Wednesday, August 22, 2012

When "Worship" is Wrong--conference Christians--and a quest for influence, glory or power

Chaplain Mike quotes from Skye Jethani's blog entry here:

 A University of Washington study has found that megachurch worship experiences actually trigger an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that can become chemically addictive. The same has been found at large sporting events and concerts, but attenders to these gatherings don’t usually attribute the “high” to God.

I'm going to quote from another segment:

... This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade. As one church member interviewed for the University of Washington study said, “God’s love becomes … such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit. … You can’t wait to get involved to get the high from God.” In response, churches are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. But if lasting transformation is our goal, mountaintops–even God-ordained ones–will never suffice.

The problem, of course, is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. If we have an ongoing, internal communion with Christ, then our gatherings will be where we reveal the continual worship that marks our lives. However, if we have no real communion with Christ through his Spirit, we will come to worship seeking a transient dose of glory to carry us along, and we will demand these external events to permanently transform us–something God never intended them to do. We may draw people to our mountaintops with promises of transformation and a genuine encounter with God, but we must ask whether they leave these experiences radiating the unfading glory of the Lord, or merely sprouting the horns of consumerism.

Having spoken at conferences for various groups over the years, I’m amazed that the faces of attendees are starting to get familiar. Such conference Christians somehow make the rounds between seemingly all the big events. I have literally had a photo taken with some people at five or six different conferences in a single year. These are usually single white guys from decent families who treat preaching the way other guys do porn—obsessed with it and devoting hours to it every day. Here are my concerns with conference Christians:

Now that's a significant point but when a pastor is part of a church that puts on a huge show. 

As I see it, conference Christians really only have three options. One, they can repent of attending too many conferences and pour themselves out as servants in a local church rather than consumers at yet another conference. Two, they can continue to attend conferences but mainly for the purpose of growing as a humble servant-leader with new passions and ideas to implement in their local church. Three, they can now start discussing why they disagree with this critique, which will give them something to do until conference season kicks up again in the fall.

Once again, though, the options are not comprehensive. The burden is on the conference Christians.  The idea that some people withdraw from conference activity didn't come up.  The trouble with this approach is more than simply finding the addict to be morally failing and in need of repentance (though repentance arguably being necessary is something we could agree on).  The trouble can be summed up a bit more like this, if you and your associates accept their money anyway whether or not you personally invest in determining whether or not these people are conference junkies couldn't you be part of the problem?  

Framing it only in terms of the emotional high or hit the seeker seeks ignores the level at which the production side seeks to create an experience where people can "enter in".  

I'm going to risk suggesting that if the conference Christian or the "encounter" church attender is hooked on an experience that the conference building set and the "encounter" building church are equally hooked on something.  What?  A feeling of power and glory.  Now, bear with me, I'm going on another limb here.  When Mark Driscoll wrote that he found it troubling that he'd spoken at enough conferences that he could recognize faces he was sharing what he considered to be a problem.  The problem?  That he was able to recognize faces.  From a purely business standpoint there should be no perceived crisis at all.  After all, Driscoll and the other conference speakers have been paid already.  

So what's the problem?  Driscoll says the reason conference Christians are a crisis is ... :

They give the impression that there is a growing upsurge in passionate young evangelicals. This is particularly true when you see large crowds at various Reformed events, such as those put on by Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, Resurgence, Acts 29, Sovereign Grace, 9Marks, and so forth. However, if a decent percentage of those attendees are in fact conference Christians simply touring around like Deadheads used to, then we’ve got more of a crisis than an upsurge. [emphasis added]

The crisis may be described, then, as an inflationary bubble with respect to the appearance of influence. Conference Christians present a crisis because if they're conference junkies who keep spending money to attend teaching by their favorite Christian luminaries then this means that Driscoll begins to recognize faces and this suggests an insular self-reinforcing bubble rather than an expanding influence that is transforming culture for Jesus. 

A crisis of this sort doesn't emotionally resonate with me, though I can intellectually grasp it.  If I were to attempt to explain the nature of the crisis conference Christians could present, and if I were to attempt to explain at the other end what the push for creating worship that lets the people "enter in" have in common it would be power.

A crisis of conference Christians would be the inflationary bubble suggesting the conferences are having more real cultural influence than they actually have.  The conference scene won't stop taking the money of conference Christians, though, but they can make conference Christians feel inadequate and unspiritual by not submitting to local authorities along the way. This may prompt them to go join an actual local church that has nothing to do with the conference scene but it may also inspire people to feel, for sure, that God has called them to go participate in God's amazing mission in effect at the church in which one of the conference speakers is preaching and teaching.  How would Driscoll imagine that I and thousands of others ended up at Mars Hill if not for that?  

What is at bottom for all these experiences, good or bad, is power.  Power and influence is the goal. Conferences are given so as to influence, guide, and inspire the masses one has at one's disposal.  These are the people who are on mission enough to pay you to tell them what the mission is.  Let's not kid ourselves.  In the United States you certainly don't pay from your own money to be part of a voluntary society that has nothing to do with your goals, hopes or dreams.  So if I pay money to be part of a music society I'm showing that music is something I value.  When I tithe to a church I'm expressing confidence in the work and beliefs of that community.  Now it hasn't been a good few years for me to invest in either music societies or churches, unfortunately, but I've got the voluntary part covered and may God grant me the blessings to eventually put some money there, too.

Now you may be wondering why I have framed this all in terms of a quest for power.  It's simple, because it's the case.  When a guy like Driscoll is concerned that he's actually recognizing faces on the conference scene and considers that a reason to write about the crisis of conference Christians it seems he wants the conference scene to have so many people that he doesn't recognize faces.  The crisis is that instead of an upsurge there's a group of "Deadheads".  This is a crisis about whether or not the conferences are having the right kind of influence, which is about power. 

On the subject of power as a motivator I can't improve on Roy Baumeister's explanation from his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.  (from pages 244-245)

The need for power is essentially the motivation to have an impact on other people. Power, intimacy, and achievement were the three main motives that garnered the attention of researchers during the glory days of motive psychology. Achievement involves the wish to do better and succeed at tasks. Intimacy involves forming close emotional connections with other people, based on mutual understanding and caring. Power refers to having an impact on other people, for better or worse. Each motive has its own hell. The achievement seeker is miserable when he or she fails at a task. The intimacy seeker is miserable when he or she is unable to form a close, mpositive connection with one or two other people. The power seeker is miserable when he or she fails to have a strong effect on people. To be ignored, to be treated as irrelevant, to believe that one's own presence and actions make hardly any difference in what others do--these are the experiences that upset and frustrate people who have a high need for power. [emphasis added]

Pretty eloquent, no?  If tons of people are going to conferences but they're all the same people then there's a lack of influence.  Conversely, if tons of people attend the church services and they are not emotionally stirred up enough to clap or sing along then the worship service, music, and all that is powerless to emotionally move them.  

Baumeister has a few more things to say that seem relevant. (ibid.)

Thus, power is a matter of eliciting responses from others. Of course power may be sought as ameans to an end, such as if someone wants to be elected president to carry out some reform or change. But power is also sought as an end in itself. Powerful people find validation in seeing others change their actions because of them. Power may be used to help or to thurt others, but the goal is to produce an effect. To be powerless is to live among people who go on about their business exactly as they would if you were not there. Rape, sexual harassment, and even children's teasing can also be understood in terms of power motivation.

Again, eloquent, simple and to the point.  For those motivated by the pursuit and use of power to have no effect is to be miserable. Conference Christians and mountain-top junkies may be addicted to the power-and-glory experiences they get at those services but it is arguably just as much the addiction of those who keep putting on those conferences (if catalyzing and empowering cultural transformation is their goal rather than sharing academic and cultural resources like musical and scholastic and industrial societies do).  In contrast to intimacy, power is something that does not require any meaningful personal connection.  In contrast to achievement power does not actually demand the refinement of competency.  Unlike achievement, the motivation of power requires someone else, just as the motivation of seeking intimacy does. As Baumeister puts it: 

Power is thus an interpersonal motive, not a solitary pursuit. As the political scientist Hans Morgenthau argued in a famous essay, power and love may spring from the same root of loneliness. Love seeks to unite people by dissolving the boundary between them, so that they may merge into one. Power likewise merges two into one, but it does so by imposing the will of one on the other. The power seeker wants to connect with others, but the connection is sought in order to have an impact on those people so that they change their actions. [all emphases added]

Power is not inherently bad. Indeed, someone might find a very satisfying exercise of power in giving money to people, because the money will make a big difference in their lives. The leaders of large philanthropical organizations, for example, probably do not get much satisfaction of either their  achivement or their intimacy needs in their work, because giving money to needy people neither creates close and lasting bonds nor produces direct successess. Such individuals probably do get immense satisfaction in power terms, however, because the money they give makes a huge difference in the recipients' lives. [emphasis added] The distribution of charity is a very positive, beneficial, and socially desirable way of exercising power. 

So when a Christian hooked on emotional highs from worship that is "annointed" doesn't like the music or the worship experience; when a Christian who speaks at conferences where he is dismayed to find he's recognizing faces over and over; when a Christian in a church setting laments that there's no emotional response to the kickin' worship band or the preaching these are all laments that the person isn't getting the buzz they want, they're not feeling the power, intimacy or achievement they were hoping to get out of the proceedings.  To put it in suitably Reformed lingo both the conference attenders and the conference speakers may have an idol of power. 

Now the thing is neuroscience has established that religious experiences do involve an altered state in the brain.  We should be cautious in taking seriously every critique of seeking religious experiences, especially from religious leaders.  Not everyone who seeks power wants to use it for evil, even though that will be the rhetorical assumption made by many on this topic. Those people will not be so cynical about how all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely when they seek a raise at their job or look for better-paying work or work that has better medical benefits or what have you.  The rouble with cynicism of this sort is that it is the sort of self-exonerating special pleading that allows us to be the same sorts of people we pretend we aren't like.  Everyone wants at least a little power in and over their lives even if it is not the chief motivation for all of us.  Neither the mountains nor the valleys last in our spiritual and emotional lives.  We become unsatisfied with the level of our achievements; begin to feel stasis in the level of our intimacies; and begin to succumb to downward grading ourselves on a scale of power.  As Koholeth put it in Ecclesiastes the eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear of hearing and he who loves money never has money enough. 

By extension, whoever loves power and influence will never have enough of either. Whoever loves legacy can't have legacy enough.

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