Like many churches, the assembly of the saints I attend splits right down the middle.
On the elevated stage in front of green lights sit the band and the three singers, jumping and shouting and strumming and humming along to the latest tunes from the hottest worship bands. The churchgoers standing upfront seem captured by the experience of it all. They raise their hands and shout and clap. Meanwhile, the rest of us stand reserved and awkward, gripping our coffee cups a whole lot tighter than the worship set is gripping us. Those are my people. I’m a part of group two.
I guiltily sway as if I know I should be more into this but am simply not. Sometimes when the music quiets enough I softly sing along but with noticeably less heart than my congregational counterparts. The mystic ecstasy the worship seems to bring on for others feels like something I should experience—yet not only do I feel disconnected from it, I don’t even know how to get connected. So I, along with many others, nibble my donut and excuse myself to the bathroom and wait for the worship section of the service to be over.
I know I’m not alone. From online commentary, many others feel the same way.
The more cynical have taken this discomfort and subsequently condemned the pop-star-adjacent, evangelical worship complex that’s currently king-pinned by Elevation, Hillsong, and Maverick City. The current worship ringleaders definitely make it easy for people who feel like me to do that. Is the spiritually overwhelming worship set just a condemnation for the more subdued? Is it even real? A quick yes and an emphatic no could easily find their way to my lips. But I’m not sure this ecstatic expression of the experience of God can be tossed aside so easily.
My Own Hands Held High
Not too long ago I counted myself among the first group. I entered easily into the crowd who clapped and shouted and always felt they truly experienced God during worship. One time I stood next to the high school friend I intellectually bludgeoned into coming to church. He held his coffee and stared at the screen and mouthed the words while I jumped and put my hands up and down, knelt, clapped, and really felt the presence of God. You could hear the bass shake your stomach and the makeshift mats would sometimes slip underneath you. I loved that.
It felt sad to see my friend so uncomfortable. More so because I knew he was uncomfortable not just with, you know, everything about the band/worship/mystical ecstasy taking place around him, but with the very idea of God. Not too long before that Sunday, he and I had sat on his porch as it started to rain and he cried along with the sky, explaining how he always felt alienated from the church and didn’t know how to feel God or believe in him in any real way. He said there was something broken in his brain that made him incapable of faith or possibly something broken about God that made him unwilling to answer my friend’s prayers.
For him, the worshipful ecstasy around us didn’t just signify a particular experience of God he couldn’t relate to; it signified a God who spoke to everyone but him.
I figured he had an experience of the church I would never understand.
Finding Myself in Group Two
For many in the church as of late—those “deconstructing” or the “exvangelicals” or, if you’re of a more sardonic tone, the “progressives”—the experience of church, I imagine, is similar to my friend’s and now mine. I don’t consider myself an exvangelical mostly because I don’t relate to any of their narratives of losing faith. My experience of losing my evangelical faith aligned much closer to what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul”—that time when God’s presence evaporates like the sun does in the evening and leaves the world a good bit darker, much less navigable, and certainly more confusing.
My dark night was triggered by a couple of weeks in a psychiatric hospital and a chronic illness that just kept getting worse. The effect of it on my faith was evident in every touchpoint between me and God—but was especially evident on a Sunday morning. The strength of the darkness shattered my ability to jump and clap and sing and feel the presence of God because that presence now appeared dangerous, unreliable, and maybe a touch manipulative.
The evangelical sacrament of the worship song, which had previously sustained me through so many long nights and lonely mornings, felt like a strangely powerful loss. I found myself, like my old high school friend, standing spiritually askew on Sunday morning amid the worshipful ecstasy, wondering if something was broken in my brain or in the God I worshipped.
The Uncontrollable Voice of God
Many exvangelicals write off the worship phenomenon. In their defense, these worship bands do themselves no favors. Their songs oscillate from the cringey to the psychologically inept to the emotionally repressive (“I’m gonna sing/in the middle of the storm/louder and louder/you’re gonna hear my praises roar” sure sounds like the anthem of a rattled soul trying to asphyxiate the bad feelings with God feelings). It’s not hard to sneer at the whole thing and many of the caustic remarks are, in fact, true; evangelicals really will scream Elevation songs instead of going to therapy.
But the snide remarks that I’ve made, and that those deconstructing make online, just might hide a more frightening feeling. At least, they do for me. Because when I stand up at the worship leaders beckoning at about 10:47 a.m. on Sunday morning after the intro video, I feel the absence of the God who would once meet me here. I wonder were all those intense experiences of God’s love real? They felt so real at the time, but now they seem so distant and shallow. Were they just generations of my own brain seeking quick catharsis, a kind of spiritual heroin delivered not by needle into my arm but by pleasant-sounding chords into my brain stem?
I don’t know.
The exvangelicals would tell me yes. The worship leader up front would tell me no.
But in my dismissal of the worship phenomenon, I sense a new kind of fundamentalism wiggling in, one that suggests that God cannot speak that way, that the folks getting into it around me are just lying to themselves, that the band is participating unknowingly in spiritual manipulation.
St. John, whose writings on the dark night might shed some real light on our modern discourse about deconstruction, would suggest otherwise. He would say that the moments I felt the presence of God to a Hillsong tune may have been tainted by a desire for catharsis more than for God, but that they were, in fact, real experiences of God. Flawed, somewhat ajar, perhaps unsustainable, but real nonetheless.
He might also suggest that the silence of the divine that many of us now hear in the bridge being repeated yet again is an invitation to allow God to reveal himself to us when and how he wills. Previously, I scheduled God’s clear presence to arrive at 10:50 a.m. on Sunday at the exact moment “Graves into Gardens” hit its sonic peak. But now his silence may be asking me to trust that he will reveal himself when he wills it. That invitation—if it is indeed that—is scary. If God gets to choose when he speaks, he gets to choose to speak in a worship chorus. And it’s not just the when. The same thing goes for the how of his arrival. Our experience of God’s silence in the praise song may also require us to allow that God is revealing himself in that cringey Maverick City tune, but perhaps not revealing himself to me.
St. John believes that the silence of God must be patiently endured and accepted, not avoided and condemned where it appears. The silence of God isn’t evidence that anyone is doing anything wrong. So the worship leader may be right—and the cheering and clapping folks in the crowd may be just fine. The voice of God is arriving in the sonic waves of the lead guitar even when we can’t hear it.
So perhaps if you feel like I do, part of group two, surviving through worship when others seem to be meeting God there, then another path presents itself. This Sunday you and I—ex-evangelicals who arrived at this moment through different roads—can stand up out of our foldable seats and listen to the worship leader slip out of key and accept that the silence we feel underneath the song is an opportunity to obey a God whose love manifests in a million different ways to a billion different people. To some, this Sunday his love may manifest through another rendition of a Passion song. To us, his love may speak without noise, painfully and slowly, more like a quiet breeze through a forest than a drum beat on a stage, but no less real.
Cover image by Brandi Alexandra.