Friday, September 03, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Golden Calf 2.0

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

It’s been years since I paid a great deal of attention to the charismatic movement, but David de Bruyn’s post on The Pentecostalization of Christian Worship at is a real eye-opener.

Tom: Mr. de Bruyn’s thesis is fairly simple: the current patterns of worship in the charismatic movement are not leading Christians within it anywhere good. Worse, these practices are catching on throughout the evangelical world. I’ve experienced them myself in my early twenties, but never really stopped to analyze the significant differences between the way charismatics engage in “worship”, and the historic patterns of worship across many other Christian traditions. Far more importantly, the charismatic approach differs radically from the patterns of worship we observe in the scriptures.

What did you think of the post, IC?

Immanuel Can: So many things … where shall we start?

The Heart of the Matter

Well, to the heart of the matter: what is “worship”, biblically speaking, Tom? I ask because it seems today that evangelicals in general have not the foggiest idea anymore: they use it as a synonym for “singing time” or “preaching time”, or any major or formal service of the local church. Is there any loss of anything important if churches use the word that way?

Tom: Yes, there certainly is. I think Mr. de Bruyn is astute enough to flag it in the article, but we have talked about this for years. David de Bruyn talks a fair bit about commonalities in the patterns of worship between, say, Roman, Lutheran, Reformed and evangelical believers. Each of these traditions involves a series of faith-based responses to revelations from God about his own character. That, to my mind, is absolutely correct. God is the center of our worship, and once Christ is revealed in our Bibles, it is through Christ that our worship of the Father takes form and really blooms. That view of worship encompasses the worship practices of David, Abraham, Moses and so on, as described in our Old Testaments. They confirm us in what we are doing.

So then, the word “worship” is not an unexplored category in scripture, about which we can make up any notions we like. There is this thing there that Abraham did, David did, Moses did, and we can do too.

IC: And it has nothing to do with singing “praise songs” or hearing a nice little message on Sunday. But that’s what the majority in evangelicalism truly think it is. That’s why they’ve named their in-house bands “worship teams”. And that’s why they call the pastor’s homily “Sunday morning worship” on the sign on their front lawn.

We have lost worship. We are really not doing it, except on occasion and by accident. And that reminds me so very much of Josiah’s day. The people of God had lost the word of God … and where was it? It was under layers of dust and debris in the house of God. In just the same way, today, worship is buried under layers of neglect and misunderstanding, even in the house of the Lord.

Tom: That is so true.

Changing the Meaning

IC: So when we talk about what is going on in evangelical churches today under the name of “worship”, we’re talking about no such thing at all. For all real intents and purposes, the people of God currently spend almost no time on actual worship, and when they do, they don’t even know what they’re doing. That’s the hard truth.

Tom: I absolutely agree, and so does David de Bruyn. He writes, “Charismatic theologians have changed the meaning of the worship service.” Here’s his thesis:

“Biblically and historically, a worship service is where God’s people respond corporately to what God has revealed about Himself. In charismatic worship theology, one is not so much in pursuit of a response, as one is in pursuit of an experience.”

I suspect that’s exactly right. In charismatic “worship”, it’s all about me: how I feel, whether I’m having a good time, what I’m experiencing. As de Bruyn puts it, “The Pentecostal approach has parallels to the sensual and ecstatic worship of paganism.”

Ugh. Golden calf time, folks.

IC: Absolutely right.

Making It Practical

If I may, Tom, let me try and make this practical for readers. Suppose I say, “I absolutely worship my wife.” (Now, that’s not literal, of course. But let’s just think of what it should make you expect.) So, you say to me, “That’s nice to hear: but why? What do you find so great about her?”

“Well,” I respond, “She’s been a real advantage to me. She works hard, makes me tons of money, and I have a lot of nice stuff because of her.”

“Okay,” you say, “But that’s about what she does for you. You said you worship her. What’s so great about her?”

And I answer, “Well, the way she makes me feel. When she’s around, I really get excited and wound up. I bliss out. She’s the greatest high I know.”

Okay, now: what are you going to think of my claim to worship my wife? If you’re smart, you’re going to know that in the first place I’m nothing but a selfish pig whose real appreciation of my wife is limited to what I can get her to do for me. In the second, you’re going to see that I’m also a complete narcissist, who thinks that loving her is about winding up my own emotions and getting my own jollies. And in both cases, I hope, you’re going to be smart enough to realize that I don’t worship my wife; I worship myself, and appreciate my wife only for what I can get out of her.

Tom: I get that. There’s a huge difference between appreciating what a person is in and of themselves, and enjoying the benefits you are able to squeeze out of them.

Looking for Clues

IC: Now, when we say that we worship God, if we mean anything else but appreciating God for who he is, as he is, admiring the greatness and goodness of his character, and longing for his company and for him to be triumphant, then we have no clue what worship is. If we are preoccupied only with the blessings we get or how we feel, then what we are worshiping is ourselves — and nothing more — even if we use all the religious lingo in the world.

Tom: So what are we saying here? That the charismatic form of worship service is self-indulgent and non-worshipful? I agree. It’s a persistent, deliberate stimulation of the body. That is very different from what individuals worshiping in Spirit and truth experience when they come before the throne of God. It is not about working ourselves up to anything ecstatic. If anything, it is about consciously removing self from the experience and seeking to let the Lord guide what happens. Rather than letting loose what’s inside, true worship involves humbling and self-restraint.

IC: Yes, self-restraint. Now, gratitude is part of worship, and gratitude is often accompanied by strong feelings. But the minute we tip over into focus on our own enthusiasm and the passion of our own feelings themselves, instead of the deeds and character of the God who has made us so grateful, we’ve lost the spirit of worship. And I really think we need to be skeptical of the attitude that judges the quality of worship by nothing more than the strength of the emotions ginned up thereby.

Tom: There is a very specific body language that accompanies biblical worship, and it signals humility. Jacob bowed in worship over the head of his staff. The psalmist writes, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” David wrote, “All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust.” For this reason, Christian have historically knelt or bowed when engaged in worship. It’s not commanded, but it’s natural to the activity. Worship and dancing absolutely do not associate naturally in the same way.

Over-the-Top Language?

IC: David de Bruyn calls the ecstasy-seeking type of worship “pagan”, and identifies it with “steadily sedating the mind … through repetition ... consciously or unconsciously mimicking sexual stimulation and climax.” Do you think he’s over-the-top in using that kind of language?

Tom: Well, it is a grotesque thought, but unfortunately I don’t think he’s wrong; there are real and unavoidable similarities. I hope they are not conscious ...

IC: I don’t think they are, for most people, if I can guess. But I think they’re certainly parallel. The increasing of excitement, shortening of breath, increasing of activity, and especially the continual steps of heightening excitement are productive not of focused attention, or of understanding, or even gratitude. It seems to me that the whole experience is both sought for and assessed by the “high” it produces at the end, the emotional “climax” for the participant. Whether anything beyond that is done, or whether or not the Lord receives anything from it, are things left to chance.

Quenching the Spirit

But the current evangelical enthusiast has a comeback against this sort of critique, and the article’s author identifies it in his first paragraph. He writes, “Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit often includes the belief that spontaneity and extemporaneity represent yieldedness to the Spirit, whereas what is prepared, scripted or planned represents ‘the dead letter’ or ‘quenching the Spirit’.” This is a very important response for us to address, because it’s the first comeback from every defender of these current “worship” practices.

Their response is that traditional evangelical worship is dead, sad, dispirited, routine, unenthusiastic, devoid of heart, soul-killing and not worthy of the level of passion and commitment the Lord deserves. And the cure, we’re going to be told, is “a more Pentecostal spirit”. Enthusiasm, they will tell us, is the one thing charismatics have gotten right, and the main thing the rest of us have wrong. So they will invite us to be “more humble” and “less legalistic”, and “learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Pentecostal community what it means to have a heart for God”.

I guarantee that’s what we’re going to hear. What should we do with that sort of response, Tom?

Tom: Well, I hate to be always pointing us back to the Bible, but there isn’t anywhere else to look for answers, is there? When we search the New Testament, we do not find a single command or principle urging us to greater spontaneity and extemporaneity in worship. Rather, we find that the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading produce things like peace, patience and self-control, which are all rather, uh ... sedate. Nor do we have a single positive example of church gatherings characterized by charismatic excess. When the Holy Spirit shakes a building, it is not in response to music and ecstatic speech, but rather in response to intelligent, united prayer, the quoting of scripture, and speaking reverently of the Son of God. Doctrinally, Paul says, “all things should be done decently and in order”. And yes, that may sound dead, sad or routine compared to a rock concert or an orgy, but these are not things Christians are encouraged to emulate.

As for quenching the Spirit, if the Spirit of God is trying to produce self-control in my life while I am trying persistently to work myself into a state characterized by physical ecstasy and intellectual passivity, then I would say that’s exactly the sort of thing that would stifle or quench the Spirit’s work in my life.

A Noun with a Direct Object

IC: Well, I think that’s right. Worship — real worship — is what we call “a noun with a direct object”. That means that we always worship something … a particular thing. And worship biblically is induced by reason, and preeminently by a greater realization of the truth about God. One can’t just “worship” without a reason, or worship without a definite object in view. That’s one of the essential differences between worship and mere religious ecstasy. That’s actually one of the things the Pentecostal tradition has never gotten right. In fact, far from being a proof of big-heartedness, I’d say the inability to deal with emotions in a focused, purposeful way is a proof of immaturity and bad teaching. Consequently, charismatics are not at all a model to be admired or emulated.

Tom: Right. Decently and in order doesn’t have to mean joyless and lifeless, but it does mean we are not drifting off into unthinking, blissful euphoria. In worship, the mind is engaged, as Paul taught. “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also.” I like your choice of words there: focused and purposeful.

IC: One thing the author gets really right is this: that the “gateway drug”, the marijuana that gets you into the religious cocaine eventually, is emotive, content-thin music. That’s the door through which rampant emotionalism and individualism have entered most evangelical congregations. Somebody who is on the music team, somebody perhaps with less discernment than necessary, hears a tune he likes or a lyric that moves him emotionally, and ingenuously thinks, “This might make other Christians happy too … I’ll introduce it next Sunday.” So he does. Discerning Christians notice the thin or even heretical content, but are too polite to speak up. The elders just trust the music leader. Most other congregants don’t even notice what’s gone wrong. But the assembly has started to sing falsehoods cheerfully, and are starting to feel that the flavor of the songs ought also to be the tenor of their own Christian lives. Pentecostal songs make Pentecostal-style congregations.

Tom: And any phrase — even true statements — become meaningless when repeated incessantly, chorus after chorus. It’s almost a form of hypnotism ... de Bruyn calls it “sedation”.

IC: Right. Now, it might be true that many churches have also become legalistic and cold. But the cure for having “left your first love” is not to start loving yourself instead of God.

The Golden Calf

So the current “worship” style is not an answer to anything … it’s just an extension of the problem. What’s the cure?

Tom: Well, I don’t know that you can “cure” entire denominations and movements of anything. What you can do is steer clear of places that emphasize form over content in worship and, more importantly, keep watch over ourselves lest we too be tempted. We may think, “Oh, that could never happen here”, but bad practice sneaks in incrementally. A little self here, a little more self there, and before you know it, “the people sat down to drink and rose up to play”. And all of a sudden it’s, “Hey, where did that golden calf come from?”

IC: Well, what’s the big takeaway here, Tom?

Tom: One of the deepest held beliefs in a Pentecostal liturgical vision is the conviction that the Holy Spirit is present in worship. But the worship God seeks is not only in spirit but in truth. Nothing about this worship movement is legitimately derived from scripture or concordant with the practice of the early church.

That which is not in harmony with the word of God is not a product of the Spirit of God, who wrote it. And if the spiritual energy of charismatic “worship” is not coming from the Holy Spirit, then it’s coming from somewhere else.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

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