The Pen

Masturbatory Worship and the Contemporary Church

[Jonathan Aigner | Patheos] Contemporary megachurch-style worship is a self-worshiping, self-referential, nearly auto-erotic pursuit.

Many times, I’ve chosen to use the word “masturbatory” to describe it, and it’s made a lot of people unhappy.

Likewise, I will be heartily rebuked by many for what I write here. I will be told I’m being gross, prurient, inappropriate, pagan, degenerate. People will unlike my Facebook page. I will get lots and lots of emails. Pastors, ministers, and youth directors will be righteously indignant. For many, even though who often agree with me, bringing this jargon into the discussion of Christian worship is a bridge too far.

It doesn’t matter. I’ve got to continue to speak about this. I don’t want to bring in sexual language to this conversation, but the comparison is striking, too perfect to ignore.

Reader Heidi, in a comment on my post 8 Reasons the Worship Industry Is Killing Worship, frames the problem exceptionally well:

I think the phrase masturbatory worship is very apropos. There is often a lack of community, of recognition or responsiveness to the others present; and a strong prioritization of my personal experience and preference–indeed, a genuine selfishness– in worship rather than the give-and-take that belongs within the communion of saints, the Body of Christ. Christianity is relational–us with God in Christ; us with others, united in Christ. The minimally interactive, highly sensual nature of modern praise worship is not relational in the same way; and in a way, intentionally so–relationships are hard work.

Obviously when one masturbates, the chief end is the pursuit of ones own pleasure. Likewise, the contemporary worship movement, with its jettisoning of biblical, historic, liturgical elements of worship in favor of commercial pop music, has drawn an understanding of worship that is little more than a personal pursuit of pleasure through emotion and self-actualization. “Worship sets” of jesusy power ballads, aimed at carrying the individual away from the corporate body on waves of emotional euphoria, have replaced true worship, in which God is present with us in Word and Sacrament.

Chaplain Mike of the fabulous Internet Monk blog talks about such masturbatory worship this way:

It is designed to be “an experience” for me, not a thoughtful expression of obeisance to God.

It does not enable me to consider my duty to respond to God in daily life, but rather fools me into thinking this wave of emotion I’m feeling is the proper response to God.

In worship that is only “for me,” God is no longer the subject, moving among the gathered body. The “participant” (Too strong of a word, really.) becomes both the subject and object, the mover and the moved. And for the modern “worshiper” only in this pointless, vacuous exercise can their little-G god be found.

This is why the old language of worship has been replaced by a vernacular of personal preference, taste, and experience. We once recognized that some music was for worship and other music was for entertainment. Now we have worship smorgasbords in which we gourd ourselves on our personal music of choice. Not only does the church allow this, it has taken on the responsibility of serving it up.

One of the responses to elements of worship that makes me cringe is the locution “worshipful.”

“That anthem was so worshipful.”

“The music today was especially worshipful.”

What these well-meaning folks are undoubtedly saying is that our acts of worship, meant for the good of the whole body, just happened to satisfy, satiate, or stimulate them as an individual. If the church can’t make this experience happen, then it is failing them on a serious level.

I’m reminded at this point of a conversation I once overheard (I couldn’t help it. The office walls were paper-thin.) at a previous place of employment. A colleague, the church’s Youth Director, was consoling his apparently worshipfully frustrated wife. The liturgical worship at this church just didn’t get her going. “I’m sorry,” he said with dismay and resignation. “I know deep, passionate, intense worship is something you need, and I hate that this church doesn’t give it to you.”

But acts that are truly “worshipful” shouldn’t be subject to any such experiential rubric.

The current worship trend among evangelicals, increasingly copied by mainline Christians, is disintegrating God’s covenant people into a pile of dust. The masturbatory worship they hold dear is merely a narcissistic journey to nowhere, one in which we are left crowning our own individual selves as lord of all. We’ve already been told that we are like sheep, each one wandering its own way. The church’s historic liturgy presents us corporately with the solution. Masturbatory worship proclaims a subjective gospel, a situational Christian ethic, and a selfish mission.

[Editor’s Note: This was written by Jonathan Aigner and originally published at Patheos.]