When Worship is Wrong

In 1515, Michelangelo completed a sculpture of Moses. The marble figure depicts an old but very muscular Moses with the Ten Commandments under his arm and a billowing beard. But tourists are often shocked to see wh

at appear to be devilish horns protruding from Moses’ head.

The horns can be traced to a mistranslation of the Bible in the 5th Century. The story from Exodus 34 says that after Moses met with the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people were afraid because, “the skin of his face shone.” The Hebrew word for a ray or beam of light was mistranslated into Latin as “horns.” So, when Michelangelo read his Bible he believed the people were frightened because Moses had grown horns while meeting with God on the mountain.

Today we no longer depict Moses with horns, but a misunderstanding of his mountaintop experience remains all too common. According to the Apostle Paul in the 2 Corinthians 3, Moses did not hide his face because the people were frightened, but to hide the fact that the glory of God was fading away. Whatever transformation he experienced in God’s presence on the mountain was temporary, and the veil hid its transient nature. Moses’ mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God’s presence-but it did not bring lasting transformation.

Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multimedia theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. Many of us ascend this mountain every Sunday morning wanting to have an experience with God, and many of us leave with a degree of genuine transformation. We feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.”

No doubt many, like Moses, have an authentic encounter with God through these events. But new research indicates another explanation for our spiritual highs. A University of Washington study has found that megachurch worship experiences actually trigger an “oxytocin cocktail” in the brain that can become chemically addictive. The same has been found at large sporting events and concerts, but attenders to these gatherings don’t usually attribute the “high” to God.

“The upbeat modern music, cameras that scan the audience and project smiling, dancing, singing, or crying worshipers on large screens, and an extremely charismatic leader whose sermons touch

individuals on an emotional level … serve to create these strong positive emotional experiences,” said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the study.

The problem with these mountaintop experiences, whether legitimate (like Moses’) or fabricated, is that the transformation does not last. In a few days time, or maybe as early as lunchtime, the glory begins to fade. The mountaintop experience with God, the event we were certain would change our lives forever, turns out to be another fleeting spiritual high. And to hide the lack of genuine transformation, we mask the inglorious truth of our lives behind a veil, a façade of Christian merchandise or busyness, until we can ascend the mountain again and be recharged.

This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade. As one church member interviewed for the University of Washington study said, “God’s love becomes … such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit. … You can’t wait to get involved to get the high from God.” In response, churches are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. But if lasting transformation is our goal, mountaintops–even God-ordained ones–will never suffice.

The New Testament emphasizes a different model of transformation. Rather than seeking external experiences, Jesus and his Apostles speak of an internal communion with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory that Moses experienced on Sinai, the Apostle Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another,” and that this comes from the Spirit. This transformation is not from the outside working in, but from the inside working out. To encounter the glory of God no longer requires ascending a mountain, but learning to embrace a divine mystery-”Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Why then are we so tempted to abandon the new covenant, inside-out model of transformation for the inferior old covenant, outside-in strategy? The reason is simple–an internal communion with God through the Spirit cannot be packaged, commoditized, and marketed to religious consumers. It is far easier for us to create mountains than shepherd people toward the inner life of divine communion.

The problem, of course, is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. If we have an ongoing, internal communion with Christ, then our gatherings will be where we reveal the continual worship that marks our lives. However, if we have no real communion with Christ through his Spirit, we will come to worship seeking a transient dose of glory to carry us along, and we will demand these external events to permanently transform us–something God never intended them to do. We may draw people to our mountaintops with promises of transformation and a genuine encounter with God, but we must ask whether they leave these experiences radiating the unfading glory of the Lord, or merely sprouting the horns of consumerism.

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  • August 21, 2012


    This is folly if you are comparing a God-encounter in worship to consumerism. Holy Spirit does what He wants. And myself and several people have been lit with a flame at conferences that will not ever die. Holy Spirit transformed us at conferences with His presence, revelation and love. When people gather in the Lord’s name, He shows up in unexpected, unimaginable ways. Indeed, the Lord brings us through seasons, some in which we lack passion and instead are trying to lift a thumb during a season of apathy. Even so, we have been encountered by the Holy Spirit in ways that transform is for a lifetime. Please do not philosophize encounters with God. He does not exist in a box. He does what He wants. Sometimes we just overthink it and discourage people from having a life-transforming encounter which leaves them forever hungry for the one true Living God.

  • August 21, 2012

    Jeff K. Clarke

    Excellent article! I wrote a similar piece on July 3 that specifically highlighted Pentecostal spirituality. I asked the question, ‘are we creating a culture of encounter addicts?’ And, I think the general consensus is, yes. This article takes what was an observational hunch and adds legitimate research to it, though not in an exclusive Pentecostal context. It should serve to remind us that we need to rethink the whole idea of encounter and learn to cultivate a culture of journey, which will no doubt include encounter, but not be defined by it.

    Here is the link is you’re interested — http://jeffkclarke.com/2012/07/03/pentecostal-spirituality-are-we-creating-a-culture-of-encounter-addicts/

    Thanks, again.

  • August 21, 2012

    Mel Lawrenz

    Excellent perspective, Skye. The question isn’t what happens on Sinai, but what happens in the wilderness. The mountaintop experiences give a lot of people a sign that somewhere there is something good and bright breaking out in this dark world. Sunday gives some people enough hope to get to the middle of the week. On the other hand, a harsh family argument in the car on the way home from church can snuff out hope before the car pulls in the driveway. Coming to the well daily is certainly as important as coming to the mountain occasionally.

  • August 21, 2012

    Carole Turner


  • August 21, 2012

    Jason fileta

    I really appreciate this perspective–and feel better about the fact that mega church worship always makes me slightly uncomfortable 🙂

  • August 21, 2012

    Steve Martin

    Great post.

    I do believe that this experiential driven worship is a big problem.

    It is giving people what they want (excitement and experience) and in one way, is actually giving people exactly what they don’t need…more of themselves. it’s handing people back over to themselves.

    I believe we need something that is totally different and outside of ourselves. When one goes into a modern church building that looks like a theater or auditorium, they are receiving nothing different.

    We refuse to get rid of our altar, our pulpit and lectern, our stained glass, our pews…not because we have to keep them…but that they represent a different reality…a different Kingdom. We want to keep these things because they keep us anchored to that which is ‘other-worldly’.

  • August 21, 2012

    this went thru my mind |

    […] gatherings & mountain-top-experiences: When Worship is Wrong by Skye […]

  • August 22, 2012


    In your last paragraph you said “The problem, of course, is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them.” Actually, I believe it is both. Last year when visiting my daughter in Atlanta, I attended her very large contemporary church and was quite shocked with the worship. The worship service was exactly as you described above. She warned me that it may be a little loud, but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity. After only a few minutes of the bass beat thumping in my chest I became physically ill. I managed to adjust to the noise level (I could not hear the person next to me when she shouted in my ear) but never experienced anything like worship of our Lord. I knew one of the songs and tried to sing along but was unable to hear my own voice. Curiously, as I was looking around, their were many people who were obviously enjoying the music. They were swaying, eyes closed, hands raised. The most pathetic part of this trend in worship is that all over the country small church groups in small towns try to emulate this type of experience and fail miserably. The preaching came next-only it wasn’t preaching. They had a video presentation of three people who have experienced difficulties in life and have overcome them. The presentation was technically superb. The content was rather bland. I know that the Bible doesn’t prescribe liturgy and there are many, many ways to worship God, but this current trend disturbs me because I think these many thousands of worshipers will never be challenged to dig deep into the mysteries of God.

  • August 22, 2012


    No duh. “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” was penned by Marx 169 years ago.

    Religion debases. Worship is ALWAYS wrong. Slavery is ALWAYS wrong. Beliefs about our natural world that are based on faith rather than science will continue to bring out the worst in humankind, and will surely be the instrument of our destruction.

  • August 22, 2012

    Craig L. Adams

    You seem to be making an assumption that if an emotional worship experience triggers the same “oxytocin cocktail” that a sporting event would than the experience can’t be valid. But, that can’t be right. We don’t cease to be human simply because we are worshiping. The test is not the emotion, but the content of the experience: did this connect me to God / did this connect me with others. It’s all about: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” What fosters love for God and love for others is legitimate worship.

    But, it could be worship for one person, and just emotion for another.

    I also reject your “inward” / “outward” dichotomy, but that’s another topic…

    Anyway, thanks for the post. It got me thinking.

  • August 22, 2012


    I too have concerns about this type of “worship”, however I wonder if all the hype and noise is an attempt to produce an experience because a true encounter with the Holy Spirit is lacking.

  • August 22, 2012

    John Ellison

    Enough talent and group psych can whip mega church worshipers and football fans into a frenzy.. Apparently a chemical is released, as there is during a run of over 20 minutes. If you show a male a photo of a sexy girl, he goes through physical and psychological changes…

    The runners high, the fan’s experience and the worshipers experience, and even the aroused young man are not of the devil or sin. We are built and designed BY GOD to react./respond to exterior stimuli and conditions.

    I get the same worship experience at home with my 12 chords and passable tenor voice as i do with a worship leader, team of 12 musicians and a well tweaked sound system. i am sure those chemicals are being released, in response to my encounter with God. I am sure David had a lot of that going on and he was under the influence when he wrote those psalms.

    i am more concerned by worship leaders that play simply to emotion to lead people to an experience. But if the heart is to seek Him… then whatever chemical reaction we experience in honest pursuit of God is fine.

    If God created us and He did…
    and our body reacts as He designed it… and it does…
    And He calls us to worship… and He most certainly does…
    Then the reactions are not evil,
    The desire for another similar experience is ordained
    It is the party/ football frenzy that is the real problem, they are satan trying to give people what they were designed to attain through holy worship.

  • […] is only about one to two hours a week which leaves a lot of time in between.  I recently read a blog post that mentioned a study completed by the University of Washington which found that large megachurch […]

  • […] When Worship Is Wrong – Sky Jethani talks about the danger of living from one mountaintop experience to the next. […]

  • August 23, 2012

    darb the great

    Worship leader for a giga church here (mega church is so 90’s)…it’s true we really worship satan. No really, that is our intent…finally we can speak openly about it! All thanks to a guy who has a blog and speaks about the evils of the consumeristic church…but would also love to come speak at your church about his published for sale books…for a fee of course.

  • August 23, 2012


    Excellent note! God looks on the hearts of men. Thus, we should examine ourselves to see whether we be in the faith … worshipping God with a pure heart, in reverence and awe of His Majesty, because we love Him and desire to serve Him with our whole heart! Our adversary the devil is always trying to deceive, to kill, steal and destroy, so we must be vigilant about living for Jesus, daily, moment by moment, no matter where we are.

  • August 24, 2012


    I agree that a mountaintop worship experience is no substitute for the continual “practice of the presence of God” in our everyday lives and work. But I’m troubled by the idea that emotionally charged worship that feels good is actually “wrong.” To me, that seems to be reflective of the school of thought that “if it feels good, it must be wrong.” And I disagree that this phenomenon of emotional engagement occurs only in the megachurch or similar environments of loud, excited worship. Isn’t it possible to experience a passionate emotional connection with God simply through prayer in the quiet of one’s own heart? And finally, I have to wonder if God, the Creator of our hearts and minds and spirits, didn’t purposely design worship to be a fulfilling and emotionally satisfying experience. Of course we should continue to worship and seek God even when the feelings aren’t there. But if we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, as Jesus commanded, then we’re allowed to worship with our emotions too.

  • August 26, 2012


    XXIAN, how sad that you misunderstand. You state that faith-centered views of the natural world will ALWAYS bring out the worst in mankind.

    Two things about that: first, when I was in elementary school, a teacher told us that any statement that includes the words “always” or “never” will usually be false.

    Second, it’s not faith that brings out the worst in mankind, but the deviation from that faith. Many have committed sins and atrocities in the name of God, but they were acting out of their own selfish, sinful impulses. If they had followed the Bible, they would have adhered to Paul and Jesus’s teachings about being kind, generous, caring, loving peace-keepers.

    As for your promotion of Karl Marx, let’s look at three atheist leaders who followed his teachings: Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Oh, what benevolent leaders they were, weren’t they?

  • August 28, 2012

    Dave Helmuth (@adlib247)


    I found myself asking why you were writing this article. What do you hope we do?


  • August 30, 2012


    I would like to start by saying, I lead Worship at a small 30 member Church on Saturday nights and attend a huge 7000 member mega Church on Sunday morning, so I feel somewhat equipped to speak on this and I will attempt to not take a side here. I do find myself worshipping my ‘personal preferences’ more often in the larger Church i.e. I like this song, my displeasure of all the lights and smoke machine, evaluating those around me, and totally loosing site of Worshiping the mighty King of kings. There have also been times in the small Church where I start focusing on my idol of personal preference thinking, “where is the participation, or my band did not do as good’. There will always be that lack of ‘experience’ as long as my flesh gets involved and redirects my worship. You hit the nail on the head on your last paragraph. We are in constant, ceaseless worship all of the time. Once we start to understand that, it becomes imperative that we do not go seeking a place to turn on and off worship but understand it is constant. All of the time and everywhere. The moment you are not Worshipping God, you have to ask yourself, “what am I worshiping or pouring myself into”. An idol is something we shape and then allow it to shape us. The more I understand this, the more I find the statement ‘He showed up’ an incorrect statement. He is always here! Seeking an experience is just the moments we have allowed ourselves to notice He is here. The moments can be continuous and anywhere and everywhere. Now I am not judging any Church Worship service as wrong, (read Ephesians 3 :7-13 and really focus on what 3:10 means) but once we allow our idols take our focus of God, you will never find that ‘experience’. 1 John 5:21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

  • August 31, 2012


    When you say the problem is not the gatherings, I disagree strongly. The gatherings are quite often designed around promoting these kind of false expectations. The problem is not that we aren’t being spiritual enough during the week. We never are. No amount of personal spirituality can prepare a person in such a way that the genuine mountaintop can be manufactured on Sunday morning by disco lights and a fog machine. The problem is this doctrine about worship which comes from charismatic theology intersecting with pietistic revivalism.

    I agree that the Holy Spirit is the source of all true transformation. But when you say encountering God requires learning to embrace a divine mystery, you point us to an internal, subjective quest for the presence and power of God. I suggest that in the end this is equally futile. If we want to see God moving in our lives, working on us to make us who He wants us to be, our focus should be on something outside of ourselves, but not on the platform show. I believe God works primarily (though not exclusively) through his Word and the means of grace. These cannot fail, whether or not I “learn to embrace a divine mystery.”

  • September 1, 2012


    Steve says: “I know that the Bible doesn’t prescribe liturgy and there are many, many ways to worship God, . . . ”

    Well, yes and no. Certainly, there are many ways to worship God. For the true Christian, literally all of life is to be worship unto God (Romans 12:1-2), but I believe if you were to look into the liturgical development of the early Church’s corporate ordered worship, you’d find that liturgy is prescribed in great detail by God through Moses in the OT and everywhere assumed in the NT (with many Bible scholars agreeing that there are portions of early creeds and hymns contained in the epistles, among other things). The NT bears witness that the first Christians and their leaders continued to follow the liturgies of Israel in Temple and synagogue until they were kicked out and that there was a definite Apostolic tradition of how to celebrate the Eucharist liturgically and what was to be taught as doctrine (creed) that was passed down and expected to be followed faithfully (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:22-24 and I Corinthians 15:2-4, where the English translations using words like “received” and “passed on” come from the same Greek term meaning “tradition”), so innovation in worship that is not first given by Christ to the Apostles through the Holy Spirit is not a good thing from a biblical perspective! Like with Korah in the OT it might be considered “strange fire.” The Apostles and first believers are described in the original language in Acts 2:41-43 as continuing not in “prayer” (generic) but “the prayers” (as in prescribed liturgical). The basic elements of NT worship are also described in a very early text called the Didache, which you can find the text of online. The corporate spiritual life of the early Church, like that of the Jewish people out of which it developed following the fulfillment of the OT sacrifices in Christ’s Sacrifice, continued to have a very sacramental flavor complete with initiation rites and regular “breaking of bread” (i.e., celebration of the Lord’s Supper), liturgical corporate worship forms, daily periods of prayers, prescribed daily Scripture readings, and regular prescribed weekly fast days, to give several examples. Our modern contemporary free style worship with performers on a stage and the absence (in most cases) of an altar in the sanctuary would arguably be quite foreign to the first Christians whose basic understanding of “worship” was the formal, ritual offer of sacrifice–in their case, that “once for all” sacrifice of Christ through the Symbols of His Body and Blood in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist.

  • September 5, 2012


    God is faithful and will answer if called for in earnest, open if requested, be found if sought; one cannot be in the presence of God – however He may reveal Himself – and not be permanently changed. His promises endure forever. Some seek and never get to the place when they knock, or call. Distractions occur. The book Screw tape Letters by C.S. Lewis is helpful with that idea. Jesus said “Whoever is not against me is for me”. This helps determine a finer point of a changed heart, but only God can understand the completed picture.
    There are certainly well orchestrated, with fine details, God-given directives for Worship of Him in the Torah. He knows the sincerity of our hearts, then and now.

  • You definitely caught my attention with the title of this article! I haven’t heard about this study, but it’s fascinating! And you do a wonderful job of writing about it, as well as bringing in religious facts from the past. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this study—I’m looking forward to seeing what my fellow ministers think about it.

  • September 12, 2012


    Life is ironic. Just yesterday, a couple who have been attending our church for 18 years (18 years of discipleship, teaching & praying in their home) decided to start going to another church. I heard a couple rumors through the grapevine that “our church was lacking,” “we don’t preach the book of Revelation enough,” and “the people in the new church just love more!” So I went to go hear the couple first hand. They were shocked I came, but they said, “Pastor, we love your preaching and teaching, but we just wanted more.” I said I understood and it is great they are getting more, but I then asked, “What is the more you are getting?” The husband wanted me to warn everyone that Jesus is coming soon, and I am not warning them enough. But the wife said, “The experience of the Holy Spirit. They give video testimonies at the new place, they call for renewel each and every service after an amazing set of worship, and they just experience the Holy Spirit more fully.” Now I love to worship, and so does our church (in fact, many people would accuse our church of violating this article) but the new church they attend is a show. The sad part is this family never really listened to sound doctrinal teaching (esp. when it comes to rightly dividing the scriptures concerning the end times; they want their preacher to link all current events to the coming of Christ). But the lights, camera, action is what has really captured them. So thank you for this article, it has really offered me some much need encouragement after losing people I love from our congregation!

  • […] Jethani reflects on the findings of a new study regarding the way worship affects our brains. The implications of this research on the church’s practice of worship are […]

  • September 18, 2012

    Andreas Sher

    Is this necessarily a new problem? All the opulence and grandeur of the old cathedrals was supposed to awe people. The organs with their massive pipes were able to produce such low notes that have a physical effect on the human body which produces an emotional response (sorry can’t cite any specific references on that). All producing a false feeling of worship!

  • September 21, 2012

    Paul Clark Jr

    Dr. Don Hustad at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary introduced me to the term, “inspirational junkies.” I do believe the research you reference helps us see where some of the addiction comes from. Thank you for your appropriate words of caution and balance.

  • December 9, 2012

    Kyle Fuller

    Awesome article!!

  • January 3, 2014


    I’m going to ask politely. Please stop posting on this article. A public domain is no place to discuss these issues. And to the author: If you have any further grievances with any Church of Christ, please go to them instead of writing hurtful articles. These things cause hurt by encouraging cheap, one line responses that do not produce any real change. Or do you not see what your words inspire? Just look at the comment section, and it is clear that the damage is extensive.

    I myself seek to stop the online flame wars that Christians rage against each other every day. If you have a problem with a brother, go to them discretely to present your case. If this is not enough to persuade him, take another. If he still refuses, then take a deacon too. If this is still not enough, then the pastor. As a last resort, bring him before the congregation, and if he still refuses to turn from his wicked ways, then toss him out of the church; for such a man is not a member of the family of Christ. God set up these parameters for a reason. Please follow them.

  • January 7, 2015

    Michael Hardin


  • January 8, 2015

    Nathan Rousu

    While I can see what types of worship practices you are challenging within a certain type of Western church – and I sympathize, there are a few things that I would challenge with the article.

    To say that ‘transformation cannot happen through external experience’ is not biblical or historical. The whole idea of “liturgy” through the history of the church is that by participating in it, it is a vehicle that can help transform the individual. You become what you behold. As well, “faith comes through hearing” (Ro 10:17) – an external experience. What about fasting to gain strength in spirit? What about how Jesus interacted with people – teaching, feeding, healing, delivering – did those external experiences not change people?

    It appears to me that the aforementioned statement and the inside-outside statements are more so articulating a specific western world view than expositing a scriptural principle or world view.

    No doubt physiological realities play into the mix. But, to take on such a mechanistic worldview too easily dismisses the activity of the Spirit within a time of worship – including ‘worship concerts’. It’s not either / or, it’s both / and. While I dislike excesses and abuses as much as the next guy, I think we need to be just as careful that we don’t exclude the possibility that an encounter with the Holy Spirit could also include emotion just like we need to be careful not to make an assumption that an emotional experience must be the Holy Spirit. Discernment is key for each specific situation. Generalized statements don’t work well here.

    I agree there are certainly elements of the entertainment culture that are subverting our church culture and thus detracting from worship rather than add to it. However, I think we need to be more careful in the analysis.

  • January 10, 2015

    Chris Thomas

    Spot on. Oswald-Chambers said as much. Nothing much grows on the mountain tops, we must live in the drudgery of the valley below. Nee pointed out that “to walk and not faint” is not very exciting. It is not how high you jump, but how you walk when you land.