Here’s something I haven’t told you yet about the Springsteen concert (and I promise this will be my last post about it!) After sitting in the hot sun for four hours, listening to The Trews and Tom Cochrane, after buying a T-shirt and eating a burger and downing several bottles of water, when the E Street Band struck its first chords and The Boss came out on stage, I ran from my folding camp stool up to the crowd standing closer to the stage (trailing Jason behind me). As the opening notes of “No Surrender” swept over the crowd of almost 30,000 people and I heard Springsteen’s voice live for the first time, I … started to cry.
(photo from the Moncton concert by Jo Lopez at http://www.brucespringsteen.net)
Now, I do cry easily at moments that have any emotional weight whatsoever. And this one had a lot. The experience of hearing a performer I’ve admired since I was a teenager, finally singing live, and the crowd mentality of everyone around me singing along and loving the music as much as I did, was huge.
Later, when I was out of the moment, it got me thinking about this article that a Facebook friend linked to, and the subsequent interesting discussion on his Facebook wall. The friend in question is a pastor, and the article essentially says that the emotional “high” some people experience at certain types of worship services — the “mountaintop experience,” if you’re familiar with that lingo — is no different from the high experienced at a rock concert or a huge sporting event. It’s an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that produces good feelings. According to the authors, believers who experience these emotions in a worship setting are wrong to attribute these emotions to the presence of God’s Spirit, and worship leaders are wrong in structuring worship experiences that seek to produce that feeling.
Reading the article, I agreed with the basic premise. The experience some people have at a huge worship service, or a revival meeting, or a concert by a Christian band, is fundamentally no different from the experience you have at any kind of huge concert or, presumably, at a large sporting event if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not, but I’ve witnessed people get very excited at hockey games and it seems like the same kind of thing to me. I’ll never quite forget the experience of watching a professional hockey game with a group of Adventist teachers and, when a fight broke out on the ice, seeing a very mild-mannered and ladylike colleague of mine standing on her seat screaming, “KILL ‘EM!!!!!!! KILL ‘EM!!!!!!!!” Certainly, the experience produced strong emotions in her.
However, I disagree with the article’s conclusion — that those who plan and organize worship are wrong to seek this experience. I think it’s a mistake to seek to create this experience in worship if that’s ALL you’re doing, but the experience itself is positive and it absolutely can be holy.
For me, the Springsteen concert was not only exciting, it actually was a spiritual experience. But that was mainly because I chose to make it so. It’s been widely observed that “Wrecking Ball” contains some of the most overt religious language and imagery of any Springsteen album, and certainly if you go to a Springsteen concert with a spiritual frame of mind you will find plenty there to work with. “My City of Ruins,” as performed live, is pretty much a straight-ahead worship song, audience with their hands lifted in the air as Springsteen sings “With these hands, I pray Lord … for the strength Lord … for the faith Lord.” And when he hollers into the microphone, “DO YOU FEEL THE SPIRIT HERE TONIGHT?” and everyone hollers back “YES!!!!” I have no doubt that what I’m feeling is the Holy Spirit, who goes everywhere with me, including rock concerts. (Though He has His doubts about hockey games). But I’m sure many in the crowd around me had very different reasons for answering “YES!!” to that question, and weren’t giving the Holy Spirit any thought at all.
That gets to the crux, I guess, of how a rock concert is different from a worship service. There are a lot of different corporate events that create a temporary surge of emotion in the participants. Some are specifically designed for “good,” like worship services, others specifically for “evil,” like the Nazi rallies (not that the Nazis would have thought of them as evil). The vast majority are designed for no particular purpose except to produce that temporary emotional surge, and of course to make money. What you take away from such an event is up to you.
I came away from the Springsteen concert both spiritually moved and politically inspired, but that was because I went in with those things on my mind and I took from the experience what was congruent with my beliefs and needs. For someone else it might have been a completely different experience.
Three people go to a sporting event. One comes away charged with their love of the game and translates that into a determination to incorporate more physical fitness into her own life. Another comes away filled with team pride and hatred for the opposing team, and later beats up an opposing team’s supporter in a bar fight. A third simply goes home, the elated feeling ebbing away as real life returns, and the person is left with the memory having seen a great game.
The organizers of the sporting event didn’t tell you what you were supposed to take away from it. Everyone brought their own baggage and used it to create their own meaning from a shared event.The dividing line between “entertainment” and “ministry” occurs when the performer has an agenda, when there is something specific they want you to take away from the event, when they strive to awaken a sense of community among the audience and a greater sense of purpose as to what we want to do with this great feeling afterwards. You don’t get that at most rock concerts or sporting events, and I would argue you’re not supposed to. They are ends in themselves: if you, as the participant, choose to make it be about something bigger, that’s fine, but that’s your choice.
Even at a worship service, of course, there’s an element of individuality: everyone may take away something different depending on what they bring. But there is a sense of corporate purpose, a sense that that “oxytocin cocktail” of excited and positive feelings is meant to lead into something greater, to be directed towards a bigger focus.
In the original Facebook discussion about the article, I compared the positive feelings encountered at a concert or sporting event, to the positive feelings encountered during sex. Most of the time, for most people, sex is a pleasurable experience. We’re human beings, we live in human bodies, we’re wired that way. It feels good. If that good feeling occurs in the context of a relationship with the person with whom you’re building a life, the momentary wonderful feeling can be part of something bigger: commitment, love, healing, forgiveness, etc. If it occurs with your best friend’s husband while she’s out of town, it may feel the same, physically, but it’s part of something very different: betrayal, hurt, dishonesty, anger.
Likewise, when we human beings get together in large groups to watch and participate in an event, it produces positive feelings. That’s not a bad thing. It’s good to feel good; I’d argue God made us that way and He wants us to feel good. And of course you can just leave it at that, if the event you’re planning is a football game or a rock concert. But you can also take it farther, and obviously if what you’re planning is a worship service, you should take it farther. You can structure the experience in such a way that those attending feel bonded as a community. You can tell them explicitly what you want them to take away from the event. You can avoid conflicting messages. You still can’t control what people are going to take away, but you can’t point them where you want them to go — and you should, if you want to accomplish something by gathering all these people in one place.
What you can’t do, I think, is avoid the emotional aspect, or feel that it’s somehow “wrong” to evoke emotion simply because a rock concert or a hockey game can do the same trick. Emotion is a key part of who we are as human beings, and you’re far more likely to achieve that sense of community and common purpose if people FEEL GOOD about where they are and what they’re doing. I’ve certainly seen emotion abused and misused in the name of religion (altar calls, anyone?) but far more often I’ve been to dry, emotionless worship services where I’m treated merely as an intellectual being, a brain in a jar who can absorb the message without needing to feel anything.
I’m not saying that I expect to burst into tears of ecstasy every time my pastor walks up to the pulpit. But at the end of church I want to feel, as I did at the end of the Springsteen concert, that “it was good for us to be here.” That quote, btw, comes from Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, the original mountaintop experience, where he got overwhelmed and teary-eyed and acted a little stupid. Kinda like I did at the concert, but in the service of something much bigger.