Tricked into worship? The great “manipulation” debate

The godfather like stencil reading The ChurchThis is something that has been on my radar ever since I came across a rather spirited (no pun intended) conversation about it in a worship leaders group on Linked In. To be honest I’ve avoided writing about the subject because I really couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole notion. I’m speaking of the rather “secret” debate going on among certain social circles, networks and blogs that suggests that praise and worship music “manipulates” audiences by creating atmospheres that encourage a strong emotional response.

I confess, I was absolutely blown away the first time I read about this. I had no idea. There are so many angles, philosophies and positions on this subject that I could write endlessly and aimlessly in circles if I tried to touch on them all. But some of the most jaw-dropping things I came across as I started doing a little more research on the subject were things like the following;

1. Many people apparently believe that musicians deliberately choose certain chord changes and progressions specifically to manipulate the audience emotionally. Other musical changes like swells in volume at certain points are seen by some to be designed to encourage a certain emotional response that is “artificial” and not real worship.

2. Worship music as a whole is being seen as “emotionally manipulative” by a growing number of people.

Let me say right off the bat that there are some valid concerns that all of us who work in music ministry should take note of. We must at all times be sure that it is God we are worshiping and NOT the music. We must be able to separate a real worship experience where you are having an encounter with the presence of God’s holy spirit, vs. something that is not much more than an “emotional high”. So I do get the concern that fuels this debate.

But the problem I’m having with the whole issue is that there seems to be this belief that any kind of musical stimulation that enhances or encourages an emotional response is a bad thing and should somehow be seen as manipulation. The more you read about it the more hopelessly convoluted the whole thing becomes. For example, there are those who argue that worship songs with beautiful chord changes and progressions create this atmosphere that manipulates the audience’s emotions.

Yet there are others who argue that it’s those simple, repetitive songs that are the worst. They “hypnotize” you, or put you in some kind of trance that makes you think you’re having a spiritual experience when you really aren’t; at least that’s the argument.

Then there are those that constantly scrutinize the lyrics themselves. Apparently for many people a worship song should lyrically describe their entire theological doctrine to be authentic. Simple songs that repeat a certain phrase like “Jesus Saves” are not theologically sound because they don’t also describe in detail “how” He does it. I hope you see what I’m getting at here.

It all goes on and on, but I guess the biggest problem I have with all of it is the notion that true, pure, authentic, transparent worship only happens when there is no external stimulation whatsoever. I have a problem with that for several reasons. My biggest one though, is that I believe with everything that is in me that God gave us music specifically for that purpose. The bible is full of scriptures encouraging us to use music in our praises to Him.I believe He gave us music specifically because it DOES help us get into His presence.

Just Sunday morning, for example, we had a special prayer service. The prayer carried over into the rest of the service and the holy spirit was just powerful throughout the service. At one point we were all worshiping and praying to God and the musicians were just playing softly. There was no real script, or program. It was all just happening in a very organic way. At one point I switched over to a lush string sound, and there was just something really sweet that it added to the atmosphere. The worship seemed to get even more intense, in fact.

But was that because people were worshiping the strings? Or because the sound caused some kind of artificial emotional response that everyone was mistaking for an experience with the Holy Spirit? I really don’t think so. Anyone who was there can tell you that if we had completely stopped playing the intense worship would have simply continued. In fact that’s exactly what we did do, more than once. But believe it or not I’ve even seen one or two people refer to that as “a dramatic silence” that is also designed to manipulate your emotions. Are you rolling your eyes in your head yet?

You see what we’ve always known that to be was simply “setting the atmosphere” for worship. Creating an environment conducive to worship and praise God freely. But what we’ve always known as setting the atmosphere is now being seen by many as emotional manipulation.

But here’s the most puzzling thing of all for me about this whole debate. It is true that we are in covenant relationship with God, right? We are His children, He our Father. He loves us, and we love Him. I mean this, in every sense of the word, is a relationship. How can we worship Him, or commune with Him without emotion?And if we use music to enhance that experience, then how can that be seen as manipulative?

I guess I have a hard time thinking of the word “manipulation” in context with something as awesome and wonderful as worship. A lot of things come to mind when I hear the word manipulation, but worshiping God or the feeling I get from it isn’t one of them.

And if I can’t tell an emotional high from a real encounter with the Holy Spirit, who really has the issue here? I’ve never once in my whole life been in the presence of God, crying and praying with my hands lifted, pouring my soul out, and right after it was over felt like something bad or dishonest had just happened to me. I’ve never at the end of a powerful worship experience thought “haay, you guys tricked me!!” No, usually I feel new. Cleansed. Refreshed. Like a weight has been lifted. Like I’ve been in His presence. And if music helped create the atmosphere that helped me get there, I’m having a tough time seeing that as a bad thing.

Personally I think we can analyze, scrutinize and question every little detail of every little spiritual thing until none of us believes anything we feel is real. But then maybe that’s the plan, hunh? Think about that.

 

 

 

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10 Responses to Tricked into worship? The great “manipulation” debate

  1. Andrew says:

    Great article read…sounds like it was written by someone who never worshipped or in His presence. My worship is NOT up for debate. Blessings!

  2. Brenda Hankins says:

    I agree with you, Ron. If the “debaters” aren’t careful, the enemy will have tricked them right out of the ability to feel and recognize a move of The Holy Spirit through the music

  3. alyce says:

    What I always am seeking after is spirit AND truth. I’m not sure if its the ‘combo’ that makes it perfect. But one without the other does not let worship happen! Just a thought; Lucifer would love to ruin, if not take back the music ministry he once held. How better than to cause confusion in the ranks? Divide and conquer?

  4. Sandra Robinson says:

    I have seen articles on this debate for the last several weeks. I didn’t read any of them because I thought it was nonsense. After reading your post I may go back and read a few of them. My opinion is this and I am speaking about what I have witnessed in my church is that the music is a way of getting the congregation ready to receive the holy spirit. We have a new minister who feels that the music is just as important as the prayer or the scripture during the service. On occasion he has even omitted certain things we would normally do because he didn’t want the atmosphere that was taking place ruined by doing something just because its been done for years. Music to me gets me ready to receive what God wants me to hear. Now some may not agree with me and that’s okay. But I have always believed that music whether it be the hymns or choir selection is a vital component to the service.

  5. Lynn Pearson says:

    NO WONDER sinners don’t get saved, we don’t know what we believe. We are forever going back and forth bout nuttin’. I had no idea this was a fight…Maranatha`

  6. J. Dean says:

    Question: suppose your music director told you that God is directing him to do nothing but a cappella hymns for the next year. How would you react to that? I’m serious.

  7. Claudia Looi says:

    Great food for thought Ron. I agree with you, never once have I felt bad after worshipping and lifting my hands or felt tricked.

    • Ron Cross says:

      Claudia, it’s something I can’t even wrap my head around! Feeling “emotionally manipulated” by worship music? I was amazing to come across this debate, but it’s very real and being discussed a LOT. I think it’s important that it’s on our radar so when it comes up in one of our circles it will be something we’ve already made up our mind about so we’re not led down a wrong path.

  8. Olga Hermans says:

    Awesome that you write about this issue; I have wondered that at times myself. What is it exactly that akes people worship on Sundaymornings? Where are our minds when we worship? Do we need to be worked by the worship team? Oh…how much we miss by all the things that think we need to worship our creator. I love it when the worship changes into this pure fellowship with the Lord…thanks Ron!

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