“I need the emotions in order to worship”, a student leader honestly shared with me at one of the handful of campuses I recently visited. What she meant in context was that she needed the songs and experience of worship to affect her mood in order to feel like worship was successful. I recently watched an almost-twenty-year-old documentary called Merchants of Cool, which investigated the advertising industry and its focus on adolescents. It claimed that not only has the industry been able to hunt down authentic forms of “cool”, but that it also invents its own forms of culture to market to teens. In a similar way, as I talk with and teach students about Christian worship, I am increasingly aware that they have been sold, over and over, the idea that “authentic” worship happens in a setting where the mood is right and their affections are focused on a feeling of intimacy. While intimacy is a beautiful and welcome part of Christian life, many leaders, churches, and record companies have appropriated this piece of Christian truth and have capitalized on its power to attract followers. Our union with Christ is not dependent on how we feel in any given moment, but the focus on experience is often a stumbling block for many. I myself have to daily fight the tendency to make worship all about controlling the mood of the congregation, and it is no easy battle to fight.
As this particular student leader and I talked more about how true emotional worship is a response that happens when our hearts and our heads are connected, she gave me great hope. She told me that, when she was a freshman, the leader who led singing at her fellowship was going to graduate and that there was no one who was able to step into that role the following year. She told me that she decided to go on YouTube and look up how to play the piano. She told me that she just wanted people on campus to be able to sing together, so it was not important if she was perfect at performing or sounded like she knew what she was doing. She saw a need and stepped up. She is not alone. On every campus like hers, I meet students who step out of their comfort zones and decide to lead others in singing. It is not always pretty, or comfortable, or well thought out, but it is always beautiful.
Even though students are often sold a narrow and performance-driven version of worship, they still make sacrifices for the sake of community and fellowship. While their past experiences are telling them that they need to focus on creating the right “mood” for authentic worship to happen, their hearts cannot keep from singing, even if it feelsawkward and distracted. What these students need, and what I try to help them see, is that when worship is an expression of the whole person, mind, body, and spirit, it becomes less about setting the right mood, and more about responding to the gifts and situations God has placed us in. What I long for them to know is that their emotions and their worship are not bound by authentic performances or the feeling of intimacy, but they are free in Christ to offer their talents and their lives to God, just as they are. They need to know that worship is not about mimicking a powerful experience they had, or comparing themselves to their favorite artists. They need to know that they are free to sing the Word of God and emotionally respond to its truth in any situation, even if it feels awkward. I am inspired by the students I meet and I pray that they would be free to worship in small or large groups, with little or abundant talent, and in both “authentic” or “awkward” situations. Will you pray with me?