Why is it so difficult for Evangelicals to make the transition from evangelical “praise and worship” services to the more restrained and, dare I say it, dignified Reformed worship services? Any pastor of a Reformed church can tell stories about evangelicals, particularly females, who testify that they love the theology, piety, and practice but that they miss the contemporary praise music (CPM). For some, the need for that music and the affect it brings is so strong that, despite their intellectual connection to the Reformation, their affective connection to Evangelical CPM makes the shift to Reformed worship difficult—Reformed worship does not seem like worship to them. Why might that be?
I have been theorizing about this phenomenon since a friend mentioned that he wanted to attend a confessional Reformed congregation but said he was “hooked” on the CPM. He did eventually find his way to a Reformed congregation and is happily serving the Lord. Still, several people have testified to me over the years how difficult it was to make the transition. I made the transition in a different era. What we know today as “praise music” did not exist in the form it does now. It did not have quite the same affect or effect that CPM does now. According to my observations (and those of other pastors) it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months to detox (I use that term intentionally) from CPM. Reformed churches already face a number of challenges in, what is to us, “the New World” and now we face this challenge too.
My theory is that CPM might indeed create a sort of feedback loop of positive reinforcement. In this process, a congregant sings CPM songs for 25–45 minutes during the “praise and worship” portion of the service, a certain amount of dopamine is released creating a mild sensation of euphoria. That process is reinforced through daily use of CPM (via radio, Spotify, etc.) and repeated weekly in corporate worship services.
There is apparently some basis in science for thinking that there is a connection between music and a release of dopamine, creating a mild sense of euphoria. In 2011, Nature Neuroscience published a study in which researchers from McGill University in Montreal tested for and found evidence of dopamine release in response to music. The study used PET scans and MRIs to discover the link. The sample was very small (8 participants) who “had to experience ‘chills’ consistently, to the same piece of music, without diminishing on multiple listening or in different environments.” This response seems like the sort of phenomena people describe when they say that they “really worshiped.” When asked what they mean by that, they have said that they got chills. Since that time, another study (in 2018) seems to find a “causal role of dopamine in musical pleasure…”.
I think the past few years have taught us all to be a little cautious about invoking “science” and I readily admit that I am predisposed to believe that there is causal link between singing CPM and a dopamine release. Nevertheless, experience matters. Years ago, when I was a long-distance runner, I got a “runner’s high,” i.e., I experienced an unexpected release of endorphins during a run. I ran farther and more frequently thereafter, partly in search of that experience of endorphins, but it never returned. The description of the runner’s high also reminds me of the way some people describe the euphoria they experience while singing CPM: “…a short-lasting, deeply euphoric state following intense exercise.” I have not found the same sort of literature connecting endorphins to music.
Perhaps there is nothing to it, or perhaps there is a biological response to CPM? In the nineteenth century, the revivalists (e.g., Charles Finney et al.) developed a system for gaining converts. The use of “new measures,” e.g., what amounted to CPM in the 19th century (e.g., see ch. 13 of Finney’s Lectures on Revival) was a part of that system. The revivalists developed what they regarded as a scientific approach to revival. It was the age of factories and now the making of converts had been automated. The use of stirring music and instruments intended to affect the hearer became basic to the process.
Dear Reader, if you or a loved one is in transition from the Evangelical culture of praise music to something like historic Reformed worship, you might take into account the possible connection between CPM and euphoria and the challenges that withdrawing from CPM might pose. Give yourself time. Understand that euphoria, as pleasant as it be, is not worship. The identity of euphoria with worship is the stuff of another essay altogether (see the resources below). Pastors will want to be patient with newcomers from the Evangelical world, who may well be going through withdrawal and suffering from some of the symptoms. In time they will find that it can be sublime to sing God’s Word simply. Some years ago, our congregation sang Psalm 42 (I think it was) a cappella and at least some of us were moved to tears (even I seemed to have a case of seasonal allergies just then) by hearing God’s people sing God’s Word. Who knows what the Spirit of God might do through the due use of God’s ordained means?
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- The Sublimely Ordinary Drama Of Regular Lord’s Day Worship
- Keith Getty’s Critique Of Contemporary Worship Music Is A Step In The Right Direction
- The Addiction to Religious Euphoria
- More On The Quest For Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE)
- The QIRE Distilled To Its Essence
- Reformed Churches are Scripture-Singing Churches
- The Antecedent To Worship
- The Principles Of Reformed Worship
- Reformation Worship Conference: Psalms For Preaching & Living
- Resources For Recovering Psalmody
- Reformed Worship Is For Pilgrims
- The Growing Influence of the Anglican Tradition in Reformed Worship