More than a Camp High: Pursuing Emotional Experience for the Glory of God (Part Two)

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This is part two, of a two-part article. You can read the first article here.

Let me suggest four ways student pastors can pursue experiences of God’s presence for their students, without using emotional manipulation.

  • See Worship as Its Own End.

The experience of delighting in God, being happy in God, or feeling satisfied in God is why we worship. We don’t worship to get sanctified (although I hope that happens). We don’t worship because it’s the right thing to do (although it is). And we don’t worship because it will make God love us more! John Calvin says we worship because “God contains the fullness of all good things in himself like an inexhaustible fountain.” Worship, the effort of delighting in God, is its own end.

When the ultrasound registered no heartbeat for my unborn son, I did not ask myself either of these questions: “What benefit is there to crying in this moment? To what end is my grief aiming?” No, the most honoring thing I could do for my son was, from the depths of my heart, weep uncontrollably. And as we come face-to-face with the God who is more real than death, the most honoring thing we can do is from the depths of our hearts enjoy him.

If we or our worship leaders do not view worship as its own end, the emotion our students experience in worship can be the product of manipulation.

  • Sing Scripture

I don’t mean we only sing the book of Psalms, but that all our songs speak biblical truth. Because the extent to which our songs are scriptural is the extent to which our students will be changed and we can trust their experiences are legitimate. Scripture is living and active. Scripture divides the soul, and rebukes, convicts, and trains us in righteousness. Isaiah 55:11 tells us that it’s the word of God that does not return void. If we are serious about pursuing emotional experience for the sake of our students’ spiritual vitality, we must be serious about Scripture being the context and content of that moment.

Practically, that means we should be careful about the songs we sing. Not everything a Christian label produces should be sung uncritically. Sometimes that means we don’t sing certain songs, or that our worship team will change problematic lyrics. In our main service, we often have verses of Scripture at the bottom of the projector screen that “prove” the lyric we’re singing.

The point is, Scripture is uniquely promised to be powerful in spiritual formation. So let’s trust it to guide our student’s emotional experience of knowing and delighting in the Lord as they meditate on the gospel, day and night (Ps 1:2)

  • Sing the Gospel

The only thing called “the power of God” in Paul’s writings is either the gospel, or Jesus himself (Rom 1:17; 15:19, 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24, 2:5, 2 Corinthians 6:7, 13:4, Ephesians 3:7, 2 Timothy 1:8). If we want to faithfully engage our students’ hearts to meet God’s power, we must be constantly preaching, explaining, remembering, and singing the gospel. If the gospel is God’s power, there’s no real Christian experience apart from Jesus.

For us, this means that each worship set is built around three movements: The glory of God, the gravity of sin, and the grandeur of grace. First we sing about God in his transcendent glory and power – which reveals to us how unlike Him and how far from Him we are – which leads us to cry out for Jesus. As we do this, our worship team also works to create space and time for response. We want our student to sit and ponder the glory of God, wrestle with their sin, and then meditate on the grandeur of Jesus’ grace. Sometimes that looks like moments of silence, personal or corporate prayer, or repeating a chorus a capella. But the goal is, to the best of our ability, our students’ experience is centered around the “power of God” in the Gospel.

Now this “gospel-arc” isn’t always obvious. But whether our students are aware or not, I’m convinced the liturgical flow is an important antidote to emotionalism. Because emotional manipulation always stalls; it’s like canoeing on a still lake. The swelling drums, the dark room and loud noises can only transport us as long as we keep rowing. The power is in the paddling. That’s why camp highs always end. It’s why “I will never do _____ again” statements are broken one week later; it’s why purity pledges don’t take. We can only row so long.

But when the Gospel is the experiential center, it’s like kayaking down a river – the power is in God as his Word and Spirit awaken hearts, exhilarates worship, and propels on mission.

As pastors, we want our students to experience real power. And in singing the gospel, if a student feels especially “in love” with God, or “empowered” by God, or just “feels” God one night, we don’t have to be skeptical. We can be confident that as we proclaim “the power of God” the Holy Spirit really is working in our students and we can celebrate with them.

  • Ask that the Holy Spirit be Specially Present.

My pastor is fond of saying, “We should have no expectation that God will give us – apart from prayer – what he has only promised to give us through prayer.” More simply, you don’t have because you don’t ask. That is true, especially when we talk about the Holy Spirit and his presence.

Jesus, when teaching his disciples about prayer says this:

“What father among you, if his sonasks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

In Matthew’s account Jesus says, “…how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” When we talk about emotional experience in worship, we are talking about a good gift. And the reason it is such a good gift is because it is God himself. As faithful pastors then we must pray that God would specially and powerfully work among our students, not just on retreats, but each time we gather.

So it’s in these four ways, I believe we steer our students away from emotional manipulation and toward the only emotional experience that will satisfy them – meeting God in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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