Anyway, I was attending one of these jellicle meetings not long ago, and we were to have a worship? teaching? session led by a prominent and highly successful pastor. In any case, he came to preach, and that is what he did. He didn’t bring his full house band, just a guitarist for backup. And although the room was small enough that I might have foregone a microphone, he was all miked up. He then proceeded to open his discourse by yelling. He paced the stage and jumped up and down and screamed his way through his remarks. People ate it up. They were deeply moved.
I was not. Not that I scorned him or his technique. He was presenting his message in an old and honored way. But, let me be blunt: he didn’t say anything. I could find no wisdom in his words. All he had to offer was raw emotion.
Now, for some people, emotion is the mark of authenticity. It is even, in some ways, proof that God is speaking through the preacher. And this is not merely the mark of the revivalist. We should remember that “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek en theos and conveys the idea that the enthusiast is “in God” – or God is in him, at that moment. Still, I ask myself, is it real? Or is the speaker putting on an act? Does it matter, so long as it’s effective?
I am not known as an emotional speaker. Yet I notice that there are certain words that I have a hard time saying. The word “home” for some reason frequently causes a catch in my voice, such that I have to pause and master myself in order to continue with what I’m saying. I don’t know if this adds a soupcon of authenticity to my sermon for some people, or whether it’s a distraction to them. I only know that if I were deliberately trying to produce a catch in my voice at that point to drive the message home, I would consider myself the worst sort of fake and scoundrel. For above all things, what I hate is feeling manipulated; therefore, I refuse to manipulate others.
Thus, my problem with the yelling style. Getting oneself worked up in order to get others excited, too, is what we do in a pep rally. And too much worship these days is more pep rally than worship. Are we ready for God? Are we there yet? Can I get an Amen? Contemporary worship leaders – that is, leaders of what is called “contemporary worship” – often do this in a quieter mode. There is a constant appeal to evoke a feeling, to get down with it, to offer your emotion to God – on cue. This is frequently accompanied by gestures and rhetorical embellishments that remind one of the stage performance – the rock concert, the coffee house – and, indeed, what one is witnessing is a highly rehearsed performance. Which I wouldn’t mind so much (liturgical worship is also a performance, though I think the material is far better), except that it seems so fake to me, and I resent being emotionally manipulated. It’s as if your date for the evening whispered, with soulful eyes and quivering voice, “You’re beautiful. I love you. Is it working?”
Finally, I need to say that, genuine or not, rehearsed or spontaneous, offered as self-revelation or demanded from the audience, emotion is not enough. Your words may move you. You may hope they move the congregation. But it’s the words that matter. Did your argument hold up? Did you show some wisdom in your talk? Did you so speak that your hearers felt you were describing them? Will they remember anything you said, or just how they felt?
For me, the greatest rock song I have ever heard is Three Dog Night’s “Shamballah.” It opens with the most down-in-your-gut guitar riff I have ever experienced. It makes me want to get up and move. It makes me happy. The lyrics are about freedom from shame, about letting your light shine. It has the grooviest “hallelujah” in all rock and roll. “Shamballah” works for me in ways that all the come-hither techniques of the revivalist and the contemporary worship leader do not. And yet, it is not appropriate for Christian worship, because the words are wrong. The paradise they describe is not the paradise Jesus offers. It’s the words that matter, because it’s the words that bring us the Word.
I need to repeat that I don’t disdain the evangelical style. It’s just not my style, not my sub-culture. When we’re all together, I take what is offered, make what I can of it, and thank the one offering it. But it pleases me that the UM traditionalists are a wider group than the old evangelicals. I hope that once we finish sorting ourselves into new denominations based upon conviction that we remember that there are many different breeds of sheep who are, nevertheless, all Jesus’s sheep. And we need to offer what we have in more ways than just one dominant style, in order to reach all the sheep we can.