Nearly 10 years ago, if you were looking for me at 10:30AM on a Tuesday morning, there was one answer – chapel service at my alma mater. I attended the service in an auditorium style classroom (“Z Hall”) in the science building faithfully for all four years of college (excepting the semester I went abroad). Even as our campus pastor recycled sermons, even as we brought in speakers that made me want to hold up a “citation needed!” sign, I was there, every Tuesday.
The last chapel service before I graduated, I burst into tears when it was over, realizing that my entire life was about to change. I’d been accepted into Baylor, I was going to move 900 miles away. I was scared and lost and I was going to miss everything about what my life had been. Especially chapel – especially the music.
Fast forward to 2013, when I’ve moved all over the world and landed back in my hometown. I found myself back at my alma mater at 10:45AM on a Tuesday, waiting quietly outside of Z Hall, pulling out my water bottle and hastily swallowing a Xanax as the strains of worship music filtered through the doors. A former pastor who had also moved to Waco was back in town and speaking at chapel, and right after chapel was the only time he and I both had to say hi to each other.
I was scared to go back there that day. So much of who I am had changed that I didn’t feel comfortable walking into that environment anymore. And, for some reason still not entirely known to me, contemporary worship music sets off my anxiety like nothing else. It could be as simple as the knowledge that my first known panic attack happened during a worship set at that particular chapel.
But something inside me tells me it’s more. My theology no longer lines up with the romanticized visions of best friendship and relationship with Jesus that these songs purport. The often sexualized-without-being-sexual performative nature of worship music is intensely uncomfortable for me.
Jesus is not my best friend. While Jesus is my creator and my maker and the model I wish to imitate, Jesus is not and cannot be my best friend. My best friends are people I send Pusheen gifs to when I’m mad about something someone said on the Internet. My God is someone I pray to for strength and guidance. Best friendships are fallible, existing between equals who are trying to figure out how to do this emotional intimacy thing together. A relationship with a godly creator is wholly different.
But it’s not just the “Jesus is my friend” trend that makes my anxiety seize up in a contemporary church service. It’s the weird sexualization of the relationship between Christ and the people He came to save. In Body Piercing Saved My Life, journalist Andrew Beajoun discusses this relationship in passing, mentioning that contemporary worship services, with their hands in the air, gyrating bodies, and closed eyes, resembled orgasm.
In many ways, sexual ecstasy has a long history within Christian worship. The statue “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa,” depicts St. Theresa as a woman so enraptured by Christ that she appears to be in almost orgasmic joy. (The statue can be found in the Our Lady of Victory church in Rome). This observation and this relationship is not really new.
There’s always been an element of the sexual in the embrace and worship of deities. Both sexuality and religion are areas of mystery for people, no matter how much we think we have things figured out. There’s elements of the unknowable, elements of some kind of mysterious Other existing within both. It is, in many ways, natural that these two things would be linked in many ways, even if unconsciously.
So my objection to such sexualization is not extending from the idea that sexualizing the relationship somehow makes it dirty or yucky. “Ewww” is not the primary theme of my response to sexual things.
Rather, it is the lack of restraint that these songs exhibit and the almost total lack of theological depth. Jesus is the “lover of our souls,” “drawing us closer and closer.” We talk in sexual terms about our relationship with Christ without stopping to consider what these terms mean. The music is not only sexual in nature but nearly meaningless in its theology. What do we mean when we’re saying that Jesus is the “lover of [our] soul”? How does Jesus act as a lover? Is that a road we really want to go down?
Rarely do these songs come with explication and commentary, despite being a central part of the approach to God that is a religious service. Modern worship music seems to exist solely to invoke an emotional experience, to prepare us emotionally and spiritually for the sermon and the service. It is, functionally, the foreplay of the modern evangelical service.
We call it centering ourselves on God, bringing us into the moment, but what it does functionally is create a veneer of intimate experience in the midst of a congregation that’s barely on a first name basis with each other. It’s all too often an emotional high without the attendant support needed for emotional vulnerability.
In my own experience, after years of this kind of structure to worship, I found myself unable to function well in traditional, emotionally driven worship places. There’s a time and place for communal worship, but it seems that modern Protestant, charismatic worship gives us all the emotional (and often vaguely sexual) release with none of the support and follow up it requires. As soon as I stepped away from that environment and examined it truthfully, I realized that the spiritual highs I reached in communal worship were emotionally manufactured through repetitive, vapid, theologically empty music. I never really connected with my community in the way church is supposed to.
That isn’t to say experiences of worship within music are entirely manufactured or fake and vapid. I would be lying about my own experiences if I said that. But the songs we choose don't support the supposedly deep connection we're supposed to be making. We sing The Newsboys' repetitive and boring "It Is You" and ignore the deeper theology present in "Everyone's Someone" and "Break." (I use these examples to point out the inconsistency within a single band).
And this is why I believe it should be taken far more seriously than it is within the contemporary Christian music industry. So much of contemporary worship music has departed from traditional workings of lament, praise, and complicated confrontation with God. The Psalms are full of this kind of complication. Instead, we sing “Blessed Be Your Name” until our ears bleed from the repetition. We need music that doesn’t simply invoke an orgiastic ecstasy with God. We need music that challenges and takes the theology we sing of seriously.