Awesome God in a Boring Church

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wonderThe surveys and statistics are consistent: people who attend church services regularly are much more likely to adhere to Christianity’s doctrines and moral teachings.

Many of us see these statistics and assume that church attendance is simply one signal of religious devotion, one ritual among many. If you go to church, you must be serious about your faith, and that’s why you’re more likely to hold to your religion’s particular doctrines and morals.    

But what if I told you that church attendance says less about the individual’s seriousness, and more about the church’s formative influence on an individual’s worldview, particularly the sense of awe you feel when you realize you’re one part of a bigger whole?

The Hive Switch

I’ve been interacting with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind the last few weeks (see herehere, and here), a book which lays out various reasons why humans act the way we do. Part of his argument is to show how important groups are to moral formation. Against the logic of the left (that exclusivity is always wrong), Haidt says:

“We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital” (359).

So, why do groups matter? And what role do they serve?

Haidt summarizes Emile Durkheim’s argument that humans are “a creature who exists at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society.” There are times when we activate what Haidt calls “the hive switch,” that is, we shut down the self and become part of the whole, much like bees who are fulfilling their roles in a hive.

Durkheim called this phenomenon “collective effervescence.” He described it this way:

“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” (262).

Haidt uses college football as an example of losing yourself in the group. “It is a religious rite that does just what it is supposed to do,” he writes. “It pulls people up from Durkehim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole” (287).

I wonder if this may be one of the reasons evangelicals love to attend large conferences. We love to be in a congregation of strangers who believe the same things, worship the same Savior, and are raising their voices through the same songs. People who return from a Promise Keepers rally, Together for the Gospel, or a Beth Moore conference often talk about getting goose bumps or being moved to tears while singing along with the thousands in attendance.

Awe in Nature, Awe in Worship

Haidt mentions several ways to “activate” the hive switch, but the one I want to focus on is awe.

“Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch – they are simply part of the whole” (264).

Haidt is focusing here on awe in nature, a sense of wonder at our smallness in light of the world’s grandeur. But I wonder if there isn’t a point of application for how we consider worship.

The common knowledge goes like this: in order to get people to attend worship services regularly, you need to make sure that the music and message are relevant to where they are in life. In other words, make it about them.

Unfortunately, that’s getting it backwards. Now, don’t misunderstand me: the Bible is filled with relevance for our daily living, and the pastor or worship planner who doesn’t think about how Sunday morning relates to Monday is missing a major part of what it means to communicate the gospel in our day and age.

But is it possible that our worship services have become so much about ourselves that we find it difficult to “get outside” our “petty concerns,” as Haidt says? Church leaders look with disdain on the member who chooses a day at the lake or a day of mountain climbing instead of gathering with the body of believers. But when you talk to the church-skippers, you’ll hear them say they have a hard time resisting the “awe in nature” Haidt referred to. And even if we don’t support the decision to skip church for a nature walk, perhaps we should ask why some of our church members discover “awe” outside of the church, but not inside.

Application After Awe

Let me wrap up with something I included in Gospel-Centered Teaching. I warned about a pastor’s tendency to rush toward application without first evoking awe:

Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of student ministers on this very subject. We were talking about our tendency to become so familiar with some of the stories in the Bible that we are no longer awed by the truth of the narrative. I used the story of Jesus calming the storm as an example. How many of us hurry so quickly to apply that story to “Jesus’ presence with us during the storms of life” that we miss the moment of awe that led the disciples to say, “What kind of man is this? – even the wind and seas obey Him!” (Matt. 8:27). It’s fine to apply the account of Jesus calming the storm in various ways. But don’t rush to that application so quickly you miss the moment of awe.

A few days after my talk with the student ministers, one of them sent me a tweet, saying, “I couldn’t sleep last night thinking… He really did silence the storm. Crazy.” The student minister had gone from over-familiarization with a famous story of Scripture to once again being captured by the power of the narrative. He marveled at the power of Jesus, which is exactly what the biblical authors intended our reaction to be.

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