I’m tired of the analogy, but I admit that I have used it in times past. When discussing the worship of God in the church context the question is often put — usually in a not-so-subtle gotcha tone — “How come men can cheer so loudly and without inhibition at a football game but not express the slightest amount of excitement in worship?”
It used to make sense to me. Sometimes I’d feel righteously superior in my clear-cut analysis of unspiritual men. Other times I’d feel a ping of guilt because the question defined both my sports-loving persona and my church-going personality. Sometimes I’d feel both guilt and moral superiority at the same time. At least I had the spirituality to discern my own inconsistency and an acute sense of how things ought to be, I’d subconsciously rationalize.
But I don’t buy the argument anymore. And I’ve rejected the guilt. I love sports and I love the corporate worship of God. I holler my fool head off in a game and give high fives all around when my side scores. I’m very restrained in worship, demonstrative only occasionally. But I’m entirely engaged.
This has caused me to reflect on why it is that the average man is unjustly charged with spiritual aloofness and why it may be that he is, in fact, spiritually disengaged in corporate worship in ways that are remarkably distinct from his behavior in the hockey rink. I will comment on just one reason here.
Sports is an objective experience and most church worship is subjective.
A man cheers loudly over an objective reality. The nose of the ball crossed the line by inches. BOOYAH! You can measure that. Everyone sees it. Some hate it, others love it. But it’s obvious. There is an objective reality with clear winners and losers. On the other hand, evangelicals have turned the worship experience in church into a subjective soup, often emotionally manipulative, wherein spiritual realities that are, in fact, objective are hidden under a cloud of subjective experiences. We all know that God is good (objectively), but must I weep about it or applaud? The worship leader decides. And it’s usually according to his or her subjective determination. And it’s clear that we are all supposed to share in the same subjective response to the objective reality. Or just stand there awkwardly. Hands in pocket.
Men who are already inarticulate in matters of the soul are forced to stand for forty-five minutes in a darkened room while artsy musicians croon emotion into their faces. They have an emotional shut-down experience similar to the failed interactions they’ve had with the significant women in their lives who tried unsuccessfully to rouse the emotional responses of their men to the pitch of their own feelings when discussing issues. They are loyal to their wives and deeply love them but they feel frustrated because too often their wives walk away from the talk with hurt feelings, believing that their husbands simply do not care about what they care about because they didn’t respond with the same emotional intensity. Defeated, most men simply start to retreat from emotion-laced conversations even before they start. How did a discussion get so dramatic? They mumble out the necessary phrases they hope will be the key to escaping the cloud of feelings they feel engulfing them. But they’re looking for the exit even before they’ve fully stepped in.
This is what most evangelical worship is doing to me. It’s calling for an emotional response that rises to the pitch of the worship leaders’ experience or desired experience. It’s attempting to get the audience to realize a feeling about God as if the realization of that feeling is the ultimate goal of corporate worship. It’s openly saying that to fit in you must enter into emotional lockstep with the subjective experience of the men and women on stage. This is what led C.S. Lewis away from religion as a young boy. He simply was too intelligent to be emotionally toyed with, even if it was by his own subjectivism. “You will remember,” he said, “how, as a schoolboy, I had destroyed my religious life by a vicious subjectivism which made ‘realizations’ the aim of prayer; turning away from God to seek states of mind, and trying to produce those states of mind by ‘maistry’.”
“Realizations the aim of prayer.” Feelings the aim of corporate worship. I go to lots of evangelical churches and I’m tired of being manipulated. It’s a huge turn off. I retreat emotionally and start just mumbling the lyrics in a desperate attempt to stay engaged with the high drama in front of me because I know that’s where I’m supposed to be. I then chastise myself for twenty minutes for not being able to participate with all God’s blood-bought people because of my pride and just as I am humbled enough to overlook the subjectivism of the worship leaders being foisted on my soul some inane cliché that has lost its power since the first time I heard it thirty years ago is crooned into the microphone with the same cliché worship soto voce that American evangelicals seem to think is the only tone allowed for worship leaders. The irony always jars me: they want me to engage with the same intensity that I cheer at a football game while they murmur in a bedroom voice sweet little worship nothings about Jesus.
But sports is different. Many men love to play or watch sport precisely because of its objective and inflexible definition. The rules are fixed. Within the lines there is room for plenty of artistry and creativity, for sure, but the joy of involvement and the subjective impact it has on them are contained within a fixed paradigm. Win or lose, artistic or functional, there is pleasure in having been there for the experience because the goal is not to make the participants or spectators cheer. The goal is simply to play the game and win. But evangelicals have taken sport and determined that cheering is the objective. Or, to use another analogy, they are making art and insisting that we all be subjectively impressed in perfect unanimity when we can hardly tell what the painting is all about. Evangelical church worship music is akin to forcing non-artists to be impressed by impressionist art. They subconsciously feel what the first critic of impressionist art felt (and, supposedly, where the term comes from) when he scornfully said, “Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.
Ah, yes. This describes most evangelical worship music in church. The men listening to the band are trying to tell themselves that since what they are forced to do is worship it must be worship. But they don’t see anything finished or definitive in what they are doing. While artists have their worship orgasms in full display, moved by their own art and willing the audience to feel as they feel about what they are doing, to have emotional “realizations”, most men internally recoil and think, “I’ll just stand here awkwardly until this flush of drama has receded.”
The average Christian man goes to church like a guy goes to have drinks with friends. To him, going to have drinks with friends means going to have drinks with friends. It doesn’t mean going on a wine tasting tour and becoming a poseur. He doesn’t like pretending he can tell the subtleties of different wines, swooning with others he suspects are pretenders too as they ooh and aah over the sommelier’s soliloquies about the fine finish of well-aged Bordeaux. He prefers the beer in front of him simply because it’s, well, the beer in front of him. And he thought that putting one or two of them down was what he had come to do.
Men need to know that they come to church to do something, not to feel something. I love corporate worship now because I don’t worry about feeling. When I go to a ball game I don’t tell myself, “Man, I hope I get some good cheering in!” Nor, do I worry about whether I’ll cheer or not. It simply never crosses my mind. In the same way I go to church now. I’m not thinking about the feeling I may or may not have. I’m going to do something with the team and people who share the same interest I have in God. And I’m fully engaged. And when I get there I recognize the objective framework that corporate worship is supposed to have and has had for millennia and I relax.
It’s objective corporate worship that moves me most precisely because moving me is not the objective. Worship is. And corporate worship is not about personal feelings. It’s about corporate behavior in the presence of God, a defined response. There’s a call to worship, a confession, moments of consecration, communion, and the benediction. All with substantive words, denotative significance, objective realities, and my participation in them is as objective as my catching a pass from my teammate and taking a shot. And I love it. Sometimes –often — I miss the shot. Often I don’t score an emotional high. But I get it. I’m involved. I feel passion aroused. I’m stirred. Because there are lines, rules, goals, and everyone following the same framework. Some may shout, others may whisper. Some my feel deeply, others may participate with undemonstrative routine zeal. But we all were there, we liked it, and we’ll be back again.
Why do men cheer at a ballgame? Because it’s not about cheering. It’s about the objective game. Why are they often aloof and uninvolved in corporate worship? Because we’ve made corporate worship about cheering and not about corporate worship.