Another powerful thought from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful book, The Jesus Way (Here’s the first): our modern styles/forms of worship resemble Baal worship. That’s a tough proposition to swallow, but I think he’s on to something. Something that desperately needs addressing.
In discussing the story of Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Peterson characterizes Baal worship as “worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshiper as its baseline.” Baal worship says, “You want religious feelings? I will give them to you.” Baal worship is only concerned that it “be interesting, relevant, and exciting–that I ‘get something out of it.'”
The parallels between Baal worship and our modern forms of worship are concerning. Peterson goes on to note that one of the most commonly used phrases in our churches in North American today is “let’s have a worship experience.” Indeed, churches have even begun calling their worship services “worship experiences.”
In a ‘worship experience,’ a person sees something that excites him or her and goes about putting spiritual wrappings around it… Worship becomes a movement from what I see or experience or hear, to prayer or celebration or discussion in a religious setting. Individual feelings trump the word of God. Biblically formed people of God do not use the term ‘worship’ as a description of experience, such as ‘I can have a worship experience with God on the golf course.’ What that means is, ‘I can have religious feelings reminding me of good things, awesome things, beautiful things nearly any place.’ Which is true enough. The only thing wrong with that statement is its ignorance, thinking that such experience makes up what the Christian church calls worship.
As a worship leader in an evangelical church (and as someone who has lead worship for most of my life in this context) this strikes me as self-evidently true. I know what it is like to build song lists for worship services with my mind wholly set on the experience of emotion that it will create in everyone in attendance. And if it wasn’t for God’s intervention a few years ago I would be totally immersed in the “worship experience” culture.
I don’t want to be too critical of this culture because I am still part of it in many ways and the people involved in creating these “worship experiences” are, in my experience, almost always good-hearted, God-loving people who want to worship God with deep emotional passion. This is good. Worshiping God can, and often does, engage our emotions. Emotions are part of what it means to be a whole human being.
The problem enters when emotions and experiences become the baseline. In Baalism feelings call the shots.
How does this contrast with biblically formed worship of the Triune God? Here’s Peterson again:
The biblical usage…talks of worship as a response to God’s word in the context of the community of God’s people. Worship in the biblical sources and in liturgical history is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all. The experience develops out of the worship, not the other way around. Isaiah saw, heard, and felt on the day he received his prophetic call while at worship in the temple–but he didn’t go there in order to have a ‘seraphim experience.’
Ludwig Feuerbach, the great critic of Christianity from the 19th century, put his finger on the problem. He argued that the problem with all religion is that all theology is really just anthropology. What humans end up doing when they talk about God is project themselves onto the heavens. God ends up being made in our image.
The great theologian Karl Barth agreed. Theology, when done in this fashion, is really only “talking about man in a loud voice.”
The answer to this is grounding worship in the word of God. Or more specifically, the Word of God himself, Jesus. Worship is a response to the Word. Worship is not a human gathering in which a bunch of like-minded individuals get together and hope to entice God to come and be present. True worship recognizes that God is not the guest but the host. God has invited us to come and be a part of his wonderful, Triune life. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is what makes entry into the Triune life possible.
This is precisely why our worship must always be Christocentric. Centered on Christ. Unfortunately, worship experiences by their very name concede that the center of worship is human beings and their feelings. (Here’s an easy test: pull up most any modern worship chorus and circle every time the words “I”, “Me”, “My.” Then note how many times God is mentioned. You may be surprised.)
The way of the cross must be our guide. Sacrifice. Giving yourself away. Not searching for a spiritual high (spiritual consumerism). Christ must be the anchor. Christ must set the agenda. Christ must be our host if our worship. It is Christ’s glory that is sung of. It is his word that is preached. It is his table that we are invited to. It is his flesh and blood that we are invited to feast on.