Expectation & The Hardened Heart of The Worshipper
Being an Ohio native, many summers in my childhood included at least one trip to Cedar Point, the theme park in Sandusky on Lake Erie.
I remember when I wasn't quite tall enough to ride the "big kid" rides. Of course, when you're just shy of that threshold height, there's going to be a few tears when you see your older sibling hopping in line for a ride that you just missed the cut for.
In those moments, everything is HUGE. Walking up to the college kid in the bright polo holding the measuring stick, the measuring stick seems huge. Everyone in line towers over you. Dwarfing them all in the distance, the first monstrous drop of the roller coaster hill.
I remember the long car ride home, thinking about how next year, I'd be tall enough to ride. As time passed, this feat of not only growing, but also having the bravery to ride the coasters became more valiant and daring in my head.
Then, the time comes. A new summer has arrived. I've grown a few inches (and possibly wore thicker-souled shoes). I walk up to the measuring stick, and in my head, I have hype-music playing...(given the era, I was probably hearing "Hangin' Tough" by New Kids On The Block).
I make the cut.
I conquer the coaster.
I rub my 8-year-old lip to see if I had spontaneously grown a mustache from so much swagger.
As the years rolled on, the trips back to the park each year were fun, but they became normal. It didn't take as much will power to hop on whatever the newest, fastest, tallest ride was. Although the rides were still fun, it took more and more to impress me.
I also became distracted:
If the line was too long, I didn't want to ride.
If the ride was kind of boring, but there were cute girls in line, I'd get in line.
The younger I was, the more awesome every new ride was: its name, logo, the look, all of it—awesome.
Then, as I got older, and had been there more, a lot of new rides made me just go "eh". Not bad, not good, just "eh".
The place and the time of year and all that had stayed the same. But I had changed.
And this story is not unlike the arc of a worshipper's heart.
For many believers, there is always "the one" worship experience that becomes the "North Star" in our worship compass. In most of our experiences there was a service, conference, retreat, concert, campfire, or some other event that hit us at the right place at the right time—typically when we least expected it.
Then, over time, we build it up in our minds. Often when we reflect on it, we sideline the hunger for the Spirit that we had in that "one" moment and replace it with the more tangible and binary things that were also there.
- The types of songs that played.
- The look of the area.
- The responsiveness of others around us.
- How charismatic the speaker was.
Subconsciously, these things become criteria by which we grade every single worship gathering.
For some worshipers, if these criteria don't get met, it will cause them to...
- Put-down church leadership, musicians and otherwise.
- Abstain from engagement.
- Become aggressive in trying to make their "criteria for great worship" shared by their inner-circles.
- Leave their church.
This is hard.
This is hard because these people associate this criteria with a moment of (hopefully) real spiritual movement. At the core, they just want to feel that again, which is very noble at first glance. But we must remember: gathering as a body believers in worship is not about re-creation, it's about new creation.
A Grief Observed is a book C.S. Lewis penned after the passing of his wife, Joy, who, he refers to as "H" in the writings. These were personal reflections, very raw, blotted into notebooks.
In chapter 2, Lewis writes the following after realizing his grief has made him think more about himself and less about his late wife:
“Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”
Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “A Grief Observed.” HarperCollins.
My thoughts as a boy, too short for a roller coaster ride, were founded on fact. I went there. I saw it. As time passed—as I changed, as I grew—all of those initial experiences and sites that I saw, albeit based on fact, became something else in my mind.
Furthermore, as I kept those thoughts to myself and built them up within me, I could have really made myself believe the hill was a "billion" feet tall (and possibly believed it) because nobody was there to keep me in check.
Yet, where my roller coaster analogy runs short, Lewis' picks up.
Lewis recognizes that his memory of his late wife will morph with each passing day because the reality of her presence won't be there to keep it in check. She won't be there to surprise him. She won't be there to throw a curve ball and do something he wouldn't expect her to do, especially when he thinks he has her all figured out.
Our expectations for corporate worship are not all that different.
Here's an example:
That mission trip where you made your first commitment to Christ, no doubt you felt the Spirit. The song that was playing in the altar call, the smell of the room, the sound of the friends you just made around you praying, those are all wonderful memories. But that's all they are.
Those things, those people, they happened to be there. Of course, you're going to associate them with that amazing moment in your life. Just remember, they were just tools. Memories of them should remind you of what God did in that moment, not the other way around.
The saddest thing about our expectations for corporate worship is that the sheer idea of having an expectation other than meeting with the living God holds our worship of Him hostage. The passage of time is going to change your recollection of your favorite worship experience. Although it is based in fact, reminiscing will add a layer of fiction to it.
Fill in the blank:
I can only worship if _________.
The only thing that deserves to fill that blank is "God is worthy." And He is always worthy.
If your only expectation in corporate worship is to meet with the Spirit of the living God, you won't have to worry about how it compares to previous worship experiences.
Worshipping is not about re-creation, it's about new creation because God is thoroughly God, not our expectation of Him.
Dusty Wallace is a worship leader from central Ohio, the owner/operator of Wallace Creative LLC, and cohost of The Plugged In Church podcast. You can find more about him at DustyWallace.org and on Twitter @DustyWallaceMUS.