This one’s gonna be hard for me to write about.
Here is a statement about the Enthusiast Pathway from Gary Thomas’ Sacred Pathways:
Enthusiasts enjoy a celebratory form of worship as well as many of the more supernatural forms of faith. People with this spiritual temperament like to let go and experience God on the precipice of excitement and awe. To begin to define the enthusiast temperament, I want to put two words into your mind—mystery and celebration.
So what pictures does this conjure in your mind? I picture Hillsong worship gatherings, vast auditoria full of people with their hands raised and their heads thrown back, singing an hourlong set in the semi-darkness, along with a multi-piece professional band led by a twenty-something worship leader. I think of faith healing conferences where people stand in line to be slain in the Spirit at a touch, and where the leader calls out, “There’s someone here tonight who…” I visualize dancing people jumping around and singing, “And I’ll become even more undignified than this…”
It all makes me very uncomfortable.
In the last few decades, Enthusiast-style worship has become far more prevalent in evangelical and even mainline Protestant congregations. Gone are the organs, bulletins and choirs. Here to stay are projected lyrics, drums, and four-song worship sets as a habitual start to each Sunday. These are the outcomes of decades-long worship wars fought over the Enthusiast desire to be more relevant, more spontaneous, more expressive of emotion in worship, in contrast to more Traditionalist and Intellectual customs.
I remember the beginnings of this. Scripture choruses in folk style with guitars in the 70’s. Hosanna Integrity songs mingled with the hymns in the 80’s. The introduction of drums. As my husband was a worship and youth leader in the 80’s and 90’s, we were in the middle of the change. I played keyboard in the band for years. I loved singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” and “Shout to the Lord” and “God of Wonders.” I listened to the Newsboys and David Crowder and the WOW CDs. I began to raise my hands in worship, feeling free to reach out to God and express not only my awe for him but also my feelings for him. Although I myself did not possess or practice charismatic gifts, I had many friends who prayed in tongues and looked for words of knowledge, and I respected their freedom. It felt like a time of expressive celebration, of connecting to God in new ways.
So why the discomfort now?
It is a strange thing, but I think that in recent years I have been experiencing some of the same reactions to the Enthusiast Pathway that people previously did with the Traditionalist and Intellectual Pathways. The four-song starting set has begun to feel like a formula. Maybe I am not ready to walk right in to church and immediately sing, “You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship You…” Maybe I need something solid to respond to first. And why did they let go the forty-something worship leader and hire someone who just finished college? Why is it so dark? Who said we needed a smoke machine? Sometimes the celebration feels flat, or maybe even manipulative. Certainly Carlton and I have felt this when we have visited some new church-in-a-box plants, with greeters giving you t-shirts at the door and ushers showing you to your seats with flashlights (in the smoky dark) and the band hustling you out with high-octane music so the next crowd can be hustled in.
All of this has decreased my personal enthusiasm for the Enthusiast Pathway. But does that mean this Pathway is a dead end? Is there something wrong with it? Should we throw it out as some have Traditionalist worship?
No way. As I mentioned previously, all of the Pathways have their pitfalls. Any of us can have bad experiences where one kind of worship has become a formula, or a prescriptive path for everyone, or even a means of manipulation. But that doesn’t mean we can then denigrate that Pathway or those who are practicing it with sincerity, truly connecting to God in that way.
In fact, I find the best way that I can reconnect with this Pathway from which I have become alienated is to connect with my friends who are experiencing spiritual growth and life in their relationship with God through its mystery and celebration:
- Kaye, who can think of a worship song to go with almost any Scripture passage we are teaching on, and leads a band so that they are worshipping and not just performing
- Esther and Francien, who love to pray in faith for impossible things, in the world and in people’s lives, and encourage people toward 24-hour prayer
- Simone, Ana and Joao, who go out in the streets and ask people if they can pray for them, and then share Jesus with them
- Steve, who often says, “I have faith that…” while looking toward the future
- Suzanne, who many times said to me, “Have you ever thought that God might be leading you to…?” (Some of the things I am doing with my life now are because of her faith questions.)
Also, as I seek to incorporate various Worship Pathways in our own community, I can lean into this one by combining it with other Pathways and finding new ways to implement it, rather than following the formulas that have come to seem dry:
- By moving the four-song set after the message, so that it can be a true celebration in response to God’s truth
- By singing with our children, and helping them express their childlike joy in God
- By making space for people to pray for one another’s needs in faith, in caring community
- By giving opportunities for people to share amazing ways they have seen God move, in healing those who were sick, in making whole the broken, in answers to impossible prayers
In these ways, I believe that someday soon the roadblocks I have encountered on this Pathway may be taken away, and that I will find myself embracing celebration and mystery with a new Enthusiasm…
This is Part 6 of a series on Sacred Pathways. To read the introduction to this series, click here on “Finding your Worship Pathway.” Part 1 is on The Sensate Pathway, Part 2 is on The Ascetic Pathway, Part 3 on The Contemplative Pathway, Part 4 on The Traditionalist Pathway, and Part 5 on The Intellectual Pathway.