Monday, October 9, 2017

The things I've never let myself say about worship

A crowd of people standing up during worship music time. Some of them are raising their hands. Image source.

"It's just you and God."


My Sunday School teacher asked us, "What is worship? Is it just singing songs? Is it only something we do on Sundays?" And the answer was no, worship isn't music. The correct Sunday-School answer was that worship means doing everything in a way that honors God. It's about your whole life. Living a life fully dedicated to God. Singing songs is part of it, but that's not what worship is.

In my twenty-plus years as an evangelical, every time the "what is worship?" lesson came up, that was the answer. It's not music, it's living your whole life devoted to God.

So then, why did church people use the term "worship" as if it meant "singing church songs"? Why did they say, "So first we'll do worship and then prayer next"?

I believed the Sunday School lessons. I never referred to the singing of songs as "worship"- that's not the kind of thing you say if you believe your entire life is supposed to be constant worship. Instead, I used the term "worship music." (Later, I actually used a concordance and looked up every time the bible uses the word "worship", and guess what, it isn't used as a synonym for "religious songs" and it isn't used as a synonym for "living your entire life devoted to God." So.)


When I was in college, I dedicated my life totally 100% to God. This was after an experience where I was overwhelmed at seeing God's mercy and goodness, and I was so full of emotion and just wanted to sing and dance and express how much I loved God. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to going to church. (Before, I went to church because of course I go to church, that's what Christians do.)

And so I became that person who sings loud and raises her hands and jumps and dances and all that. I loved it. I felt so free and emotional and close to God. The feelings I had in my heart, about my love for God and how great God is and the amazing things God had done for me- and every week at church, there was an opportunity to shout those feelings out as loud as I could.

I started sitting in the front row so I would have more space to dance around during the worship music time. I wore shoes that could be taken off easily so my feet wouldn't hurt when I knelt down. On more than one occasion, I was at a Christian conference and actually brought a skirt and changed in the bathroom before the worship time, because I wanted to look my best when I was dancing for God but the weather was too cold to wear a skirt the whole day.

I loved it; I loved singing and dancing to express my overflowing joy for God. But at the same time, I also felt a little weird. Maybe a little embarrassed.


A foundational tenet of the Christianity I was taught was that a lot of people claim to be Christians but they're not really Christians. And going to church doesn't mean you're a Christian- "if you go to McDonald's, does that make you a hamburger?" So I was suspicious of the people I met in church. Were they really really REALLY real Christians, or were they just going along with it because it's their culture?

The sermons on worship said we should get into it with our whole hearts and not hold anything back. So why was I the only one dancing and raising my arms in every song and bowing down on the floor? Was it because other people weren't as godly as I was? Maybe they weren't real Christians.


I'm a math person. I always liked math classes because every answer is either right or wrong. If I know the right answer, I can prove it's the right answer, and I'm confident I'm right. I didn't like English class because when you write papers, you have to explain this means this because of these reasons, but really isn't it all just a bunch of made-up opinions? What is it based on? What if I say "here's my interpretation of this literature" and everyone is like "haha what, no that's ridiculous, that's obviously not what it meant"? Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? All you have are different people's opinions on what's "ridiculous" and what's "reasonable."

Same thing with art. You can have a piece of art, and some people think it's so deep and meaningful, and some people laugh at it. And I always worried what people thought of my actions during worship time. Maybe they were laughing at me in their heads. Maybe they thought I was weird. I was up front, moving around, waving my arms, dancing, singing loud- I was very noticeable.

I remember one time, I was practicing for this dance performance for a Christian worship night thing- doing a dance I had completely made up myself, with no dance training or anything- I was practicing and showing a friend to see what she thought. And I tried to show her what I'd prepared but I just stopped and laughed at myself because I felt so nervous and weird, doing a performance in front of other people. Like what if dancing is just weird and I should feel embarrassed about the entire thing? It's art, there's no objective measure for whether it's beautiful or ridiculous. And that always bothered me.

But when Christian speakers talked about worship, they said we shouldn't think about what other people are thinking. "It's just you and God," they said. I always heard Christians say that about worship music time- "It's just you and God." And you shouldn't care what other people think.

I always used to close my eyes when I was singing. Then I couldn't see other people, and so I would be able to stop thinking about how they are probably judging me.

Sometimes strangers would come up and give me a compliment about how it's so great that I worship so freely and authentically and with my whole heart. But most people never said anything about it at all. And I worried about that. But I kept telling myself, "It's just you and God, it doesn't matter what people think."


I discovered that I couldn't move around as much if I wasn't sitting in the front row or on the end of a row. If there were people on both sides of me, I didn't have as much space to work with. I could pretty much just put my arms straight up, but not to the sides.

I knew that it would be bad to wave my arms around too much and make the people on my left and right worried that I was going to hit them in the face. So ... that means I can't just close my eyes and worship freely- it means I have to keep my arms within a certain space and be very aware of the people around me and whether or not I'm close to hitting them. But what about "it's just you and God"? What about "you shouldn't care what other people think"?

This paradox was always a mystery to me. I deeply believed "it's just you and God" but I also felt that it wouldn't be right to let myself move around so much that I risk hitting someone accidentally. But how could those two ideas be reconciled? And the thing about hitting somebody- that was never something that was explicitly taught as "this is a sin." It was more along the lines of, uh, common sense.

The best I could figure was that God loves everybody, so if I'm loving God with my whole heart, then I also have to be nice and considerate to people- that's what God would want. So, I concluded, it's not true that "It's just you and God." Actually, "It's just God." And not hitting someone accidentally is MORE IMPORTANT than freely expressing all my love for God through dance.

It's kind of odd that I spent so much time and mental energy trying to find a justification for "it is bad to be so careless with my arm movements that I accidentally hit someone in the face" but it never occurred to me to see a conflict between the teachings on worship and the teachings on modesty. I was taught that good Christian girls should never move their bodies in a way that could be interpreted as "sexy." So I would wave my arms, shake my head, clap, jump, kneel down, turn around, and step stiffly from side to side. But absolutely no wiggling, twisting, bending, or shaking any part of my torso. That might be "immodest." (Remember, one of the foundational doctrines of modesty culture is that, as a woman, I "just can't understand" what men are going through. So I should avoid these types of movements, just in case some man thinks they are "a stumbling block." Even though I think they probably aren't.)

Why did I never ask the question, "If it's 'just you and God', then how can there be modesty-based restrictions on shaking one's butt in worship?" Maybe because the action of dancing in a "sexy" way (ie anything that risked drawing attention to my torso area rather than limbs) was intrinsically sinful- even if I was alone in my own home, I would be nervous about trying it. Whereas there was nothing inherently wrong with jumping around and waving my arms, it's just an accident of circumstances that somebody's hypothetical face happened to be right there. It was reasonable for me to imagine getting so lost in the emotions of worship that I forget there are people standing right next to me and I have to be careful not to hit them. But how can someone get so lost in worship that they move their body in a way that a good Christian girl should never ever move their body?


The word I hated the most was "distracting."

My parents' church is way more, uh, tame than the kind of worship environment I experienced with other college students. So when I was home for the summer, I looked even more out of place, in that sanctuary of people who just stood still, or maybe occasionally slightly raised one hand. And my mom had a problem with what I did. And she had a problem with how I cheered and yelled at the part in the song about the resurrection. (You know, the cornerstone of our faith, the coolest thing that's ever happened.) She always used the word "distracting" and so now I get kind of triggered when anyone uses the word "distracting" to describe something happening at church. Apparently I was being "distracting" and it was bothering other people, they can't concentrate on worshiping God, so I just need to cut it out.

My parents said I was singing too loud, I was "screeching." I thought they should consider themselves lucky that I wasn't singing a completely different song than everyone else. Because the song the worship band was doing wasn't one of the ones I felt a deep emotional resonance with, and ya know, "it's just you and God, you shouldn't worry what other people think"- I briefly considered just singing my favorite worship song while everybody else was singing the song the worship band was doing. I never did that though, fortunately. But maybe it was because I felt I wasn't brave enough. Maybe if I was truly worshiping God with my whole heart, I would be open to doing something as bizarre and disruptive as singing an entirely different song than the rest of the church.

But I wondered, what if they were right, and I was "distracting" and I shouldn't "worship" like that? What if it's not true that "it's just you and God"? What if God wants me to care about not bothering other people?

I read Romans 14, about "not causing anyone to stumble." It meant that even though we have the freedom to do something, sometimes it's better not to do it because it might tempt some weaker person to sin. (The entire basis of "modesty.") So maybe I shouldn't worship like that if it's going to bother people?

I read 2 Samuel 6, where "Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might", and Michal gave him a hard time about it, but the bible sides with David, who says "I will become even more undignified than this." (Inspiring this worship song, which I was a huge fan of back then.) So screw anyone who has a problem with the way I worship, right?

I wished I had someone I could talk to. But would anybody else understand? Nobody else was dancing around like I was during the worship music. Maybe they don't love God as much as I do. Maybe they are those fake Christians I keep hearing about. What if they are silently judging me for how weird I am when I worship? No, I can't ask their opinion on whether it's okay to worship like this.

The closest I came to having an actual conversation about this was with my friend Kiara, who was talking about moving and expressing oneself during worship time. She held her hands up at about the level of her shoulders and said "God hasn't been this good to me," then raised her arms up, YMCA-style and said, "He's been THIS good to me." I liked that and I wanted to believe her, but at the same time, I couldn't find a logical argument that explained why certain beliefs about God would necessarily map to certain body movements. How I wished I could say that God is so good and therefore I MUST respond by worshiping in this specific way- but I couldn't.

Kiara is black, and I went to her black church one time and I loved it. From what I've seen, people in black churches get really into the singing and dancing and expressing emotions through worship music. I actually joined a student gospel choir in college, where the majority of the choir was black, just because I wanted to shout really loud about how I felt about God, and a gospel choir is the place you can do that. I had a great time. (Note, however, that in the context of being in a gospel choir, I did NOT believe "it's just you and God" because our goal was putting on a good performance. Which is a completely different thing than just being a congregation member during worship time. ... Wait a minute- how did I never notice the huge contradiction between the teaching that "worship isn't about music, it's your whole life" and "when you worship, all that matters is you and God, don't think about other people"?)

I guess I didn't really know about the concept of culture back then. It was easy for me to assume that people who moved more and looked more emotional during worship time loved God more. Easy to think that people in my parents' (very white) church weren't real Christians because they stood still while singing about God. But now I get what culture is because I moved to China. Culture is the reason that a belief about God might map to a particular body movement- and in a different culture, maybe that exact same belief doesn't inspire people to move in that particular way, and that doesn't mean their faith is any less genuine and heartfelt. In China I don't just barge in and do things the way I think they should go and "don't care what anyone else thinks." Maybe I no longer believe there's any situation where you should "not care what anyone else thinks." Maybe worship was never supposed to be "just you and God" at all.


It always bothered me when the lyrics of a worship song said something along the lines of "I am doing this specific physical action right now" and yet we weren't actually doing it. A few examples:
If you sing that you're doing something, and you're able-bodied and could easily do the thing, but yet you're not doing it... then what about the part of the song where you sing about how much you love God- are you actually doing that or not? If you can't even be bothered to do some simple gesture, then what about the hard task of living your whole life devoted to God?

If I sing that I'm kneeling but I'm actually not kneeling because like, I don't want to do that in front of other people, they will all look at me and think I'm weird... does that mean I'm not really worshiping? Does that mean I'm not really devoted to God, because my actions are influenced by what other people will think?

If we sing "we're dancing now" but we're not dancing, then that means we don't really mean that part. And to be honest, I always felt like Christians didn't really mean all that stuff we said in church. In Sunday School they taught us that God can do anything and cares about all the details of our lives- so why did I feel awkward suggesting to another Christian that we pray when we were setting up for an event and couldn't figure out how to turn the projector on? Why did I feel weird saying things like "I belong to God" out loud anywhere other than church?

Church people said "a lot of Christians don't actually have a Christian worldview"- which means they say they believe certain Christian beliefs but mostly they just live their lives like they believe the normal things that mainstream society believes- they haven't worked through all the logical implications of their Christian beliefs and how those things should apply to all these other aspects of their lives. And after I dedicated my life fully to God, I tried to eliminate that gap between the way I lived and the things I claimed to believe. (See: #ChristianAltFacts)

And now I write hundreds of blog posts about how much that messed up my life.


I can't tell you how many times I debated in my head when I wanted to raise my hands, or bow down, or whatever, but I was hesitating. The foundational assumption in all those debates was "if the only reason to not do this is because I would feel weird having other people see, then that's not a valid reason." Like I always have to analyze my motives, and if I discover I'm partially motivated by some "sinful" reason then that means I'm being bad. Now THAT'S "distracting."

One of my friends, let's call him Bob, had a different problem during worship. He once told me about how he felt like he shouldn't raise his hands if he wasn't feeling emotionally compelled to raise his hands. Like it would be "fake" if he did it without having the "I love God so much, I simply must raise my hands, I can't help it" feeling. He said that he was learning it's okay to do it even without the "correct" emotions, and that was helpful for him.

Yeah, because the idea of just going along and singing the songs without "really meaning it" was preached against strongly in the churches I attended. They taught that if you're singing but you're a little distracted, thinking about the things you have to do tomorrow or whatever, that's not okay and it means you are being bad and your singing doesn't really "count" as worship.

It's awful for our mental health, all these rules about which emotions we're allowed or not allowed to have. I know many ex-evangelicals have moved to more liturgical, less "emotional" churches and ended up much healthier there. Because the whole service is more or less scripted out, so congregation members can just kind of follow along, read the words they're supposed to read, and that's good enough. You don't have to constantly interrogate your own emotions and feel guilty over not having the "correct" feelings or not "really meaning it." Just make a choice to show up for church, if that's all you're able to do. And that's good enough.


I went to InterVarsity's Urbana conference, where we worshiped in a stadium with thousands of students. I always tried to get a seat in the rows of chairs set up at ground level, rather than in the bleachers. Specifically, I wanted to be in the front row of a section or at the end of a row, because then I would have a lot of space to move and dance during the worship time.

One time, during the worship music at Urbana, I saw a group of students coming down from the bleachers so they could dance in the more open space at the ground level. But a staff member stopped them at the bottom of the stairs and said they have to go back to their seats.

I don't think I'll ever forget that. Because of all the Christian talks I had heard- many of them from actual InterVarsity staff- about how we should worship freely and not care what anyone else thinks, and all that matters is expressing your love for God. Then how could a Christian staff member stop people from coming downstairs where they could dance and worship?

I know it's about crowd control. Urbana had over ten thousand students, and when you have a group that big, you have to have very very strict rules in order to keep everything running smoothly. It was obvious that a lot of thought had been put into crowd control at Urbana- I was RIDICULOUSLY IMPRESSED by how they would block certain hallways at certain times of the day so that they didn't end up with chaos as waves of people tried to get past each other in different directions. Seriously, like every conference I've been to EXCEPT FOR URBANA has some kind of badly-planned area where people wait in line and there's a bottleneck and it wastes everybody's time. My mind was BLOWN at not seeing any of that inefficiency at Urbana. Seriously. It was amazing.

So probably everybody has to stay in the general area of their seats during worship time because otherwise you might end up with a huge crowd that gets out of control, and then when worship time is done you have to wait for them all to go back to their seats before doing the next thing and it takes FOREVER, or some kind of reason like that.

So all that talk about "it's just you and God, you shouldn't care what other people think" was a lie? More like "it's just you and God unless you're in an arena with over ten thousand people- then better not stray too far from your chosen seat."


I never really realized how personal the lyrics of worship songs are, and how unnatural it is to express those things in public. I never thought about it, but I felt it, and I wasn't able to put those feelings into words. We sing about love, about our hearts, about our desires- these aren't things people typically discuss in public where strangers can overhear.

Maybe that's why other people didn't seem as "into it" as I was. Not because they didn't really love God, but because they didn't necessarily want to proclaim their deepest feelings about God in front of a bunch of acquaintances. And maybe that's totally okay.

In a post from 2015, Modern Worship Music is Foreplay, Or Why I Hate Going to Church, Dianna Anderson writes,
Rather, [my objection is to] 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.
And I think this is exactly the reason that the whole congregation stares straight ahead at the screen with the lyrics. They don't want to make eye contact with anyone else while they say the words "I'm desperate for you." This is why I wanted to jump and dance for God but on some level I didn't want anyone to notice. This is why so many talks were given about "it's just you and God, you shouldn't care what other people think"- because it's completely natural to be unwilling to express such deep emotion where other people can see.

How did I never realize that was the reason?

If only I hadn't grown up in an environment which equated emotional vulnerability and oversharing with godliness. If only someone had said "It's good and healthy to have boundaries- to have personal things which you don't go around telling everybody. Not because those things are bad or sinful, but because they're personal and you have the right to have a private life."

They all saw me kneeling on the ground, crying, dancing, singing with deep emotion about how I am giving my whole heart to God. And then they decided I'm not a real Christian because I no longer believe the "correct" evangelical teachings about hell or the bible or sex or whatever. It hurts even more, because church was the place I expressed my deepest feelings where everybody could see, and now I don't feel safe going to any church at all.

I still love God. But I don't want church people to see. I don't trust them.


I was never able to understand my own emotions when I "felt weird" for worshiping so expressively. The only narrative available was "some Christians don't worship with their whole heart because they're worried about what other people will think, and that's bad, it means they care more about people's judgment than about loving God." I'm dancing for God, so any doubt about it must be from the devil or from my sinful nature, which doesn't want me to obey God wholeheartedly like this. Therefore I must completely ignore those doubts.

I raised my hands and yelled and danced, and I wasn't allowed to have feelings about the fact that a whole bunch of people at church could see me.

In church, Christians sing worship songs in large groups- but we're supposed to pretend that we don't. We're supposed to act like it doesn't matter if other people see us or not, and that if we have any emotions about that, then those emotions are bad, because we shouldn't care what people think. We all stay in our space and don't make eye contact while we publicly verbalize the deepest thoughts of our hearts.


Related: The things I've never let myself say about evangelism

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