Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this 'woe is me' attitude--all the while thinking God has abandoned them. But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences--conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death--other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.
But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience--the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear--and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me. What causes such a drastic change?
After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion--I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God. And I've come to the realization I'm not alone. Just google the phrase 'experiencing God' and you will see what I'm talking about. There are numerous sermons, blogs and books on this topic. In college, I took a worship class in which one of the required readings was dedicated to discussing this issue. The pages within that book laid out principles on creating an environment conducive to experiencing God. That same semester, I wound up discussing this idea with a worship leader. One Sunday evening, after our student led worship service, I questioned why we always seemed to end with an upbeat, joyful, "Jesus Loves Me" type song. I thought, on occasion, it might be appropriate to end the service leaving us in a repentant mood. His very telling response was, "People should leave the service feeling warm and fuzzy inside."
All of this, at least for me, raises some red flags. Not because I believe God cannot be experienced via our five senses like some might argue. Neither is it because I have a hesitancy with an experiential faith. Nor does it bother me that experiencing God can fill us with hope, joy and peace. I also don't take issue to the fact that God comes in displays of grandeur. Rather, it bothers me because I fear that we are unintentionally creating an environment where people come to the church seeking a certain experience. Like Elijah, they have a tendency to put God in a box assuming any experience has to fall within certain parameters.
Perhaps it seems like I'm just rambling and not making any sense (I don't blame you for thinking that, I kind of feel the same way). Let me try this approach. Every week many of us pray that we would experience God in a powerful way--at this particular place, at this particular time. Hours are put into every Sunday morning worship service to ensure God shows up. The music is arranged in a specific manner. The lights are dimmed just so. The videos evoke certain emotions. The sermon is compelling and has just the right amount of humor.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning any of these things. I'm glad we don't haphazardly throw together our worship services. I think it's important to be intentional and prayerful. And I'm a huge fan of technology--when it works. But I wonder if we are too busy manipulating the various elements, that we miss the fact God is already present?
Sadly, sometimes I have been too blind to realize this. I've left church feeling no different than when I entered. Unmoved, I begin critiquing the music, picking apart the sermon, commenting on how distracting this or that was. I make comments along the lines of: That was a waste of time. The service just didn't do it for me. I didn't experience God today.
God made it clear to Elijah, in the span of a few days, that he can't be nailed down. He isn't confined to mountain tops, tabernacles, worship centers, or prayer rooms. I just don't picture Paul wandering the streets of Jerusalem asking: Who has the best worship music? Where do I go to hear most compelling sermon? Which tech crew is top-rated? Of all the temples, where am I most likely to meet with God? Yet, if I'm honest, I do this very thing.
The reason I don't experience God has very little to do with where I attend church. It has more to do with my perspective and the receptiveness of my heart. God can be experienced in numerous environments--the coffee shop around the corner, the bar down the street, the shelter across town, my cubicle at work, the park by the river--if only I would learn to see. To think otherwise is just another form of idolatry.
I've been doing some soul searching, asking myself some pretty revealing questions. What if I showed up to church and the building had no air conditioning? How would I respond if the worship team wasn't as polished as usual? Would the absence of ambient lighting change the way I viewed the service? What if the sermon didn't strike a chord with me? What if I had to stand because there were no chairs? Given these circumstances would I still find God? Or would I walk away looking for a different place to worship because it offered a better experience?