Corporate Influence and The Culture of Narcissism

Willow Creek was one of the first churches that attempted to make church more accessible and enjoyable to non-Christians. In the early stages of forming such a service, however, they were repeatedly falling short in the area of musical worship. After visiting a charismatic church in 1982, Pastor Bill Hybels found the missing link. “For the first time in his life, Bill had experienced the kind of worship that [his church] had been dreaming about—worship that was rich and heartfelt, where the presence of God was deep and real, and where hearts were changed as a result of being there.”(3) They immediately began implementing this style of worship into their seeker service, but they took it one step further. Not only did they embrace this cultural product with a Christian twist, like the Pentecostal Church and Charismatic Movement had, but they accommodated to the culture itself by setting up lights and loud speakers in order to give the people what they wanted. The production was a big hit, and coupled with Willow Creek’s impeccable business marketing strategies the church began to grow like no other. And although it was not the original goal of Willow Creek to explode in numbers—they simply wanted their friends to come to Jesus—they soon became a megachurch and a much-coveted standard among other evangelical churches.

Out of Willow Creek flowed the Contemporary Church Movement, and when it caught on, Contemporary Praise and Worship began turning less Biblical and more cultural. It had become shaped by consumerism. It became a show, just another place to be entertained. William Romanowski, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College, describes the process:

There is a connection historically between Contemporary Christian Music and the Megachurch Movement. By bringing contemporary music into the worship service, it also brought all the cultural baggage that comes along with it. So Contemporary Christian Music, even though it might have grown out of purposes like evangelism and worship, gets used in an entertainment setting. Conversely, it brings that entertainment setting into the church. A lot of critics ask, has worship become entertainment? It professionalizes worship in a certain sense.(4)

This shift made it very difficult for worshipers to look beyond the stage to the One Whom it was all about. It didn’t seem to bother the worshipers, though. They were getting what they wanted, an emotional experience in the presence of God. Christians were bumping up against narcissism in their worship. It was only fitting, though, seeing that the culture of consumerism had already gripped their lives outside the church.

In the 80’s, the topic of self-esteem and other therapeutic catch phrases began surfacing in American culture. Self Magazine was even established, symbolic of the direction of our culture’s heart. The Contemporary Church found tremendous success in emphasizing anxiety relief programs. Everything seemed to shift focus inward to the self. Worship was no different. In his book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch identifies several characteristics of a pathological narcissist. Everyone in our age subconsciously operates in some of the less extreme, common narcissistic traits in their everyday lives. One such trait is “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with fear of dependence.” Another is “a sense of inner emptiness.”(5) These two descriptors might be the most accurate motivating factors that sustained contemporary worshipers. They came to need the warmth of God’s presence, but feared committing their entire lives to Him. They could never feel satisfied in His presence, because as much as they received from Him experientially, it was never enough. More talk of narcissistic worship, as it currently pertains to Contemporary Praise and Worship, will be discussed in the next section.

The insatiable appetite for emotional encounters with God is closely related in principle to the Christian music industry’s capitalistic excesses. As Contemporary Praise and Worship spread across denominations and into the 90’s, its public popularity was increasing dramatically. By the middle of the decade, worship leaders such as Darlene Zschech, Darrell Evans, and Matt Redman brought a new wave of freshness to the scene, especially among charismatic churches again. Passion Ministries heightened the demand by emblazing hundreds of thousands of young people and college students with powerful new songs by Chris Tomlin, Charlie Hall, David Crowder, and others. Many of the popular CCM artists, such as Michael W. Smith, Petra, and Third Day, began putting out albums full of Contemporary Praise and Worship songs instead of their usual concert-oriented songs. The industry clearly felt which direction the market was moving, and they cashed in. Not only were the production companies and distributors making big money, the development of Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) made a way for individual songwriters to profit. This brings us to today. What does Contemporary Praise and Worship look like now? (next post)

(3) Horness, Joe. “Contemporary Music-Driven Worship.” Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views. Ed. Engle, Paul E. & Paul A. Barsden. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2004. 108.

(4) Romanowski, William. Religion & Ethics News Weekly. PBS Interview. April 30, 2004. Episode no. 735.

(5) Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. W.W. Norton: New York. 1978. 33.

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