A Lenten reflection on the narcissism in contemporary worship
No sooner than Moses had instructed the children of Israel did they craft for themselves a golden calf to call their god. The idea itself seems preposterous as it flies against everything they had witnessed and experienced, but it reveals a prevailing problem with human nature – our desire to deify and worship our needs. The Israelites had some real needs as they faced an uncertain future and innumerable threats from both Egypt behind them, Canaan before them, and the harsh desert they found themselves in. In the midst of such dire circumstances, they had to choose between faith in a god they had not seen (except for smoke and clouds), or the fear that stands at the door of their hearts.
Understandably, their fear got the better of them and they decided that they had to have something more tangible and visceral to invest their hopes in – enter the golden calf. This was more than a particular pagan deity, it was an attempt to make God fit their expectations shaped by their pressing needs. Their need, however legitimate, was the dominant force in their religion. God was that great vending machine in the sky to which they would willingly insert whatever coins was required to ensure that their needs were met.
This same attitude seems to plague the modern church as our religious life continues to revolve around God as the meeter of our needs – be it of health or wealth, emotional or material. Like the children of Israel, our God is infinitely malleable – shaped to meet whatever your crying need might be. If you are poor, He is the key to wealth and security. If you are lonely, He is your best friend and lover. If you are fearful, He is the perpetual affirmer of your value as a person. If you are rejected, He is the one who will always welcome you with open arms. If you are sick, He is your personal physician par excellence. God is anything and everything you need, or to be more precise, God will serve your every need.
Now, don’t get me wrong – we all have needs and God surely knows that. But a faith that revolves around a God whose primary value to us is a meeter of our needs is little more than a golden calf of sorts. It has been my observation that the church has focused greatly on God as the meeter of our needs, rather than God as the great I AM. When John Newton first penned the lyrics for “Amazing Grace”, the primary theme of the song was God’s grace in the face of our unworthiness and wretchedness. In the contemporary re-write of the song by Chris Tomlin (#14 on CCLI Top 40 of 2017), he added several verses that gave a very different take on the song. Instead of our unworthiness, the focus now became:-
MY chains are gone
I have been set free
the Lord has promised good TO ME
He will MY SHIELD AND PORTION be
God will be forever MINE
This is but an example of the narcissism that has swept through contemporary worship – a reflection of the church’s preoccupation with the meeting of our needs. Worship has shifted away from a pure focus on God as God, to a notion of God as a means for the meeting of my needs. We love God because of what He did, does, and will do for us. This is not to deny the fact that God has in fact saved us in doing for us what we could never do for ourselves on Calvary. It is to point out that we need to consider the question of how our relationship with God would be if He never did another thing for us.
Another Chris Tomlin song that’s been really popular is “Good Good Father” (#3 on CCLI Top 40 of 2017). I think that as a song, it touches many hearts because it speaks to a generation that seems starved of paternal approval and offers God as the answer to our need for fatherly acceptance. If we step back from that need, however, and look at what the song actually conveys, it’s about:-
tender whispers of love in the dead of night
You tell me you’re pleased (with me)
that I’m never alone
I’m loved by you – it’s who I am, who I am, who I am
Cause you know just what we need
Number 1 on the CCLI Top 40 charts for 2017 is currently “What A Beautiful Name” by Hillsongs. The song is ostensibly about the name of Jesus but right in the middle of the song, we find the verse that goes:-
You didn’t want heaven without us
So Jesus, You brought heaven down
My sin was great, Your love was greater
What could separate us now
That seems to suggest that God needed us and that was what prompted God’s salvific work. I really don’t want to get into what “brought heaven down” possibly means or try to answer “What could separate us now?” (clue: a lot). This, once again, tips the hat to the attitude that what is most important about God is what He does for us. It seems to elevate ourselves to a place of undue importance in the eyes of God, quite a different perspective from that of the Psalmist in Psa 22:6:-
But I am a worm, and no man;
A reproach of men, and despised by the people
I guess the question is, within this culture of elevated self-importance, are we as worshippers of God prepared to die to our needs and lay those aspirations at God’s discretion? Are we prepared to not be driven by our needs, and let God be God – the great I AM? Are we able to say “not my will, but yours be done”? Can we simply worship God because He is God and not because of some benefit that could result from it? In short, can we make worship not revolve around us, our needs or our feelings, and become more about God and who He is, about His glory?
Lent is the season that reminds us of self-denial, something contrary to the idea of self-fulfillment that under-girds the narcissism of much of contemporary worship (by which I don’t just mean songs of worship.) During this season, we are challenged to die to our own needs and desires and to turn our eyes onto Jesus who set the example of preferring the Father’s will over His own. This is the season to take a break from pandering to our need for emotional affirmation and sense of security, and to simply abandon our fate into the hands of God. True worship happens when we say to God, “I have this need, but You are so important that I am prepared to give up the fulfillment of my need.”
May Lent be a season of breaking free from the chains of self-fulfillment and need.