August 27, 2012
When Worship is Wrong
A new study finds large worship gatherings can be chemically addictive, and why it is a serious problem for the church.
In 1515, Michelangelo completed a sculpture of Moses. The marble figure depicts an old but very muscular Moses with the Ten Commandments under his arm and a billowing beard. But tourists are often shocked to see what appear to be devilish horns protruding from Moses’ head.
The horns can be traced to a mistranslation of the Bible in the 5th Century. The story from Exodus 34 says that after Moses met with the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people were afraid because, “the skin of his face shone.” The Hebrew word for a ray or beam of light was mistranslated into Latin as “horns.” So, when Michelangelo read his Bible he believed the people were frightened because Moses had grown horns while meeting with God on the mountain.
Today we no longer depict Moses with horns, but a misunderstanding of his mountaintop experience remains all too common. According to the Apostle Paul in the 2 Corinthians 3, Moses did not hide his face because the people were frightened, but to hide the fact that the glory of God was fading away. Whatever transformation he experienced in God’s presence on the mountain was temporary, and the veil hid its transient nature. Moses’ mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God’s presence-but it did not bring lasting transformation.
Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multimedia theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. Many of us ascend this mountain every Sunday morning wanting to have an experience with God, and many of us leave with a degree of genuine transformation. We feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.”
No doubt many, like Moses, have an authentic encounter with God through these events. But new research indicates another explanation for our spiritual highs.
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 (like Moses’) 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.
The New Testament emphasizes a different model of transformation. Rather than seeking external experiences, Jesus and his Apostles speak of an internal communion with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory that Moses experienced on Sinai, the Apostle Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another,” and that this comes from the Spirit. This transformation is not from the outside working in, but from the inside working out. To encounter the glory of God no longer requires ascending a mountain, but learning to embrace a divine mystery-”Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Why then are we so tempted to abandon the new covenant, inside-out model of transformation for the inferior old covenant, outside-in strategy? The reason is simple--an internal communion with God through the Spirit cannot be packaged, commoditized, and marketed to religious consumers. It is far easier for us to create mountains than shepherd people toward the inner life of divine communion.
The problem, of course, is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. If we have an ongoing, internal communion with Christ, then our gatherings will be where we reveal the continual worship that marks our lives. However, if we have no real communion with Christ through his Spirit, we will come to worship seeking a transient dose of glory to carry us along, and we will demand these external events to permanently transform us--something God never intended them to do. We may draw people to our mountaintops with promises of transformation and a genuine encounter with God, but we must ask whether they leave these experiences radiating the unfading glory of the Lord, or merely sprouting the horns of consumerism.