Religious Experience and Christian Worship

Writing in Christianity Today Online, Mark Galli proclaims, “The End of Christianity as We Know It.” He notes that scientists are discovering that certain drugs cause people to have experiences that – without the drugs – would have been considered religious. Under certain psychedelic drugs, people report experiencing the what Rudolf Otto would have described as the “presence of the holy.” Christian anthropology must recognize that what we call “religious experience” takes place in the synapses of human brain.

Galli uses this observation as a springboard into a discussion of the wider topic of the purpose of Christian worship.

This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about “worshipping God” and more about “the worship experience.”

The unique purpose of Christian worship, Galli says, is not to give participants a religious experience. Non-Christian religious practices can do that. Even chemicals can do that. A divine experience is not what we’re selling.

There are many reasons to question the amount of attention our age gives to helping people have memorable religious experiences. For one, other religions seem to be equally capable of giving people an encounter with transcendence. For another, as we now increasingly see, drugs seem to be able to do the same thing.

Similarly, we rightly question making our faith mostly about “deeds not creeds”—as if the Christian faith were primarily a religious ethic. Again, most of the ethical injunctions of Christianity are found in other world religions, and are even championed by many atheists. You don’t need revelation to figure out that adultery, stealing, and murder are really bad ideas, and that there is something noble about caring for other human beings. We have countless examples of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others—even agnostics and atheists—living upright lives and giving themselves in sacrificial service to the marginalized.

So how do faith, experience and ethics fit together? Galli continues:

The Christian faith is, at its core, not about ethics or religious experience, but a message about a God who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be and remain on our side, to become the-God-with-a-name, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Christians are not primarily mystics (those who experience God in a special way) or activists (those who live the way of Jesus). We are mostly witnesses of who God is and what he has done and what he will do in Jesus Christ, the God who in Christ has “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).

This is not to deny that our faith must be expressed in deeds and empowered by a genuine experience of God. Faith without works, or a genuine encounter with God, is not Christian faith. But after promising the disciples that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus told them what their main mission was: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

We are shortchanging our people when we make worship mostly about experience or a pep rally to motivate people to good deeds.

Those of us who are heirs to the pietistic / revivalist school of Christian thought sometime mistake the experience of God for God himself. The good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ should be the focus of our worship; then, let whatever experience proceeds from that come. Without the biblical story, experience is ambiguous. That wonderful feeling we have? Maybe it is the pure love of God reigning in our heart. Maybe it is our brain chemistry doing funny things. The biblical canon is the measuring stick not only for our theology, but for our experiences as well. The gospel without a heart-warming experience might not be to our liking, but heart-warming experience without the gospel is idolatry.

Read Galli’s entire article.