.’ But if we’re called to love God with our hearts, souls and minds, our emotions need to be impacted by our faith as well.

I’ll leave the final word to James Smith, from his excellent book on worship, Desiring the Kingdom: ‘While Hollister and Starbucks have taken hold of our heart with tangible, material liturgies, Christian schools are “fighting back” by giving young people Christian ideas. We hand young people (and old people!) a “Christian worldview” and then tell them, “There, that should fix it.” But such strategies are aimed at the head and thus miss the real target: our hearts, our loves, our desires. Christian education as formation needs to be a pedagogy of desire.’

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