Vulgar Worship

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It’s been a few years since the whole “sloppy wet kiss” debate began happening. Most churches have safely landed on the phrase “unforeseen kiss” as opposed to the original “sloppy wet kiss.” To them, “unforeseen kiss” seems less vulgar (even though by using the phrase “unforeseen kiss,” I get the image of a surprise and I don’t like surprises). Churches want to sing “How He Loves” without the image of messiness as portrayed in the original version of the song.

This piece is not meant to bring up the whole debate again. There’s no use beating a dead horse. I use it as a reference because it shows a greater truth about modern worship music in the evangelical church: we don’t like vulgar worship.

The word vulgar was originally used to describe the language of common people. Today, it is generally used to describe something lacking good taste or referring to coarse and rude language. When I use the word, I’m talking about the language of common people.

Modern worship seems plagued by “Stepford Wife” theology. We say to people that even in the darkest of moments, they should still praise God. To, basically, put on a mask and sing words to God that you don’t mean. In doing this, we have robbed songs and hearts of authenticity. In the evangelical church, songs are sung each week that deal with God’s love, Christ’s love, God’s power and strength, grace, etc. Anytime we deal with dark themes, the song will inevitably redeem that darkness. It is uncomfortable for us to sing songs that do not resolve. But the Psalms seem to paint a completely different picture. For instance:

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem. We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees. For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!” But how can we sing the songs of the lord while in a pagan land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem. “Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!” O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks! – Psalm 137

I love this psalm. It portrays such depth and anguish. Even when they talk about rejoicing, we shudder at the thought of babies being smashed against rocks.
Psalm 22 is another psalm that is dark and yet still manages to worship God. It aptly describes the feelings of the author:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
And then is able to worship God in those feelings:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
I am not advocating that our songs become morbid and depressing. I am advocating, however, that songs begin to echo the feelings of the common people. This is one of the things that I love about the Episcopal church. It is able to capture all of these emotions in one service through liturgy. There is nothing more humbling and beautiful than to say “Lord, have mercy” over and over.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s grace because I feel like I have abused it and have lost the privilege to sing those words.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing about God’s strength because I do not see it in the atrocities happening around me.
There are several Sundays I do not want to sing at all. I just want to sit in silence and repeat, “Lord, have mercy.”
Evangelical services carry with them a component of happiness. We want people leaving feeling energized and ready to take on the world. But as I have been rereading the Psalms, I see something different being sung.
I understand that worship isn’t about me and that it is about God. But you cannot say that all of these forced songs of happiness are about God. They are about us feeling better. They are about us escaping troubles. They are about us trying to assimilate the people into thinking/feeling the same way about God.
If worship is truly about God, then one will understand that there are several different words that need to be said. Not just words that point to happiness and satisfaction. Words that point to discord, words that point to anger, words that point to sin, words that point to abandonment, etc. These words need to be said because they are all part of the human experience with God.
Through these vulgar words, we will discover the greatness of God.
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Stop Trying to Make Me Cry

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  Emotions are a powerful force. They can cause us to doubt, get married, get divorced, love Jesus, hate Jesus, etc. If we aren’t careful, our emotions will overrun our lives and cause us to do the most illogical things. 

Some people will say that this isn’t a bad thing. One should listen to one’s heart (or whatever other pop psychology one believes). We focus heavily on the way we feel rather than the way we think. How does this make us feel? Or “I feel like…” 

The American evangelical church is good at gauging feelings. And unfortunately, it is also good at manipulating emotions to get a desired outcome. Think about it:

That one song with the huge build in it is played after an emotional story is told in a message. 

The lights are are dimmed low during a powerhouse song. 

The speaker begins to speak in that tone. 

Pictures/videos are shown that would make even the hardest of hearts break down. 

We are good at this. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, just go to any church youth retreat and you will see something along these lines played out. Emotions run amuck with teenagers. 

I was once at a youth conference where the pastor got up and said that God had told him on the way here to change his message. So he threw out his old message and was now just going to use the Spirit to preach. It was incredible how the Spirit also cued up the music at the right time in his sermon. Or how the Spirit caused slides to be created on the spot. Or how he Spirit miraculously provided police tape for an illustration hat was just given to him. A lot of people were crying at the end. People were shaking uncontrollably. People were making promises they couldn’t keep. It was emotional manipulation at its finest. 

At first, this doesn’t seem too bad. It is, after all, causing hearts to change. But how long does that change actually last?

Until the emotions run dry. 

This is why it is so difficult for emotional decisions to take root. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to create a space for those emotional decisions. We do everything we can to “set the mood” for the Spirit. And because of that, we are left with a vast number of people who consider the Spirit to be a purely emotional being. So when you don’t feel those emotions you felt on the 5th time through “Our God,” then you must not be open to the movement of the Spirit. 

Thus we create a theology that is based purely on our emotions. If we cry during worship, the Spirit is moving. If something doesn’t feel right “in our heart,” it must mean that God is calling us to do something. And if we are weeping uncontrollably, then maybe it’s time to accept Jesus and get baptized. 

Emotions aren’t inherently wrong. But when manipulated to cause change, I think we cross the line. We either are conduits for God, or we are trying to play God. 

What we end up creating is an addiction. People become addicted to those emotions rather than reliant upon God. They become addicted to the emotion that song causes or that message evokes or those pictures create. But, as with any addiction, soon something more will be needed. No longer is this good enough. 

We have to step it up and add different creative elements. We have to yell longer in our message. We have to sing more songs that get really quiet, have a long build, and then ends with a deafening chorus. 

When we no longer feel those emotions, our faith in God crumbles. God must be distant if I don’t feel as passionate as I once did. My relationship with Him must be on the rocks. 

But none of this is even close to the truth. 

I like faith being compared to a journey. When I was road tripping back from Las Vegas to Illinois, I remember there being some monumental moments. There were some awe-inspiring terrains. I got scared in moments driving through some difficult weather. Boredom set in about my 2nd hour into Kansas. And there were even moments I couldn’t stop laughing at random things. There were a variety of emotions that made up my road trip. But not one emotion was meaningless. Not one moment should be thrown out. 

What would happen if we began looking at our relationship with God like this? I think we would begin to see a change in faithfulness. Spiritual disciplines may not seem appealing, but they are part of the journey. Intellectual conversations might seem above our pay grade, but they are part of the journey. Miles of endless deserts in our relationship with God might seem deathly, but they refine us. Not everything can be the gorgeous mountain or the beautiful sunset. Something has to be the roadkill. Something has to be the car accident. Something has to be the stretch of land without civilization. 

And each moment is just as important as the other. 

Unfortunately, we try to create those awe-inspiring moments all the time. So we become conditioned to believe that unless there are tears, it’s not been genuine. The sad part is that emotions are one of the ways we connect with God. Why can’t our services (in the American evangelical church) employ all the different emotions? 

Why can’t we have a service where we get upset over the racial injustices?

Why can’t we have a service where mourn our sins done to others?

Why can’t we have a service where we focus on the fear of God?

Why does each service look like we are trying to set the mood for tearful decisions?

Church: not everything has to be more emotional than last week or last year. Tears are not a sign of a successful service (it is sad that we even consider our worship to God as either successful or unsuccessful). Decisions are not even the sign of something done well. God is the sign. And He has promised to show up, so we don’t need to worry about that. He has promised to move if we step out of His way. And He has never failed us before, so stop trying to create a back-up plan. Stop using hell as leverage for decisions. 

Let God do His job in us. Stop trying to create an emotional experience because you think that it is helping lead people to Christ. There may be a few that accept Him; but for the most part, we create a group of people that are addicted to the emotions that they felt rather than the God that moved. Emotions happen on their own. And there are a vast number of them that God uses. Luckily, we don’t need more lights, louder music, and weeping preachers. We just need God. And He has promised to be there. So step aside and let Him work.