Essays, Featured — By on February 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Blue FrenzyI remember the first time I thought I was a heathen. The feeling passed, but it took a couple months. It was at a worship service. Most would say that it was a very good worship service, with lights and electric guitars and flashy popular worship songs—all the things you need in order to worship well. It was a Sunday night, and I’d been watching football all day, after getting home from church, of course.

I came in a little late and stood in the back. Everybody was singing, dancing, spinning, twirling, amen-ing, and doing all sorts of things that just proved the Spirit was in the room. I looked around and felt a little ashamed. I hadn’t felt any Spirit yet, but seeing as I had just come in, I was inclined to give it a chance. So I sang. I sang as much as I could—I tried to sing from my heart. Everyone always said you gotta sing from the heart, that it can’t be empty words. So I sang the best I knew how.

I still couldn’t feel the Spirit.

After a time, I started to get a little worried. Maybe I wasn’t singing right? Maybe I didn’t really have the Spirit? After all, I didn’t know any of the popular songs being sung with loud drums and fast guitar; everybody else seemed to know them, though. I only knew Bob Dylan songs and some old hymns that I’d always thought were really powerful. I’d heard of Hillsong, but I’d never really heard them. Everyone else had apparently, and I sat there patiently, waiting on the urge to dance. It was sure a long time coming.

These were good people with good, respectable morals. They went about the world and were kind, the type that would stop and talk to you about the Spirit, real salt-of-the-earth type folks. The type that didn’t smoke, drink, cuss, or spit. And they were worshiping with loud cries and a solemn frenzy. The thought nagged at me that maybe because I wasn’t as devout; I couldn’t relate the same way, but I still tried—tried as hard I knew how.

Meanwhile, the fog machine and light show kicked in. Everybody seemed to love this and got really going as the whole building seemed to pulse and sway with the music and voices. Voices crying about our friend Jesus’ salvation reverberated off walls and out into the warm night. And I sang, or sang as best I could. In a flash of frustration, the thought crossed my mind: sing a damn hymn! I was horrified at myself and shoved that little voice back down and looked around nervously to make sure no one had seen my thought on my face—or maybe it was to see if anyone else was thinking the same as me. Didn’t seem like anybody was.

The fog and lights hurt my head. I couldn’t focus—not with all the Spirit in the place—so I leaned back against a wall and shut my eyes. I was confused, everyone else was dancing and jumping and twirling and singing their hearts out. All I could seem to do was be cynical and detached from the whole process. I tried—way down in my heart I tried to worship right. But I couldn’t, I was just too distracted.

After the service, everybody filed out into the lukewarm Los Angeles evening. Everybody was happy, at least everybody but me. They talked and chatted and gushed what an incredible experience the worship was.

“Man,” I heard one remark, “that was awesome. The Spirit was just so present tonight!”

They had been filled. I was just cynical, and the cynicism made me worry. Good Christians shouldn’t be cynical after worship, right? But I hadn’t really worshiped  I had tried and tried, but something about it just didn’t stick. I felt like a pagan or an atheist sneering at the funny little rituals of another’s faith. I felt like I was on the outside looking in at something I would never really understand. It felt like everybody else felt the same about me. After all, it was a mighty powerful service, from what I saw.

I was frustrated with God, or with the worship—I couldn’t quite decide. It was my confusion that led to my frustration. There was so much Spirit going around; why couldn’t I have gotten a little piece of that? There was enough to spare a bit for me, there must have been! I had seen one person dancing so fast they had fallen over and sat on the ground in a sort of religious trance. I only needed the smallest fraction of that in order to feel the music a little more, and then I could have raised my hands and sung like I meant it.

But I didn’t.

Everyone else got a double portion, and I got a little bitter.

But, like I said, the feeling passed. It took some time and a good amount of thought and reflection. I eventually left the bitterness where it belonged—out in the night, outside of the church. I still resent the feeling of being manipulated in worship; big bands and bright lights are distracting for me. But God speaks to folks differently. God spoke to Paul through a vision, to Balaam through his ass, to Mary through an angel. God doesn’t speak to me in hot rooms and dancing songs—though I’m sure there is a place for that. After all, there’s going to be quite the crowd up in Heaven ‘round the throne.

But for now, God speaks to me through old hymns and older mountains. I may have not felt the Spirit that night, but to be angry about it makes about as much sense as to be angry that I haven’t had a donkey walk up and preach to me. God will meet us where we are. And that might be in a grand worship service with all the bright lights, or it might be in a quiet parish with an off-key guitar. You’ll probably find me in the parish, and I might find you in the church, and someday we’ll join hands and sing our songs together ‘round the same throne, and we will worship our God.


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  • Ceri says:


    I found I worship most fully in a completely music free service at the Episcopal church. So does my musician husband. No one believes us.

  • Such a relevant article!

  • Sparky Ellis says:

    I’ve had experience in a lot of different worship services. I was a youth pastor in a church for several years that was run by a 60-something pastor who did all the music himself, just him and a piano. It was pretty far from relevant, but it worked for a lot of the people there. We were only a few miles from Mars Hill Church, the mega-church Mark Driscoll pastors. Their music is stylistically amazing indie rock. One of the various weeks I visted, one of the Kensrue brothers of the band Thrice was leading. It’s pro every week, but that doesn’t mean you can follow along for your life. Another church in the area, headed up by another young pastor, has the kind of light show worship services you talk about here. They have a full band, plus about 4 or 5 overly happy people jumping around and singing. You can follow along easily, it’s like a pop concert, but at some point I just start to wonder if everyone on stage is really that happy, or if they’re actually real people with real lives who were told to act like they’ve already ascended to the afterlife. I wonder what King David would think of our worship services. Seeing that he pretty much wrote the book on praise, which included some stuff that I don’t think any of these churches or the other hundred I’ve been to, would want on stage, I’ve gotta wonder where he’d fall. Ultimately, worship is a way of life, not a part of a service. I don’t think “feeling it” or not “feeling it” has much to do with if you’re heart is acceptable before God and if he’s uplifted by you.
    Great article, thanks!

  • Tim McGeary says:

    I’ve had similar experiences of “feeling like a heathen” in churches that were very traditional, where it was clear other people were uplifted by the sermon or a particular hymn. I’ve also been very distracted in a service like you describe – especially when the lights trigger a migraine. But no matter the style, the underlying problem is (generally) we keep going the these services to get something out of it. At some point I got tired of that and realized that I wanted to commit my time in a place where I could just be with other people who wanted to just be; live life together and share. Unfortunately those are just as hard to find.

    Sometimes I will go to a big, rockin’ church service alone. I like the anonymity of it, where I can let the emotions of the music flow through me. Most of the time I don’t know the words and I can just listen. Once in a while a song will hit deep. I love that. I’ve had the same experiences when I find a church that does organ music where you can just sit and listen to.

    I don’t think we give enough credence to how subjective and relative worship is, especially from the extroverted and introverted perspectives.

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