Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Congregants sing during a Sunday service at Blackrock Church on April 10, 2022, in Middleton, Wisconsin. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post/Getty Images)

A chapel service began February 8 at a small Christian college in Kentucky, and it kept going night and day for nearly two weeks. 

It’s been referred to as the Asbury Revival, and has been taken as a sign of a deep spiritual hunger among members of Generation Z who find themselves coming of age at a time of historic change and instability.

My reaction, like that of many, was mixed. I found the students’ raw emotion and obvious hunger for transcendence moving. And I have seen intense experiences serve as touchstones in people’s lives. 

At the same time, I have reservations about defining revival only as a profound religious service. Why not define revival as an uptick of love in action? I also think emotionalism can lead believers away from faithful living, rather than toward it. It’s hard to move into sacrificial service or to grapple with the complexity of real-world problems while trying to maintain a spiritual high. 

I say this as someone who was born and raised by parents who were part of one of the biggest revivals over the past century: the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. So I have a lot of experience in highly emotional worship settings. I spent years of my youth and young adulthood in such situations.

Perhaps like some Asbury students, my most devoted spiritual years were during college. After an initial period of awakening, I spent years seeking to recreate, replicate and sustain an emotional intensity that I associated with pleasing God. 

That was more than 20 years ago. I’m now a 45-year old father of teenagers, and I’ve spent the last two decades working as a journalist. 

I have no criticism for earnestly sought after experiences of God, which I’m sure characterizes much of the Asbury revival. I do, however, think it is a mistake to make euphoric or ecstatic religious experience the goal or chief pursuit of one’s faith journey. That’s one of the ways that the Jesus Movement went awry, as I argue in my forthcoming book Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Failed a Generation.

I grew up in a church where every Sunday we gathered in a large auditorium. I was surrounded by hundreds of people. The drums and electric guitar were loud, the lyrics were hypnotic, the chord structures were simple and appealed to my emotions. I’d close my eyes, bow my head, raise my hands, and sway with the music. Everyone else did the same.

It is hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it what these church services are like. It’s beyond a mood-altering state. It is, at times, an emotional nirvana.

But over time, growing up in such an environment, and especially as I reached young adulthood, I questioned what it was that we were all chasing. It seemed like more of a quest for an emotional experience than anything else.

It created emotions of love for God and for others. But it didn’t build habits of behavior that helped me sustain a life of service and usefulness, or to grow in my faith and apply it to the challenges in the world outside church. I thought that was the point of the Christian faith: to love God and others, and to be salt and light in the world. 

In addition, there is a tendency in some strands of evangelicalism to believe that if you’re not having regular emotionally intense experiences then you’re far from God. Maybe God is unhappy with you. This is what I think is harmful. 

Over the course of my early 20s, I began to develop a strategy for how to navigate these emotional moments. I would sing the songs and leave myself open to experience emotional highs, but I wouldn’t seek them. I learned to flex muscles in my mind, to stop the emotions pretty quickly as soon as they showed up. I turned away. I went the other direction. 

I didn’t feel as if I was shutting down. Rather, I was introducing some self-control into the equation. I wanted to direct my religious and faith energy toward a life well-lived, more so than a series of self-centered experiences.

Emotion and passion have their place. They are vital ingredients to a well-lived life. But I am also cautious toward emotion because of the way it can cloud our judgment and corrupt our decision-making. 

These pitfalls exist in journalism. Social media fame and virality tempt me and others in my profession to pursue notoriety at the expense of integrity and public service. 

I have tried to avoid these missteps. As I sat in the Senate chamber for three weeks in January 2020, I realized some of my survival skills were acquired in church. I was covering the impeachment of then-President Trump. On the trial’s first day, I sat in the chamber and noted on Twitter that Trump’s lawyers had experienced a “mauling.”

The tweet got more than 50,000 likes and more than 11,000 retweets. That’s modest by virality standards, but for me it was a lot. I gained 3,000 followers overnight. Other reporters mentioned the tweet and how much attention it got during conversation in the hallways of the Capitol.

Engagement is attention. Attention is power. Even a small taste of that kind of power can be inebriating. The pleasure receptors in our brain that are activated by this dopamine release are similar to how our body reacts to ecstatic religious experience. 

Tweeting is supposed to be a tool, but it can metastasize into an obsession. It can become all-consuming, derailing our priorities and changing our behavior in unhealthy ways. 

A viral tweet can have a narcotic effect and get you thinking subconsciously, “How do I do that again? How do I get hundreds or thousands of likes and retweets again?” 

Unfortunately, we’ve learned that much of the social media business model actually depends on addicting us to these emotions and desires. Weaponized words get attention, and engagement, and followers. Words used as battering rams can bring emotional, psychological, and sometimes even financial rewards. 

But my job as a journalist is to inform the public, not reinforce their biases or whip up their emotions. Manipulating people to gain followers, and attention, is wrong.

The same logic applies to religious leaders. Riling up people’s emotions or preying on the natural human desire for ecstasy is unethical, not to mention un-Christian.

However, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to know when our emotions and desires are being preyed on. It is our responsibility to develop the habits and reflexes of self-control, moderation, and sober-mindedness.

My years of battling the urge to chase religious highs helped me fight off the urge to run after going viral again. 

The road less traveled is the one that diverts from spectacle and toward faithful work. Or as poet Dan Wilt put it as the Asbury services wrapped up: “Now we move from ‘come and see’ to ‘go and be.’”

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