Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience of emotion, intimacy, joy, wonder, or happiness. Indeed, this is a close cousin of the ecstasy in ecstatic utterances. The experience sought is one where active seeking gives way to a passive experience of overwhelming pleasure or emotion.
Critically examining emotional experiences like this has all the fun of ruining someone’s birthday surprise or spoiling a joke by blabbing the punchline before the narrator has finished. We don’t like people like that, who appear to find joy in lessening the joy of others. Not surprisingly, when a critique of someone’s spiritual experiences begins, the response is often an impatient sentiment along the lines of “Can’t you just let people have their fun?”, or, “What’s it to you if someone has a different worship experience to you?”
But in matters of Christian worship, we cannot be content if worshippers merely make the claim to an ecstatic experience. That’s precisely because the experience of worship is not the goal of worship. Worship is not successful simply because the worshippers enjoyed their worship. Christian worship is rooted in truth, and therefore everything that claims to be Christian worship must be a truthful response to a truthful revelation of the true God. In other words, you can get worship wrong, even if it felt right. Many people feel good about an exam they wrote, and find out they failed; some feel terrible and find out they passed with flying colours. The indispensable necessity of Christian worship is a true revelation of God from the Scriptures, and a truthful – that is, appropriate and corresponding – response to that revelation. The First Commandment restricts worship to the true God. The Second Commandment restricts the responses of worship to those He has commanded, which correspond to His being. The true God worshipped the true way constitutes biblical worship.
This brings us to a rather dispassionate discussion of felt emotions in worship, one that is sure to annoy all fans of scrunchy-face worship. Philosophers and thinkers have written much on how human emotions differ: their categories, their manifestations, and how they are evoked. Dating back to classical Greece, philosophers have often placed emotions into two categories: those evoked by reason, and those evoked by physical sensation. Different nomenclature has been used, but a similar idea prevailed for centuries. Pre-modern theologians spoke of the affections and the passions. Nietzche coined the terms Apollonian and Dionysian. Our own era has collapsed the two into the word emotion, but the distinction is worth reviving and keeping.
After all, the Bible makes the same distinction. It speaks of those who are controlled by their bodily feelings (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 8:5, 16:18). They are psyuchikoi, the soulish ones, controlled and dominated by appetite. By contrast, it speaks of those controlled by a renewed mind, and by the Spirit in our spirits (Rom. 8:5, Gal 5:16; 1 Cor. 2:15). The pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, are not manipulated by bodily feelings, but by affections and minds set above (Col 3:2). Let no one misunderstand. This is not the Gnostic dualism that pitted the body against the spirit. This is a biblical distinction between those who are controlled by rational submission to God in His Word, and those who are controlled (more accurately, manipulated) by the whims of a worldly desire for the temporal pleasures of food, sex, excitement, or euphoria.
What does this have to do with the intensity that Pentecostal worship seeks? Consider: is the intensity of Pentecostal worship a rational response of the heart, or is it a sensation? Is it evoked by consideration of truth, or charmed by a combination of chord progressions? Is the goal to rightly value and admire God, or to feel my feelings?
The fact that the intensity that is sought is felt so acutely in the body (hence the intensity), the fact that is often evoked without much understanding or meditation on revealed truth, the fact that the participant often feels passive and overwhelmed would lead many observers, ancient and modern, to classify Pentecostal intensity as a passion, as Dionysian, or even as sensual. Furthermore, the addiction that many have to it has all the signs of people who have found an emotional stimulant.
By contrast, Christian worship has to first pass through the filter of a Spirit-filled understanding. It must respond submissively, which means humbly, soberly, and reverently. That also means such a response is modest, because humility, almost by definition, is not flamboyant or outrageous. Worship like this is “Apollonian”: it creates some distance between mind and body, because the mind is reflecting on truth, not being manipulated by what the body (the ear) is finding sensuous pleasure in. Certainly, the response may be robust, triumphant, and filled to the brim with zeal. But it is always a response that the spirit is making to the Holy Spirit’s illumination. It is never an irrational feeling of pleasure that sweeps upon one because of a combination of chords, rhythms, nostalgia, lighting, breathy and crooning vocals, or some other sensual trick. Those are marionette strings, attempting to pull on the appetites directly.
The worship of the true God is persuasive, not manipulative. God persuades us to admire, by revealing His beauty in His Word. False gods manipulate by placing audio-visual candy canes in front of our noses and ears. Persuasive worship is by nature, then, “slower”, requiring more time, concentration, and focus, for no one can be persuaded without some rational thought. Those addicted to manipulative worship instinctively call persuasive worship “boring”. Indeed, would a toddler prefer a forty-minute explanation of the wonders of galactic supernovae over a cartoon? Manipulative worship impatiently skips the slow and deep persuasion of the human spirit (knowing full well that it will not be popular with the masses). It will give us the intensity our bodies crave, regardless of the object of our worship. When it comes to what Pentecostals call “intensity”, we would do well to distinguish persuasive, spirit-centred zeal from a manipulative, sensually-controlled passion.