We all want to see people ‘get it.’ As creators, we long for our art to be understood—especially with little or no extra explanation. As curators, we struggle to gather disparate elements and create new meaning with the express desire that the meaning we portray is not lost on those who come. We not only want worshipers to rudimentarily grasp our meaning, but to deeply internalize it. It is a pleasing bonus if the worshiper is surprised, maybe even startled with epiphanic understanding.
These desires are so strong for worship creatives that we will often go to great lengths to ensure an emotional impact is felt, an elusive intellectual concept is comprehended. We long for hundreds of little invisible light-bulbs, hovering over each and every gathered one’s head.
In this longing, we can cross over from simply creating powerful messages to crafting seductive manipulation. Where is the line? If we hope to instigate ‘epiphanies,’ what is appropriate and what is going too far?
Art that ‘goes too far’ might resemble image exploitation, using pictures that are mostly composed for ‘shock value.’ It might also involve unbalanced emotions—excess sadness or joy, extreme violence (as in The Passion of the Christ), exceptional stories with melodramatic details.
Worship events that ‘go too far,’ might involve spiritual manipulation in the form of misused scriptures—theologically squeezed for preferred interpretations. Manipulation in worship also takes the form of activities that allow for only one kind of participation, with the illusion of options. For instance, imagine a time of public confession in which people are invited to share at will, but are forced to sit in extended, uncomfortable silence while no one chooses to stand up and share. In this example, we are not attempting to manipulate individual emotional responses—as with manipulative art—but instead to humanly create a ‘spiritual environment’ that may not be what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the moment.
In all of these cases, we are hoping, striving for epiphany. Epiphany at any cost.
I don’t make it a habit of manipulating epiphany in worship, but I do recall one event in particular that perhaps may have crossed some lines. One of the first times I led a team in creating a large-scale Stations of the Cross event, we saw some very strong emotional responses by the worshipers who came. If one were to have stood at the exit—where the last chronological station was positioned—one would have witnessed a high percentage of people exiting with visible tears. I happened to speak to one woman as she was leaving. She said that when she first arrived to attend the event, she became angry.
Our team hadn’t foreseen such a large number of people showing up for this open house-style worship event. Because we were only allowing a few people in at a time to control the pace, nearly everyone who gathered was forced to wait outside in the frigid air for 20 min or longer before actually being allowed to enter the building and walk with Jesus to the cross and tomb. This woman said the cold waiting had brought up all kinds of anger in her. “How dare they make me wait to worship!” “Why didn’t they plan this better?!” she thought. By the time she had made it through the stations and been very graphically reminded of Jesus’ suffering via video, drama, images, recorded storytelling, and interactive art, she had realized her anger and felt “guilty” for the way she acted before.
I remember being quite satisfied (not in front of her) that our curation had caused such an epiphany in her heart and mind. However, upon further reflection, I’m wondering how much we—intentionally or not—manipulated her through our set up and the content of this event.
What do you think? Did my team manipulate emotions by making people wait in the cold before being reminded of the “real” suffering of Jesus? Or, was this physical experience of waiting an appropriate way to engage the whole person, beyond simply the intellect?
How much, as worship curators, are we allowed to ‘press the buttons’ of worshipers toward their own spiritual enlightenment? Or, is this too much like playing Holy Spirit?
Can you share with us a worship event or singular moment in which you may (or may not) have crossed the line between appropriately using art and manipulating worship?
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