Friday, August 24, 2012
I read a really fascinating article this week about a new study that has found that megachurch services and similar highly emotional worship experiences actually release oxytocin and other chemicals in the brain that can become addictive. This type of worship was then compared to a "drug" or a "high" that people are desperate to come back to again and again. The author pens, "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." He goes on to suggest that these "mountaintop" worship experiences are purely external and a poor substitute for an internal connection with God through the Holy Spirit. And as the title of the piece ("When Worship is Wrong") suggests, he believes this type of feel-good, passionate worship is actually wrong.
As someone who's very interested in both neuroscience and religion, I find it fascinating that researchers have suggested that the neurochemicals released during this type of worship can actually be addictive. And when I first read this piece a few days ago, I found myself agreeing with most of its premises . . . after all, an emotionally charged worship experience isn't a substitute for the continual practice of the presence of God in daily life. Ideally, I would be worshipping while I wash dishes, drive, do bioethics reading, go to the gym, spend time with friends, etc., and not just for a little while in church on a Sunday morning.
But the more I think about this article's attack on emotionally charged worship, the more troubled I feel by it. For one, I think it's a major reflection of a faulty school of thought that is still quite prevalent in our faith: if it feels good, then it must be wrong. I don't need to elaborate on how many other activities would suddenly become sinful if that theory were correct! And I also disagree that this phenomenon of emotional engagement happens only in the megachurch environment or in loud and excited worship with other people. Haven't you ever experienced it too after prayer in the quiet of your own heart? I have.
And I also have to wonder if maybe God, Creator of our brains and our hearts and our spirits, purposely designed worship to be a satisfying, fulfilling experience that would indeed often make us "feel" good. After all, we are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, which suggests that our emotions as well as our rational, thinking side needs to be involved. Of course there will be times when we experience no emotion during worship, or when our heart's not really in it, and we have to continue to love and trust God when the feelings aren't there. But that does not mean that an emotional worship experience is bad. Emotion is a vital, integral part of the human experience, and it should be able to be a part of our worship and a part of our interaction with God.