Chasing the Elusive Wow

Randy Gill
  • “The Wow” – that incredible ‘chills down your spine’ feeling that only music can create.
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I have loved music my whole life.

My mother tells me I was just a little boy when she first heard me say I LOVED a piece of music. We were riding in the car and a song came on the radio that really moved me. My mom was surprised by the strong reaction. The DJ didn’t identify it, so she drove to the radio station to track down the record. It was called Trumpeter’s Prayer and I love it to this day.

What Is The Wow

It was the first time I had experienced “The Wow” – that incredible ‘chills down your spine’ feeling that only music can create. I’ve been trying to experience it again ever since.

Unfortunately, The Wow is rare – and it’s elusive – I’ve experienced it maybe a dozen times in a lifetime of music.

Sometimes just listening to music can bring on The Wow. Maybe you had the same reaction I did the first time you heard Michael Jackson’s The Man in the Mirror. The key change when the choir enters still gives me goosebumps. I can listen to that over and over again. In fact, I do listen to that over and over again – and every time I go, “Wow!”

The Wow is also so powerful, so transcendent, it makes all the ‘almosts’ and ‘not quites’ worth it. Interestingly, the one place in my musical life that was almost completely devoid of The Wow was church.

I grew up in a very conservative acapella church. The idea that what we sang in worship was supposed to be ‘exciting’ would not have occurred to any of us. The music in church was functional – one of the five ‘Acts of Worship’ that served as an effective segue between the readings, prayers, and sermon.

For the most part, it was hopelessly old-fashioned and lacked any kind of emotional punch – at least for me. But it didn’t matter whether I liked it or not. We were commanded to sing. So, we did. The rare exception was a big national gathering like the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop when we actually got to hear our tribe’s unique musical language done well, with all four parts sung loudly by a bunch of people and with lots of enthusiasm.

The Mid-’90s Wow

That was as close to The Wow as we ever got. All of that began to change in the mid-’90s. Suddenly, even our somewhat isolated tribe began hearing about ‘Worship renewal.’ Companies like Integrity, Maranatha, and others began releasing music meant to bring life into our worship experiences. Worship Leader Magazine introduced us to ideas, singers, and songs that were new, fresh, and exciting.

For me, for the first time in my life, The Wow showed up in church! And for several years worship was a completely different experience.

But eventually, the Wow became elusive again. Maybe you’ve sensed something similar in your life or congregation. I think a lot of us are experiencing what some would call “The Law of Diminishing Returns.” What was once thrilling, over time, becomes commonplace. After years of bland, head-oriented services, we’d had a taste of something new. And it was wonderful. But after a while, the new started to feel old.

I think this quote from Trouble at the Table is so true:

“What starts with a burst of enthusiasm begins to wear thin because people cannot come up with an endless supply of new ideas and because ritual is repetitive. Innovators who get rid of one tradition usually settle into their own, which often fails to stand the test of time.” (Carol Dorau and Thomas H Troeger “Trouble at the Table: Gathering the Tribes for Worship” 117)

The great irony is that worship innovations meant to invigorate corporate worship – to enrich the experience for the whole community – actually promote individualism at the same time. We start thinking things like “What am I getting out of this?”

Self-gratification in Worship

It shouldn’t be surprising. In today’s world, why wouldn’t we want worship to be personally satisfying? Almost everything else in our lives is designed for our gratification. We are used to being the focal point – the center of the enterprise – the audience. We’re programmed to think, “Here we are now. Entertain us.”

So, if worship doesn’t give us the chills, meet our expectations, or reflect our personal preferences, we leave disappointed and talk about visiting the church down the road with the funky name. If there’s no Wow, why stay?

In his book The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Rodney Clapp compares the traits of shoppers to worshipers:

“Since consumers are ‘schooled in insatiability,’ they can never be satisfied. Since their makeup consists basically of ‘unmet needs’ that can only be satisfied by goods and experiences they think first and foremost of themselves and meeting their felt needs.” (The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture 188-191)

All of this is complicated by the fact that we have so many choices now. When I was growing up there was typically an unspoken, deep devotion to a particular tribe and congregation. I had no idea what was happening in other churches because I was fine with mine. And it was understood that you don’t cross the streams!

Today we are exposed to so many different worship experiences outside of our tradition that they’ve made us open to things our tribe would never have considered in the past.

Today almost everyone has experienced some kind of big interdenominational worship event. And they’re often amazing. There’s so much energy and passion with a huge cast and a matching budget.

And we want what we experienced there to happen every Sunday in our home churches. Why can’t Sunday morning be more like listening to Chris Tomlin or Maverick City at the arena? Why don’t I feel like I did the first time I heard Kari Jobe sing Revelation Song.

Where’s The Wow Now?

There is a school of thought in worship ministry that says our primary goal in planning services ought to be creating those moments. There are articles and books with charts on how to manipulate keys and tempos to have “maximum impact.” It’s all about using the culture to create The Wow.

But worship itself is actually countercultural because, unlike most of our world, it’s not about us.

Mike Cope writes:

Worship isn’t an Olympic event whose performance we are asked to evaluate, nor is it a giant psychiatric couch where our wants are explored or a monstrous, corporate pep rally where excitement is stirred. It is a performance at the throne room of God with him in the center.” (In Search of Wonder 32)

So where does that leave The Wow?

Are excitement, joy, and abandon out of place in worship? Absolutely not! There are too many scriptures that call for us to shout and sing for joy. This is not another tirade about the evils of modern heartfelt worship. What I’m saying is more confessional than that.

I’ve been a musician my whole life.
I LOVE music.
And I love The Wow.

I just want to make sure I love God more.

I want to remind myself – and all of us – that worship is bigger than The Wow.

In To Know You More Andy Park writes:

“Let’s not falsely label our high emotions as a visitation of God’s power. Emotion in worship is good, and the presence of God is good, but they are two different things that are not always experienced simultaneously.” (To Know You More – Andy Park 156)

I remember a really significant moment years ago. I had just finished leading a praise medley that was especially powerful. When the last note was sung you could tell that everyone in the room wanted to respond. We wanted to shout or clap. But we didn’t. We just stood there…emotionally constipated. Suddenly, from the back of the room a young boy, standing on a chair, shouted “Yay! Hooray!” It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever heard anyone actually say “Hooray.” I looked at the congregation and said, “Don’t we all want to do that?” So, we all did! The whole place began cheering and laughing and clapping.

That was an incredible, unforgettable moment.

But I’ve also experienced his presence in a simple, even mundane, Sunday service.

There have also been countless God moments that didn’t involve music at all in readings and testimonies, prayer, and even silence.

I’ve come face to face with God and seen him glorified in movie theatres, while reading poetry, or a great novel, or in a quiet conversation with a friend.

An Overemphasis on The Wow

An overemphasis on The Wow causes us to focus too much on music and neglect these nonmusical elements.

It can cause us to reject certain types of songs that don’t have enough emotional impact. We’ll ignore a great hymn, for example, with powerful lyrics because the melody isn’t moving enough. Or we’ll avoid slow songs because we’re afraid people will get bored.

Ultimately God is bigger than music. So is worship. We have to fight the impulse to believe otherwise. We are underestimating God if we think the only way to draw people to Him is through the latest Phil Wickham song.

We have to be mature enough to believe that God can be honored and lives can be changed even if the music in a particular worship service doesn’t give us the “goosies.”.

The Wow is wonderful.
But the Wow is primarily a feeling.
And that feeling is elusive and temporary.
If you believe you have to feel a certain way to experience God, you are destined for a life of frustration and disappointment.

I believe The Wow is from God. But it’s only one of God’s gifts. To spend your life, or your ministry, chasing that one gift is to deprive yourself of everything else God has to offer.

The Wow may be elusive. But God is not.

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