(A comment I posted at My Sister’s Farmhouse.)
Hey Rechelle, I can totally relate to what you’re saying. Before my deconversion, I was a “worship leader” at various churches. I received a lot of emotional fulfillment from that job (still miss it), but looking back on it now, I see it for what it was: emotional manipulation. In fact, I think a lot of my relationship with God, and my impression of a relationship and conviction that God was a “real person”, was defined by the act of worship. It’s the medium through which you practice the art of loving God… and if you love Him, there must be a Him to love, right? (Realizing I’d spent nearly thirty years being hopelessly in love with what turns out to have been a fictional character is not an easy thing to come to grips with, that’s for sure. I felt like a schizophrenic who’s just come to terms with the fact that the elaborate and detailed fantasy world in which he’s spent so much time being the hero, was never real.)
In the church background I come from, we were acutely aware of artificial, “performance-y” sorts of worship. Better to sing off-key and a capella in a heartfelt ballad to Jesus, then to play with an immense band, complete with video accompaniment (filled with nature scenes and people raising their hands to God), but be so distracted by the machinery of worship that I’m no longer singing to God.
And yet, how can an outsider judge whether a worship leader was giving a “heartfelt” performance or not? In the end, isn’t it just a certain infusion of emotion into the music, a little spontaneity, knowing when and where to shift the dynamics of the song, when to take out or subdue the instruments, when to rise to full-bodied playing and singing? Sure, I really was “singing my heart out to God” when I was playing this stuff, but the real, observable result was… performance. Performance specifically designed to sound like “not a performance,” but guaranteed to manipulate the emotions of the (devoted) congregation. I had been raised up in and had an innate intuition for what “real worship music” sounded and felt like, and that’s what I played. And sure, I was manipulating my own emotions right along with every one else, but that’s what it was: emotional manipulation. If, by the start of the pastor’s message, everyone wasn’t feeling rested, and at peace, and then just-fired-up enough to be ready and eager to listen to what the pastor had to say about Jesus – as well as humbled and ashamed of their dirty, foul human nature, and yearning to come closer to perfection by looking to Jesus’ example – then I hadn’t done my job.
I never felt closer to God than when I was worshiping. Not even when God would “make his presence” known by all the various amazing and beneficial coincidences we’re conditioned to believe are the direct Hand of Providence, and not the result of statistical probabilities which the human psychological make-up has such a poor innate recognition of (and which is equally biased to completely ignore and forget the unbeneficial and equally “amazing” but coincidental events that come to our lives).