Consumer Christianity and the Danger of Seeking a Worship “Experience”

“If imitation is the highest form of flattery, than Christians have become pop culture’s most devoted admirers.”

Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity

Over the last several years, the language some Christians and churches use to describe what they do on Sunday mornings has shifted. Instead of attending or going to a worship service, they are participating in a worship experience. And while we adjust our language and worship forms and practices all the time as Christians in order to speak to our surrounding culture more effectively, we shouldn’t assume that these adjustments are neutral.

In other words, language matters. Words convey meaning. In subtle ways, language can both describe and shape our attitudes, perceptions, and expectations.

So if someone says their church can provide me with a meaningful worship “experience,” what am I to make of that? What am I being set up to expect? At the very least, I would expect to experience something. Presumably, that something is a Someone, namely, God. To talk of a worship “experience” seems to place the emphasis on having feelings that I perceive to be due to the presence of God. Even then, the focus doesn’t necessarily appear to be God himself but rather how God makes me feel.

Jonathan Aigner tells a story about the much loved Christian songwriter, the late Rich Mullins. A man at one of his concerts told Mullins afterward that he had really felt the Spirit during one particular song, especially right before the last chorus. “That wasn’t the Spirit,” said Mullins. “That was where the kick drum came in.”

That’s a pretty telling story, I think. Mullin’s acerbic response captures what is an often ambiguous and even confusing relationship not only between worship and music but between what worship is and what we expect or want from worship.

Years ago as an undergrad I had a friend through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship who was from Ontario and loved, when home, attending what was then called the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. She felt virtually unable to worship unless she was able to go there. That experience of worship, whatever else one makes of the Toronto Blessing phenomenon of the 90s, was central to her experience as a believer. Every other worship setting was measured against her experience of the charismatic phenomena she had come to know at this one church. That experience was worship.

Andrea Lucado, in an article for Relevant Magazine a few years ago called “Do You Worship Your Worship Experience?” writes:

I like churches with amazing worship bands—they make me feel good. I like churches where my friends go—they make me feel good. I like church to be entertaining and the sermon to be engaging—this makes me feel good.

I had to stop and ask myself, since when was worship about making me feel good?

That’s really what I am thinking about when we change the language about our Sunday congregational gatherings to that of a worship experience. My concern is that we make worship into what we feel or what we get out of the experience. And if we don’t feel something, then we conclude, perhaps unconsciously, that we haven’t genuinely worshipped.

This brings the quote from Skye Jethani at the top into play. By trying to make our times of worship into an experience that will provide people with a certain (positive? feel-good?) experience, are we not complicit with our consumer culture’s emphasis on our felt needs and desires? Put another way, does it not become about what satisfies me rather than what glorifies God? And doesn’t the emphasis on my “experience” threaten to blur the distinction between these two things? That is, isn’t God most glorified when I have what I describe as an experience of his presence? What difference is there between this and the old saying, “The customer is always right”?

It seems to me that the very word “experience,” when used to describe coming together for worship, places the focus not on God but on what we “get” from God. To paraphrase the title of Lucado’s article, “Do we worship our worship experience?”

This is what “consumer” Christianity is. It’s when worship becomes about what we experience, about what we want to feel. Let me even suggest that when this happens worship ceases to be Christian worship and turns into the idolatrous worship of self. God is pushed from the center and made into a means to an end–into an end I am seeking for me..

Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that emotions have no part in our worship. Nor am I saying we can’t experience the presence of God when we worship. I also am not saying we can’t bring our feelings to God in worship. But I do think we have to be discerning, however, so that we don’t mistake, as Mullins would say, the kick drum for the moving of the Spirit.

Now, I’d like to conclude this post with something a little more tongue-in-cheek. I first saw this video several years ago. I still think it hits the mark in an amusing way. If those of us who are Christians can’t laugh at ourselves, we’ve gotten too serious for our own good.

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