This morning I woke up early to go to church, as for many of you, this is part of the mundane Sunday ritual. I get up (late) and scurry off to grab a quick shower and shove something along the lines of a granola bar into my mouth before I run out of the door to Forest Hill. This Sunday, unusually, I had nowhere I had to be, no band to play in, no small group to lead, no youth group to attend. It was really odd. For the first time in a long while I didn’t feel pugged in. I guess I was reluctant to go.
The seromn today was by guest pastor Clayton King, of NewSpring Church in Greenville. Something he said struck a chord with me: he said that as 2010 Christians we expect to come to church and be entertained,
“We come to church and expect to be entertained, we want to laugh, then feel sad, then be happy, all in 3o minuets. We expect this to be our little sunday morning sitcom: The pastor presents some big problem and then before the service is out he fixes it.”
I love provocative statements like that. It got the cogs of my brian turning and the dendrites firing. For a while now I have had this disquiet with what we call church today. I’m not so sure it is the same church we see in the Bible. To answer this question I turned to Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine, to gave me a few, more precise questions to ask:
“What makes a church a church? What is necessary to have a church? Might a group of people who claim to be Christians become so unlike what a church should be that they should no longer be called a church? While in the early centuries of the Christian church there was little controversy about what was a true church, with the Reformation a crucial question emerged: How can we recognize a true church?” (Grudem, 396)
With that thought I think it would be logical to take a look at what the early church looked like in its first hundred years or so, because is something not purest at its origin? So we turn to the preeminent history of the early church, The Bible.
We see in the ladder half of the New Testament that church is a place where people come together to worship simply, and most importantly cognitively, it seems of implicit significance that while we worship and delve into the word that we also stress mental growth over emotive experience. Now, when I refer to the ubiquitous “emotive experience” I am not saying that the emotional undercurrent of our faith is inherently wrong, it is in fact very necessary aspect therein. I am in fact referring rather to a pattern seen recently in churches, and especially in youth groups, which attempts to elicit and concentrate that emotion repeatedly each and every week.
Just as addiction to any substance will require larger and larger doses of said substance to take effect, creating an environment overly conducive to the emotive experience will, by that same token act in the same manner. The way substances affect the brain is that:
“All drugs of abuse—nicotine, cocaine, marijuana, and others—affect the brain’s “reward” circuit, which is part of the limbic system. Normally, the reward circuit responds to pleasurable experiences by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which creates feelings of pleasure, and tells the brain that this is something important—pay attention and remember it. Drugs hijack this system, causing unusually large amounts of dopamine to flood the system. Sometimes, this lasts for a long time compared to what happens when a natural reward stimulates dopamine. This flood of dopamine is what causes the “high” or euphoria associated with drug abuse.” (Drugabuse.gov)
thus a manufacturing of “the emotive experience” at its very core will cause the subject of the emotion to require more and more to get that “spiritual high” or “mountain-top” experience. What if following sunday after sunday of this high-octane, highly polished worship which lasts for half and hour we were to attend a small rural church? What if during that service God really did show up, really did do something amazing? How would we react? We have been meeting an idea of God, rather a temporary, sexy, but all together quite too fleeting idea of God. Would we be bored, bored because there were no lights, bored because there was no ProPresenter graphics or flashy video? I hazard a guess we would be.
I go to a Christian high school, and we have chapel each week, we meet in a gym, there isn’t a M550 Vista controlled computer lighting system, or smoke machines, there is just a little band and a little message. I get bored. Why? Because, just as Pavlov so famously conditioned his dogs to salivate, the 21st century church has conditioned me about how to worship. It has taken work to get out of that paradigm.
God, it seems, has created our brains to work in a very specific way, and for our emotion to interact with the brain thusly,
“Neurologists believe they’ve found the sweet spot for spiritual experience — in the temporal lobe. Some scientists say the temporal lobe, which is associated with emotion and memory, is the seat of spirituality.” (NPR)
The temporal lobe is both the place in the brian effected by substances as well as by our “emotive experience”
“The identification of five dopamine receptors in the past decade… has led to renewed enthusiasm for the study of the possible role of dopaminergic dysfunction in neuropsychiatric conditions, especially in psychotic disorders and substance abuse.” (American College of Neuropsychopharmacology)
Ok, so take all that information in. Let’s break this down and analyze what this all means:
- Church is not a sitcom; it does not need to be an entity which simply serves to theologically entertain its audience of worshipers.
- There are things that church should and shouldn’t be, beyond simply not being a cult.
- God created our minds to work in a specific way, and if we over-sitmulate part of our brain, it will begin to deaden.
- The early church wants us to use our minds over letting ourselves get swept away by emotion. Often our minds are far more permanent than our emotions.
- Drugs, emotions, and spiritual experience all effect the same part of our brain, and should be treated with the same care.
I want to repeat that I am in no way stressing that emotion in church is inherently bad. But if you are having a mountain- top experience every day, then is it really a mountian-top experience? Geographically speaking if all the land were the top of a mountain, does that still make it a mountain-top, or then is all the earth simply just a bit thicker? Emotion is good, just as mountains are different from valley’s and plains.
One last analogy: Our spiritual body is like our physical body, just as temperamental, albeit everlasting. And church each week should be like vitamins we take every day, to keep us healthy and well and functioning like a well oiled machine. It should be thoughts, or teachings, not an experience, the moment it becomes an experience it’s no longer a vitamin. Then lets think of our emotional confrontation with spirituality as something like penicillin. Sometimes it is irrevocably necessary, but if you take it every day, when you really need it it will have little to no effect.
So, all in all, could we try a Sunday where we simply learn from The Bible, where we don’t try to fill the moments with excitement or enticement, just fill them with teaching. Simply The Word, that should be enough.