Two Ways News
Two Ways News
The Atmospheric Church

The Atmospheric Church

Should we try to create a 'spiritual' vibe in our gatherings?

Hi everyone

Phillip and I are back together again this week, and tackling a curly but very important question. It’s the one that I promised we’d get back to, from Craig in the US, who wrote to ask about the creation of ‘atmosphere’ in church.

No doubt our answer will provoke even more questions, but we hope it’s a help to Craig, and to all of you, as you think through emotions, affections and ‘atmosphere’ in our church gatherings. (To email us your thoughts and questions, just hit reply to this email.)

The text below is not so much a transcript as an edited summary of the main points. To listen to the whole conversation, just click the player above.

Your brother


Here’s Craig’s question:

We have a rapidly growing independent church in our area that is basically reformed baptist in theology and not charismatic. The senior minister is a true evangelist, and they are seeing hundreds of people declaring their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. I’d watched portions of their meetings online and thought it would be useful to attend in person.

I was totally unprepared for the intensity of the experience. I once attended Hillsong, Surry Hills: this far exceeded that. Except for stage lighting, the room was pitch black. The lights constantly changed color, there was fog that created a moving glow over the stage, and the sound was so intense I could feel the pressure on my chest. I opened an acoustic analysis app on my phone and measured sound levels continuously in excess of an ear damaging 100dB. Total multi-sensory overload. I do not pretend to know their intent but either purposely or inadvertently, they seem artificially to be inducing the experience of Isaiah’s vision or Paul on the road to Damascus.

Do you think that the second commandment is more than a prohibition of a visual representation of God, but that it prohibits simulating God’s presence in any manner? Does the use of sensory mechanisms to enhance worship collide with the second commandment at some point?

Our response to Craig can be summarised under five headings.

1. How to read the OT law like Jesus

The first issue to think about is how we should read the second commandment, the one against idolatry. At face value, this commandment doesn’t prohibit sound systems or smoke machines or any kind of sensory effects or experiences—except for making any kind of visual representation that is meant to represent God, whether a human image, or the likeness of any animal or anything in all creation. It says nothing about cranking up the amplifier to 11, so perhaps Craig’s multi-sensory church experience gets a pass.

But that’s not how Jesus taught us to read the law. We’re meant to read the command ‘Do not murder’ (for example) as a short-hand reminder of our obligation to avoid anger, insult, contempt and all forms of selfish hostility towards other people. There’s a rationale to the law. It’s not a set of limited and arbitrary do’s and don’ts. It’s part of the deeper structure of moral meaning and order that permeates our world because of the character and goodness of the One who stands beyond and over our world, and who created it according to his own goodness.

Jesus says that kingdom living embraces the fulfilment of the law. We shouldn’t limit or domesticate the law’s requirements (as the Pharisees did), but rather seek to live out the deeper implications and meaning of the law; to seek the righteousness that the law embodied and pointed forward to.

What deeper moral meaning undergirds the second commandment? What is its rationale?

To answer that, we read in Scripture and find verses like Deuteronomy 4:9-19, which says:

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children—how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.

“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Don’t forget what you have seen, says Moses to the people. You saw … nothing. Out of the midst of the fire and darkness and gloom, you heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only the voice of God.

This was how Israel was to be different and distinct from the nations around them, who fell down before idols and images they had carved with their own hands. As Isaiah so brilliantly reminds Israel in chapters 44 and 45 of his prophecy, idolatry is the natural religion of the nations, and it is folly. They cut down a tree, use half of it to make a fire, and the other half of it to fashion an image that they fall down before. But it’s just a piece of wood. It can’t move or do anything. It cannot speak.

God on the other hand fashioned everything. He acts, he speaks, and all his purposes and declarations come to pass. God is the maker, who creates us in his image, and who relates to us by speaking. We cannot make anything that represents God, or relate to him by sight, because he is not a material part of the world he has made. He has no physical form. He relates to us through words.

All true and obvious, you might say. But we sometimes don’t appreciate the implications.

How do we relate to God today, and experience his presence?

In only two ways: as we hear him speak, and as his Spirit moves in our hearts to call forth a response to his word. This is just as true of our church gatherings as it is in our daily lives. We cannot represent God’s presence in any way, nor create or simulate his presence through any other means.

The rationale of the second commandment is that the true and living God relates to us by speaking. We must not be like the nations who seek to create a religious experience (via idolatrous worship) in order to conjure his presence, or in order to manipulate God into blessing us (as idolatrous religion always does).

2. The quest to feel God

This leads to a related issue. Just as we can’t see God, so we also cannot feel him, because he has no form or substance in this world—that we might reach out and touch him. He is not present in nature, such that we can worship God by worshipping nature. Nor is he available to our feelings by rising to a certain level of consciousness or emotion, as if there is a ‘spiritual zone’ of awareness above the rational that God exists on, and which we can enter by ‘rising above’ our rational mind.

This is the essence of all mysticism—that the way to relate to God is via a heightened state of feeling, one that rises above the purely physical and rational to experience God’s presence on the plane of higher awareness or spiritual emotion.

And this is why mysticism is always methodological—there are certain things you need to do in order to suppress the chattering obstacles of the mind and body: prolonged chanting, prolonged silence, physical postures or treatments of the body, mind-altering substances, rhythmic music and dancing, mental exercises to empty the mind, and so on.

Every mystical tradition in every religion has always done some or all of these things to excite within the subject some altered state of feeling or consciousness, as a way to access the divine—which by implication is only accessible on that kind of plane.

Even secular people are mystical in this sense. When they experience something extraordinary or deeply emotional or consciousness-altering, they often describe it as a ‘spiritual experience’. A relative of mine once had a $40,000 stereo system that she said induced this kind of ‘spiritual’ response.

In fact, in our post-Enlightenment, post-modern world, the plane of feeling or heightened consciousness is seen as the only possible place where God might be encountered, if he is there at all. To think that God might be accessible in the ‘spiritual zone’ of feeling and experience, rather than in the mundane reality of words, is both a very modern and a very ancient idea.

Sometimes, perhaps inadvertently (as Craig suggests), churches can blunder into these assumptions, and seek to appeal to an experience-hungry culture with an experience-rich church gathering.

3. But wasn’t the OT itself very ‘sensory’?

An objection might be raised at this point. Didn’t the OT itself create and maintain a very sensory, experiential encounter with God? Didn’t he speak on Sinai amidst darkness and gloom? And weren’t the rituals and practices of the temple very physical and sensory?

Well, yes. The incense, the fire, the blood, the fancy clothes, the elaborate ritual clothes—there was no shortage of colour and movement in OT worship.

However, as Colossians 2 reminds us very sharply, these various things were shadows; the reality has now come in Jesus Christ. The Son has come with all the fulness of God, and we have fulness in him. To seek after the shadow—that is, to want fasts and Sabbaths and ascetic practices and visionary experiences—is to mistake the shadow for the reality.

This, of course, is why NT church is so different from OT temple in its rationale and practice. And this is why the Reformers were so insistent that the Roman Catholic attempt to recreate a temple-like experience (with mediating priests, robes, fire, incense and sacrifice) was a blasphemy against the fulfilment of all those shadows in the person and work of Christ.

It’s interesting that when Christians seek to justify or Scripturally ground a sensory or experientially-focused vision of church (and especially of singing), they always quote the OT. It’s the mistake of Colossians. You’ve got the reality—why go back to the photo?

4. What about ‘stirring the affections’?

Now, no doubt the pastor of the church Craig mentions, as a Reformed evangelical man, would very likely stand and salute to all that we’ve said so far. He wouldn’t believe for a second that by setting up his church gathering in this way he was somehow conjuring up God’s presence; that in the darkness and the sound and the fog he was able to say that ‘God is in the house’ (as I have heard Pentecostal pastors say at the height of the emotional experience that has been created by a 40-minute barrage of light and sound and music).

He would possibly say, as some evangelical brothers have said to me, that he is merely trying to create an atmosphere that ‘stirs the affections’ of people to respond to God’s word; that he is seeking to create a vibe or set of conditions that makes it easier for people to express their emotions in responding to God.

He may even quote Jonathan Edwards at this point to support the idea that God only gave us singing in order to stir our affections. Surely then, stirring our affections through singing (and through a supportive vibe of light and sound) is just a modern day version of what Edwards would have approved of?

Not really. It’s worth reading Edwards’s whole treatise, to see how firmly and systematically he rules out any so-called ‘spiritual affection’ that does not spring from an appreciation of the goodness and excellence of God.

According to Edwards, the mere fact of having a sensory experience of the ‘affections’ means nothing, no matter how high or dramatic or profound they may seem to the worshipper. Affections can occur for many reasons, and manifest themselves in many ways. All those affections that are stirred up or excited by anything other than a greater knowledge of the excellencies of God as revealed in his word, are not genuine spiritual affections. Real spiritual affections are always the result of being drawn towards God by some apprehension, understanding or awareness of the goodness and glory of God; that is, by having some aspect of who God is break afresh on our understanding through his word by his Spirit, stimulating our hearts to love him, to repent before him, to seek to obey him, to rejoice in him, and so on. All genuine, godly, spiritual affections are like this.

Singing is a marvellous way to proclaim the goodness of God to each other with all our might, and to respond to that goodness with joy and delight. But it is not the music that produces these virtuous affections, but the work of God’s Spirit in enlightening our hearts and minds to understand and grasp the manifold goodness of God, as we stand and sing them together to God and each other.

To seek to stimulate spiritual affections or emotions through physical sensations—such as those we experience in darkened rooms, or in exalted cathedrals, or in response to rhythmic drums or diaphragm-shaking bass guitars—is to think and behave like mystics, even if we aren’t ourselves mystics by conviction.

5. So what sort of vibe should we have?

So what should we say about sound and lighting and atmosphere? Should our church gatherings be conducted in bare, bleak rooms, under the glare of 1000w halogen lights?

The NT train of thought that should guide us is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (from chapters 8-14). Because we are seeking the salvation and edification of many, we should be flexible about those things that aren’t important, and arrange the physical circumstances and experiences of our gatherings for the sake of hearing and responding to the word. So we should try to remove anything that is going to be an obstacle to speaking, listening and responding, including the physical circumstances of the gathering. We should provide a warm, welcoming, hospitable space for people to gather in—not something dingy or uncomfortable or dark or blindingly light. We’re after a Goldilocks kind of space that makes it easy for people to speak and hear the word in various ways, and to respond to it together.

But we shouldn’t manipulate the sound and lighting in order to produce various effects that we mistake for spiritual affections—for example, turning down the lighting during the singing so as to make it moodier or to create a certain atmosphere; or turning up the volume of the band so as to bring ‘energy’ into the room. Amplified music does bring energy, but it’s not a spiritual energy, nor does it produce a spiritual affection. If the singing in your church is just as edifying and just as spiritually stirring with a single guitar as it is with a five-piece band, you’re in good shape. If you need the band to bring the excitement, then there’s very likely a problem with your singing culture. (Maybe it’s time to go back to one guitar and work on it!)

Mind you, being thoughtful about the emotional effect of the various elements of the gathering is still important. Everything we do will have some kind of emotional effect, and it is worth considering these effects as we plan the flow of the gathering. For example, putting a rip-roaring song of celebration and joy immediately before the sermon is a bit daft, because it will tend to excite the congregation’s emotions at the very point that you’re asking them to sit quietly and listen for 30 minutes. We are embodied and emotional beings. We need to bear this in mind as we plan the various elements of the gathering and how they fit together.

In other words, it is one thing to be thoughtful and wise about the emotional trajectory of the gathering; to consider how (as a congregation) we can best hear and respond to God’s word together. It is quite another thing to create the kind of atmospheric church gathering Craig is asking about, where the goal seems to be create an emotive, transcendent experience that is mistaken for an encounter with the living God.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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