The music swells, hands are raised. The crescendo of band, lyrics, and lights are all unified to lead the crowd in a passion of worship.
And I feel... tired. Not just physically, in a "I need a nap" sort of way. No. This is deep, soul tired.
They're talented, all of them. The musicians, the singers - they have practiced, and they are directing everyone's attention to an experience of the presence of God. That's a good thing, and I'm not feeling it. I'm out of place in a crowd full of worship.
The messages fall thick and fast about what we should all be feeling. The reality that we're "all" experiencing. Sometimes it's heavily implied. Other times it's in so many words. We should have this feeling rising within us. Anxiety should be going away because we're worshipping and praising God. Depression should melt to nothing. This feeling will sustain us through another week of Godward living!
So what gives? Are there aspects of Jesus they resonate with that I'm just missing?
Well, yes, probably. My experience of Jesus is (quite thankfully) not the be-all-end-all of the Christian life. Far from it! But one thing I know of "the fog" in daily living is this: if I feel it, many others do as well.
The drive for passion is meant as encouragement, but instead it becomes a weekly reminder that the ideal message of the gospel and Christian life is not what I've experience thus far. Instead of a filling of my "soul bucket" to pour out during the week, I have this regular imposition of a harsh reality: the dissonance between my experience and what I see in the room around me.
They're not doing anything wrong, of course. Not really. So hear the tone here - this isn't a rant, a diatribe, a judgement, or a condemnation. That said, we have to be aware that this is happening. There is no delicate way to say it, really. And the likelihood for defensiveness is here: if your worship leader has a style that matches you well, this can feel like a personal attack or affront.
So here it is: there are souls in our midst who find it incredibly draining to experience a worship service, and they need care.
Many of our brothers and sisters are feeling out of place in a room full of worship. Not just numb or uncomfortable, either - there can be a dissociative aspect here. Your voice may not feel like your own, or you may feel like an interloper.
Take a step back, and let's consider a broader phenomenon that's related in scope. American Christianity is obsessed with the mountaintop experience. That's not a profound observation. We like to focus on victory. Stamping out this or that sin. Getting the peak amount we can out of our daily devotions. Having the best worship experience in church. Being in the right place when the revival happens.
A shadow of an idea lurks below our conscious processes through all of this. We feel that if we get just a little closer to that mountaintop experience, we'll sin less. We'll feel more in sync with God's presence and plans, we'll feel better about our spirituality, and we'll have a more friction-free approach to the throne.
So, we pursue more Bible study. We listen to more sermons, more charismatic speakers. We read books. We try different bands, or different worship teams, to see which ones make us feel closer to God. We test churches, and shop for the one that promotes our burgeoning efficiency.
But those of us who are more insight-oriented, or a bit obsessive-compulsive, get a little stuck on that hook. We can be almost allergic to giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. So, when we see that shadow beneath our actions, we feel it as a corruption that taints the entire batch. Which then feels like a sin, in itself. Which then deepens the spiral felt each Sunday at church.
Look - there's nothing wrong with the mountaintop experience, when it happens. But we're all wired differently. What can be a soul-enlightening worship time for one, may be sensory overstimulation for another. A desire to worship God in spirit and in truth does not in any way necessitate the ability to gin up the designated feelings at the designated time.
The reality for some of us is simple: higher highs lead inevitably to lower lows. Thankfully, the Christian life does not require either one. In their stead remains the steady truth: Christ is not ashamed to be known as our brother and fellow worshiper of the true God.
That's not profound or even a new idea. The pursuit of the mountaintop experience has been embedded in American Christianity for hundreds of years. Jonathan Edwards, for one, saw this during the first great awakening in American history. At that time, he documented and reacted to this tendency with his work and teaching on the religious affections.
The necessity of soul care requires us to continue to develop this teaching. Thankfully, there are those who have made it their purpose to do so (Dr. Kyle Strobel, among others) within the Christian psychology community.
We need our pastors and worship leaders to find ways to address those in the room who experience the modern worship service in this way. We don't want to make our brothers and sisters so uncomfortable with common worship practices that they tragically give up assembling with believers.
We could have more intentional reminders that if we are feeling any shame during worship, we can give that to our brother Jesus. Let's have reminders that our experience is contained within this damaged creation, so our feelings (understandably) may or may not accurately reflect the reality that God is for us. We should be encouraged to use ear plugs, or close our eyes, or sit - without any implication that this isn't full participation.
And we need more people in the church to speak up and share this type of experience as a testimony. It's not a reason to give up, or to deconstruct. It's not a call for disunity or to impress a different worship style preference upon the congregation.
No - it's the honest reality of how we are relating with our Creator in this broken universe.