Growing up, my mother frequently reminded me about how easily our greatest strengths can become our greatest weaknesses. When it comes to worship, one of the incredible blessings of times of corporate worship is that they can be both meaningful and transformational. The downside, however, is that such experiences can become addictive to the degree that worship is no longer able to transform us into the selfless image of Christ. Instead, worship transforms us into selfish people whose relationship to worship is like that of a junkie with a drug.
A few years back, Skye Jethani described this process in more detail, highlighting a haunting explanation for how and why this happens. Here’s a brief excerpt from Jethani’s article.
A University of Washington study has found that megachurch worship experiences actually trigger an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that can become chemically addictive. The same has been found at large sporting events and concerts, but attenders to these gatherings don’t usually attribute the “high” to God.
“The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshipers on large screens, and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch individuals on an emotional level … serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences,” said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the study.
The problem with these mountaintop experiences, whether legitimate … or fabricated, is that the transformation does not last. In a few days time, or maybe as early as lunchtime, the glory begins to fade. The mountaintop experience with God, the event we were certain would change our lives forever, turns out to be another fleeting spiritual high. And to hide the lack of genuine transformation, we mask the inglorious truth of our lives behind a veil, a façade of Christian merchandise or busyness, until we can ascend the mountain again and be recharged.
This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade. As one church member interviewed for the University of Washington study said, “God’s love becomes … such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit. … You can’t wait to get involved to get the high from God.” In response, churches are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. But if lasting transformation is our goal, mountaintops–even God-ordained ones–will never suffice.
Question for Reflection
How does this description of worship becoming addictive resonate with your own experiences of worship? Have you found yourself chasing the next worship high? What has come of that chase?
Instead of drawing us further into ourselves and transforming us into more selfish people, true worship draws us out of ourselves and transforms us into selfless servants of God and others. In that sense, worship can be quite dangerous, as Mark Labberton describes in the following video.
Questions for Reflection
1. Labberton asserts that “worship that takes God seriously puts me and my world in some other location than in the center of the stage.” As you think back over your experiences in worship and in church, where have those experiences tended to place you on the stage: in the center or to the side? What practices tend to put you and your world in the center? What practices place you and your world to the side?
2. If “faithful worship is dangerous to selfishness, it’s dangerous to self-interest, it’s dangerous to the idolatries of self, it’s dangerous to the small-worldness of my own interests,” then in what ways does such worship challenge you?
3. If a genuine encounter with God “is going to be disruptive, it’s going to mean having to live in a new way, with a new agenda, and with a different vision,” in what specific ways might God be disrupting your life, inviting you to take up a new agenda with a different vision?
Instead of a Show
Take a few moments to listen to this convicting and challenging song by Jon Foreman and reflect on what it would mean to fully commit yourself to surrendering to God by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
Worship: Loving What Matters Most Playlist
If you find that music speaks to your soul and shapes who you are, take some time to listen to this playlist, with carefully chosen songs added each week of the sermon series to help you dwell on its themes.