Spectacle and Transcendence

photo-1442975433132-cb9580b88538In the worship circles I tend to orbit, the internet has been abuzz lately about the impending demise of modern worship, particularly “megachurch worship.” The argument hovers around the idea that more and more people are rejecting flashy production and spectator worship, and are thirsting for something theologically deeper and more communally engaging.

Now, it’s not my intent to enter into that debate in this blog post. Instead, I thought I would offer an opinion about the nature of transcendence. Not God’s transcendent nature, but more so our thirst for it. Hopefully, this might shed some light on the conversation.

Thirsting for Something

We long for transcendence. We long for experiences that take us beyond the mere material, corporeal world. We thirst for things beyond this earthly plane, things that lift us up and give us a sense of hope and wholeness and acceptance and assurance. We were made this way. And this universal longing is ultimately a good thing, because it serves as a divining rod of sorts, pointing us to the One True God.

But we are selfish beings, living in an increasingly narcissistic culture. And we take that cultural narcissism into our worship services in ways that we don’t even understand. We bring our angst, our neediness, our consumer-driven world views, our egocentric natures, into Sunday morning. Instead of seeking communion with God, we seek experiences of God. Sometimes, we revere the experience more than we revere the Person. And when that happens, it can be a dangerous thing.

As worship leaders, we feel the obligation to meet that corporate need for transcendent experiences. In fact, we delight in these very experiences. And that too is a good thing. Because as worship leaders, our “job” is to help people come to the Throne in worship. More so, it is our God-breathed privilege to lead people in worship.

But transcendence can’t be manufactured. No matter how we try, we can’t program it, design it, or will it to happen. Transcendence is a great mystery, born of the Holy Spirit.

Art and Spectacle

So we turn to the arts, which are transcendent in nature. And using the arts, we create spectacle, because that’s what we know how to do. We compose amazing songs and assemble talented bands and get sensational vocalists to sing them. We employ mind-blowing sound and lighting and multimedia systems. We incorporate theatrical and visual arts into our productions. Because we are artists, and because this is a natural part of how we express, we create great spectacle. And honestly, we’re really good that this. We have become quite sophisticated with how to stir emotion and impress people.

Now, I’m not saying that transcendence doesn’t happen in the midst of these larger worship experiences. It most certainly does. What I am saying is that we are sometimes too quick to create spectacle, too quick to want to “wow” our people, in the name of God. If we—as worship leaders and pastors and leaders in our churches—are brutally honest with ourselves, we would admit this to be too often true.

Settling For Less

Here is my fear: In the midst of all the smoke machines and laser lights and hi-def video loops, we may be settling for something less than true transcendence, something less than God on God’s terms. Are we inadvertently teaching our people to settle for spectacle? Have we as worship leaders become, in the eyes of our people, simply purveyors of religious experiences?

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that worship has less to do with what we experience and feel, and more so with God’s experience of us. Perhaps we need to preach a more full definition of worship, one that begins in prayer closets and extends to soup kitchens. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the power of the arts is only as good as the power of God through them. Perhaps we need to remind our people that the Gospel is an invitation to selflessnessand that our own personal preferences are simply amusing diversions along the road to dying to self.

I invite your comments and thoughts.

[Photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com.]

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4 thoughts on “Spectacle and Transcendence

  1. . . . as if we, by our human will, can create God’s transcendence, as if it is an experience to be felt rather than an act of obedience to love him in the face of what cannot be seen, heard, or felt, let alone imagined by our puny human brains. Most of us wouldn’t know transcendence if it were to bite us on the nose. God is not an experience. He is life itself. We cannot make him in our image. We must make ourselves in his, by crucifying our flesh and letting Jesus live in and through us. And most of us spend most of our lives pretending to crucify our flesh. Loving God must cost us something and if we are not feeling the loss of and pain of giving up parts of us as we worship, we are not worshiping Him. We are worshiping ourselves. You’ve made a very insightful and astute analysis of modern worship.

  2. This is very interesting. Thank you for your perspective. I admit that it is very easy for my flesh to get caught up in the “emotionalism” of some particular styles of this modern day worship…and I have easily mistaken that as a “call from God” that I belong in that place where I can have that experience, a “high” I have called it, again and again. And again. Being an artist who really likes pretty things and colorful lights, that can be quite the distraction. I have had to ask myself, what am I really after here? How biblical is this? I wonder if that is on the border of false teaching? And ultimately, God where do YOU want me to worship.

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