Experience: Analyzing a Supreme Value of Modern Worship

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought5 Comments

Any time you want to go deep quickly, I’ve found this question to be one of the most helpful of analytical grids: “What are the values which shape our practice?”  This single question is applicable in so many sectors of human life, and it is penetrating in its findings.

I am a lover of and believer in modern worship.  When the contemporary worship movement began in the 60s, and when it blossomed into what many now call modern worship in the 90s, I believe that the Holy Spirit was behind this fresh wind.  I believe that God was stirring things up in American/Western worship to awaken us to deficiencies, lopsidedness, and overly hardened practices.

However, every human movement is flawed because it is human, and many times these flaws can be traced back to underlying values, either imported from without or manufactured from within, which have unwittingly seized preeminence in the minds and hearts of people.

Tim Keller is often heard saying something to the effect of, “Idolatry can happen when you take a good thing and make it an ultimate thing.”  A cousin of this idea is that problems can arise in one practice when one elevates a value to an inappropriate height.  Modern worship has elevated the value of the “experience with / encounter with God” to a very high place.  In fact, it is so high that one can quite easily observe this value in everything from the top CCLI songs of the last twenty years to the pressure a lonely worship leader feels in his or her office on a Monday as he or she looks to the following Sunday.  Lester Ruth, in a penetrating chapter analyzing top modern worship songs for their Trinitarian content, makes this statement as a side note to the summary of his findings:

If explicit witness to the Trinity is not the high priority [in these contemporary worship songs], then what is? The songs demonstrate a common concern: the priority of a shared affective experience in the worship of God.1

Put another way, Ruth is saying that, upon observation of these songs, a major value of contemporary/modern worship is having an experience of God which is tangible and moving.  Do I really need to elaborate on this value?  Isn’t it clear from the way we structure our services (to drive someone toward an affective experience of God)?  Isn’t it clear from the questions we often ask in evaluating whether a service was “successful” (e.g. Were people really “into it,” evidenced by their posture, body language, or facial expression?)?  Isn’t it clear from the language of our worship songs (e.g. “rain down,” “come down,” “we are waiting on you,” etc.)?

Now, is valuing a “shared affective experience of God” wrong?  Absolutely not!  We are whole beings encountering a real, personal God.  We should expect to have a shared experience which moves us—mind, body, will, emotions.  But the question for modern worship remains: Has this value moved to an improperly high status on the hierarchy of priorities?  I believe so.

Symptoms that the status is too high include:

  • disappointment a worship leader feels after a service when the people sang with stoic faces and unmoved bodies
  • conclusion by congregants that a worship service was “bad” if they did not have an affective experience
  • language in our worship songs that betray we are seeking an experience of God rather than seeking God Himself
  • pressure a worship leader feels to plan a song-set or liturgy which flows to some climax or peak intended to create that moment of supreme affect

We lovers of modern worship can embrace a helpful corrective: worship is just as much act as it is experienceA while ago, I posted a more lengthy explanation of what this means, but suffice it to say here that worship, because it not only involves affections but actions, can be meaningful even if the actions lack affect.  Like many others, I use the language of “I truly worshiped” when I am speaking of affective experiences of God in the worship context.  But we mustn’t let such language fool us that action without affect is not true worship.  Perhaps it is not the richest or most holistic form possible, but act-worship is not void of all power and consequence. 

At the Bifrost Arts conference a few weeks ago, Pastor Greg Thompson reminded us that our worship is habit-forming, even if we don’t realize it.  This means that worship-as-act is not inconsequential.  Think about routine exercise.  Those committed to it don’t necessarily demand an affective, euphoric experience every time while working out.  But exercise, nevertheless, forms a habit of health and muscle-use.  Think of worship as “spiritual exercise.”  You certainly hope and wish for the type of exercise-experience which is deeply emotionally satisfying, but when it is not, you haven’t not exercised.  Yet, how many times have we thought we “haven’t worshiped” when we haven’t had an affective experience?

So perhaps what we are learning is not that desiring an affective experience with God is bad, but that desiring it to the level we do is placing it on the wrong level in our value hierarchy.  There are manifold, unintended consequences of misplaced values, but exploring this would open another discussion for another day.


1Lester Ruth, “How Great is Our God: The Trinity in Contemporary Christian Worship Music,” in The Message in the Music, ed. Robert Woods and Brian Walrath (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 37.

5 Comments on “Experience: Analyzing a Supreme Value of Modern Worship”

  1. Great insights Zac! Thanks for the comment on my blog; I've appreciated your work in the past.

    I loved the metaphor of comparing worship to exercise. I've also heard it compared to eating a meal. Sometimes the meat and potatoes gets old, but it is always nourishing, and every now and then you get lobster and champagne! But just because it wasn't the kind of meal that knocked your socks off, doesn't mean you didn't eat, and it doesn't mean you didn't worship. Whaddya think?

    Great work here!

  2. I agree, Brian! I think there are MANY reasons why a meal is a great analogy for worship. Grace & peace!


  3. zac, thanks for this great post.
    I've found it really interesting to reflect that congregation's where worship experience is the most highly valued the sacraments are often the most neglected. Almost as if the worship 'experience' through music has replaced the role that the Lord's Supper traditionally played. Music has become the chief (and only?) sacrament in the American evangelical church.

  4. Bruce,

    Great point. I've heard more and more people making the "third sacrament of evangelicalism" case. It's worth reflection and definitely worth a few more blog posts from you and me.


  5. Zac,

    A wise post. On the mark. I will venture simply to underscore and perhaps make more explicit one point from one paragraph.

    Evangelicals–or, at least evangelicals who do not embrace a "liturgical" form of corporate worship–tend to be "in a hurry." One manifestation of this is the pursuit, within every single 60-minute worship service, of some kind of affectively felt experience(s). In your paragraph citing Greg Thompson at the Bifrost conference, there are words that suggest an alternative posture: "habit-forming," "routine." No worship service should be viewed along, in and of itself; rather, it should be envisioned as part of a much larger whole, part of a much longer-term project–the life-long project of movement toward Christlikeness. And, while occasionally punctuated with dramatic experiences, for most of us this movement is long, slow, incremental, and life-long. These are not notions that are valued in our culture; and, for many evangelicals, these are not notions that are valued in their evangelical subculture. We are in a hurry. We should not stop, but perhaps our engagement in corporate worship would be enriched in healthy ways by slowing down and taking the long-view.

    Thanks for your good work.


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