Thursday, July 12, 2007

On Worship "Experience"

We are in the homestretch of VBS at Woodward Park. This year's tour of "Avalanche Ranch" has been a wonderful excursion for our kids as they have learned that God is real (the story of Rahab), God is with us (the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan), God is strong (the felling of Jericho's walls), God is awesome (the death and resurrection of Jesus), and God is in charge (the healing of Naaman).

Additionally, God is good as God has blessed us with three more baptisms thus far this week, keeping the pace of two baptisms a week since Easter still intact!

It warms a dad's heart to hear words like Trae uttered on the way home from VBS on Tuesday night: "Daddy, I love VBS!"

I love VBS too, although this year, my assignment has been to teach an adult class. We have been thinking through and discussing the tension that exists between church and culture and the subtle ways Satan uses the culture to impact and influence the way we do church.

Eugene Peterson in his book The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way speaks to the very tension in an episode as old as Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). Read how Peterson accurately compares the quest for "experience" to the ancient idolatry of Baalism:

“Sensory participation is featured in Baalism. Images are required – the bolder, the more colorful, the more sensational, the better. Music and dance become the means for drawing persons out of their private diversities and merging them into a mass response…

‘Harlotry’ is the stock prophetic criticism of the worship of the people who are assimilated to Baalistic forms. While the prophetic accusation of ‘harlotry’ has a literal reference to the sacred prostitution of the Baal cult, it is also a metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passions of the worshipper as its baseline. ‘Harlotry’ is worship that says, ‘I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most arousing to you.’ A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible in Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshipper. Its canons are that it should be interesting, relevant, and exciting – that ‘I get something out of it.’

Baal’s Mount Carmel altar lacks neither action nor ecstasy. The 450 priests put on quite a show. But the altar comes up empty” (110).

“A frequently used phrase in North American culture that is symptomatic of Baalistic tendencies in worship is ‘let’s have a worship experience.’ It is the Baalistic perversion of ‘let us worship God.’ It is the difference between cultivating something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. In a ‘worship experience,’ a person sees something that excites him or her and goes about putting spiritual wrappings around it. A person experiences something in the realm of dependency, anxiety, love, loss or joy and a connection is made with the ultimate. 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 (or in my garden).’ 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 the statement is its ignorance, thinking that such experience makes up what the Christian church calls worship.

The biblical usage is very different. It 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” (111).