…But now, standing onstage at the [Royal Albert Hall], singing in front of a full orchestra and a huge crowd, I [felt]…a slight detachment, looking down on myself inhabiting this particular time and space, but also a complete sense of engagement. I was in good voice, and felt like I was singing from somewhere deep inside, and we were making a big noise for once, which was enveloping the room, and the crowd seemed spellbound and entirely mine. It felt like an obvious ending. Cue the swelling orchestra, and … The End. Credits.
I went backstage and hugged everyone, gushing about how it was one of the best nights of my life, then a few minutes later crept back on to the stage to collect something I’d forgotten. Already the audience had gone, and the room was empty. Roadies were dismantling everything, joking and swearing, and out in the hall bits of litter were being gathered and stuffed into plastic bags. All the lights were on, and in the flat glare the room seemed suddenly vast and meaningless. Whatever had happened there a few minutes before was over, the atmosphere evaporated, the space simply dead and neutral, waiting for the next night, the next thing to happen and fill it with some substance. I looked around and wondered, did it mean anything, then, when it was so quickly gone?
Tracey Thorn, formerly the lead singer of Everything But The Girl and now a solo artist in her own right, relates the above experience in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen.
Those of you who have served at Passion gatherings have no doubt experienced something similar to this if you stayed around to help with loadout after the event was over. You are in the final session, surrounded by tens of thousands of college students singing their hearts out. The band is on point, the lights are blazing, and you are all making a huge noise to fill the cavernous arena. It truly feels as if God is present here.
Then, a few minutes later, you are back in the arena and it is completely transformed. All the seats are empty, all the students are gone, all the house lights are on, and all the stage and sound equipment are in various stages of being dismantled and hauled out. Whatever was happening here just a few minutes ago is now clearly over. All sense of God’s presence in this place is now evaporated, the space now dead and neutral, waiting for the next event to come and fill it with some meaning or other. Like Thorn, you probably wonder to yourself if what just happened at Passion can really mean anything when it is so quickly gone.
If you have attended Passion but never volunteered, believe it or not there will come a point in your life when the only way you can go back to Passion is as a volunteer. You have not yet experienced the above, but you will. Trust me.
So what do we do with this?
First of all, let this experience disabuse you once and for all of any notion you may have that worship is nothing more than what happens when Chris Tomlin and friends are onstage, that worship begins and ends with the music set before the sermon. Begin to take a much broader view of worship; one which includes the music, yes, but also includes the sermon, the sacrament, and everything else which happens during the service. And things that happen beyond the service, especially when you serve those who are less fortunate. Because it is among the poor, the needy, the oppressed and otherwise marginalized in our society that God has promised to be. There is a boatload of Scripture to make this clear.
Let this experience disabuse you once and for all of any notion you may have that what happens in large gatherings like Passion will produce real, sustained life change. The Christian life was meant to be lived out in community with other believers. It is here, as you do life with a small circle of close and trusted friends, that real and sustained life change happens. Evangelicalism has placed way too much stock in the Christian life as a “Jesus-and-me” thing. But “Jesus-and-me” is no longer good enough (as if it ever was). You need to be in community with other believers who are on the same journey as yourself. You need a safe place where you can drop the masks of false piety and false certainty and be real, where you can share your struggles, doubts, and fears, and know that you are not alone.
Begin to look for God in the places where He has promised He would be. Christian community (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” –Matthew 18:20). The sacraments, especially communion (“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” –1 Corinthians 11:26). Avail yourself of this as often as your church has it. If your church doesn’t do it very often, find another church that does. That’s okay. And service to the poor (“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” –Matthew 25:40). There are probably others, but this should be enough to get you started.
And you will begin to find God in the moment after the moment, when all the lights have come up and it seems that all trace of God’s presence has vanished. And the moment after that moment. And the moment after that moment. Et cetera.