I remember when I used to go to Christian retreats/festivals/revivals/conferences. I used to love them so much. They were quiet times of reflection, a time to spend in unabashed and unashamed camaraderie with fellow believers. More importantly though, they always had great music. I knew without a doubt that the evenings would be intense. It would be a kamikaze of blue lights, key changes, tears, sweat, and a 23 minute rendition of Michael W Smith’s Let it rain. It is a collusion of blood, bone and brain matter; fused with flickering lights, heat, glowsticks and D-chords. The synapses are firing. The skin is getting prickly. It would leave me on my knees, my chest heaving and my body crumpled on the floor because I could not stand the weight of the glory of God in the room. The air was too thick with it. It was too much for my heart and legs to bear.
In the aftermath, in the stillness with our spiritual afterbirth, we would reflect on the experience as we rode home in the dark in buses and vans. It was a quiet time of holy reverence for what we had just gone through. As we came out of our shells and began to talk, we would always agree on the same thing, that the music was awesome and that “God showed up.” Later on during the next morning service, the Pastor would call up one or two of us teen representatives on stage to talk about our time there. We would invariably share the same thing, that it was a fantastic life changing experience, and that ” God showed up”.
But why did we say that? Its because since we were little, we’ve been conditioned by the Church and the purveyors of modern evangelicalism to believe that emotional experiences are equated to a spiritual experience. That they are interrelated and interchangeable. That if you have an emotional response to a song or to an atmosphere, that God is there and at working. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t taught, either explicitly or tacitly. They might not outright say it, but their actions scream it. Music is a powerful thing, all the much more when it is consecrated with the Holy Spirit and imbued with spiritual words and meaning. That’s why I can remember how I felt every single time conference, but I can’t tell you what was preached on. I could walk someone through minute by minute of a two hour worship set during certain retreats, but I couldn’t you what scriptures they used to preach on for 15 minutes afterward, other than 2 Chronicles 7:14 [but only because everyone always uses that verse]
Do I think God shows up? Absolutely, but listen- he ALWAYS SHOWS UP. God is there at every Church service. Every prayer group. Every congregational meeting. Every Bible study. God is there and has shown up, and he has shown himself relentlessly faithful to do so. He is an omniscient, omnipresent deity whose Spirit lives inside of us, present in nearly every way possible as we gather together as believers and as his children. It is a wonderful, beautiful and precious thing, and yes, that can be an emotional thing. But he is never far from us. So why is it I’ve never heard anyone say that God “really showed up” during a Bible study through the book of 1 Samuel? Why is it that no one says that God “showed up” during a Sunday school lecture on the penal substitution atonement?
Why is it that God only “shows up” when we’re jumping up and down with arms raised? Why does he only “show up” when our hearts are beating fast and when we’re engulfed in a heightened emotional state? Is it a more powerful manifestation, or a more palpable iteration? Why make these artificial distinctions when there is no objective basis for doing so? I’ve heard some of the most idolatrous, blasphemous things said at certain conferences where God “really showed up”. I’ve bit my lip during certain songs that contained the most vilely irreverent lyrics where God “showed up”. I’ve heard heretics bastardize the scriptures and manipulate them into every theological grotesquerie at retreats where God really, really “showed up”. What has “showing up” come to mean?
Why is there so much emphasis on getting people to this emotional state and then constantly reinforcing the meaning and significance of this state? Why is so much money, energy, and ministry resources dedicated to creating occasions where people can have these experiences? Are these experiences spiritual by virtue of their very existence? How can this constant reinforcement of “experience = meeting God” be healthy for anybody who wants to grow and be sanctified? What happens when the thrill, the flush and the buzz go away? What theological monsters and biblical confusions are being created in the mind of a man who can’t distinguish them, and in fact doesn’t want to? What happens when they get tired of chasing the high and come to the conclusion that loss of experiential high means that they’ve been abandoned by God? That the burnout means that God is no longer showing up? That the angst and terror of depression and spiritual desolation is proof positive that they’ve been severed from Christ and betrayed by His love?
What happens then? Will God “show up” or will He show up?