Taylor Swift Needs Fog Machines. God Does Not | Sojourners

Taylor Swift Needs Fog Machines. God Does Not

Taylor Swift performers during the first night of the Cincinnati stop of the Eras Tour at Paycor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Friday, June 30, 2023. Credt: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect.

I used to lead worship at an evangelical megachurch.

Over those years, I learned all I could about creating an entertaining worship experience. Whether it was developing setlists or running the occasional fog machine, I worked relentlessly to create a space where congregants could feel God’s presence in and around them, moving through lighting cues and seamless key changes. As a high school student, it was exhilarating to stand in front of a thousand people, singing out to a crowd of raised hands while they echoed every word back to me.

While my intentions were not malicious or abusive, I knew that by stringing a series of well-known songs together, saying the right words in a prayer, and hyping up the audience, I could evoke an emotional response out of the congregation. It was a science: A bridge here, a lighting cue there, add a dramatic pause before the chorus and I could feel the mood shift in the room. I believed that creating this environment was the task of the worship leader.

Raised in a white, evangelical megachurch, this style of Christian worship was all I knew. It wasn’t until I left for college that I learned about the scrutiny surrounding these technologically enhanced worship “experiences” and the global Christian monopolies behind them.

Hillsong, one of the churches that I sought to emulate in engineering these kinds of experiences, has recently been at the center of documentaries like The Secrets of Hillsong and Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed. These series chronicle the scandals and controversies tied to the abusive cultures and extravagant wealth associated with this global brand. The blatant hypocrisy of megachurch culture has even provided the fodder behind hit series like HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, which dramatizes the absurdity of this culture to perfection.

Critics today rightly name the dissonance between Jesus and many recognizable megachurch leaders. Jesus was a nomadic, possessionless, Jewish teacher who preached a message of love but megachurches are too often led by abusive, misogynistic preachers with a holier-than-thou message and luxurious lifestyle. Instead of lifting up Jesus as the one who connects us all (John 3:16), these leaders mimic the celebrity-influencer status and lifestyle of our society’s rich and famous as they preach sermons with the cadence and content of a keynote lecturer or sing love songs about what God can do for us on an individual level.

Now over a decade removed from my time as a worship leader, I continue to question if this Christianity, when paired with modern music and concert venues, amounts to anything more than emotional and spiritual manipulation. Was the Holy Spirit really at work in those dimly lit sanctuaries or was I just creating an experience? Was God active in our Sunday worship or were we all suspending our God-given, critical reasoning to simply feel something?

I also wonder today what worship looks like after these realizations. What unique role does ecclesial worship have in the Christian life? How do we create spaces of spiritual connection and belonging that are communal and invitational, rather than manipulative and self-centered? How do we worship in a way that follows the kenotic message and ministry of Jesus, who only gained so that he could give to others (Philippians 2:6), rather than focusing on ourselves?

While I haven’t found the answer to all these questions, I believe God has placed in us a communal impulse to relate meaningfully with one another. While far from perfect, my desire as a worship leader was to reflect this through music. In this way, having our emotions moved and souls stirred by a Sunday service is not inherently manipulative. Liturgies like singing a benediction or reciting The Lord’s Prayer, when focused on the collective good, remind us that God has created us with the intention that we exist in a community marked by the possibility of radical love.

Our culture is looking for this kind of love to move us. We are looking for authentic relationships and human connections where we are accepted without condition. We see this connection taking place now on Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, as parking lots and stadiums have been jam-packed with adoring “Swifties.” The same impulse for connection was also present in a New York loft, where (as famously captured on TikTok) strangers broke out in a worship-like rendition of Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” and in 2020 as we marched for justice together to the beat of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” When considering these examples, it’s no surprise that Christian worship seeks to mimic certain aspects of these cultural phenomena. But I still wonder whether Christian worship is simply trying to mimic popular trends in our society.

Christian worship directs our praise and adoration not toward a celebrity or cultural icon, but rather toward a divine creator who has loved us first (1 John 4:19) and brings us into God’s self so that we might belong to one another (John 17:21-24; 1 John 3:1). In this, Christian worship takes us beyond good feelings and demands that we create spaces of belonging, inclusion, equity, and justice because these are attributes of the God we worship (James 1:27).

This invitation is a gift from God, embedded into how we were created to interact with one another. When Israel heard from God, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), they put it to song and sang it aloud together. When the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Israel, King David “danced before the Lord” as Israel shouted and played music (2 Samuel 6:14-15). In the earliest years of the church, the people of God were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) and created hymns (Philippians 2). But, at times, God also appeared most clearly in the “sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12) that attunes us to God’s presence among us. Sometimes God, not us, sings a song of redemption (Zephaniah 3). Singing together is physically and spiritually good for us.

Christian churches often fail to live into this reality. At their worst, they take this God-given impulse and manipulate it toward greedy, self-serving, and evil ends. However, I believe the Spirit is still at work, guiding us out of abusive spaces and calling us to seek after those sacred moments where our souls are deeply moved by the gathering of people, the sound of music, and the invitation into something larger than ourselves.

These moments fill sanctuaries across the world in a unique way, but they also exist beyond the walls of the church. The Holy Spirit is alive, flowing through the beautiful sound waves that course through those gathered to listen. Therefore, as people of faith, we can go out into the world God has created and pay attention to the work of the Holy Spirit where this gathering, singing, and dancing takes place. In doing so, we can offer an invitation to continue experiencing this connection in a new, eternal way through Christ.

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