When Is The Experience No Longer An Experience?

I’ve done it. I’m sure you’ve done it. They do it at the student conference. They do it at the youth worker conference. They do it at the summer festival, the mission trip, the workcamp, and the concert. Experiential Worship.

What’s Experiential Worship?

It’s the…

– come to the cross and nail your 3×5 card with your sins on it to the cross…
– take this rock and drop it into the bucket of water…
– write on this piece of paper then through it into the fire…

For years we have used these exercises as ways to give something physical to a action that is mostly spiritual. We make the intangible process of letting go, giving up, surrendering to God, something tangible; we let go, we burn it up, we throw it away. We go to great lengths the find the right songs, the perfect images, and the necessary props. We stage, prompt, practice, and prepare. And we hope and pray that some one will actually do what we are working so hard to create.

Sometimes there’s tears. Sometimes lives are changed. And sometimes we set our students up for a fall.

While at a recent youth ministry event the organizers planned for 3 evenings of experiential worship. At the end, students would be able to respond through an exercise that would help them make the intangible, tangible.

But things didn’t go quite as planned. On the first night. Some confusion in the directions cause an awkward transition and some of the students found it to be silly. On the second night little to no explanation was given. A video was shown, the leader went to a cross near the stage, touched it, and quickly left the room. After about a minute or two another person from the event staff stood, but they just left. No cross, just left. Awkwardness filled the room. Afterwards kids and leaders reported mixed emotions, confusion, even anger.

On the third night, things went okay. But right after the worship time, I over heard a kid say to his buddies, “yeah, I just went down to the cross, ate the grape, put my hand on the cross, counted to 10, then left.”


A couple thoughts come to mind.

1. What are we creating with all of these worship experiences?
I love the idea of the worship experience, I really do. But there seems to be experiences every where we go. What does this mean for our students? Are we conditioning them to expect worship experiences? Does every worship time have to conclude with an experience that ends with students crying all over the place? What kind of theology are we teaching them? Does God only move, talk with us, draw near to us when we light a post-it note on fire? Are we creating a generation of “experience” junkies, needing the next retreat, conference, mission trip for a quick fix?

2. What about those who have responded so many times that there’s no longer an experience?
Some of our student have participated in dozens of these worship experiences. Are we ruining them to the point where they walk through the motions simply to get to the end of the night? Are they able to take seriously any sincere challenge to grow closer to God? How do we respond to the student who puts his hands on the cross counts to 10 then walks away?

Is there a danger in having too many worship experiences? What do you think? Are you seeing students living from worship high to worship high? Are you seeing student bored by the same old challenge and agenda? I’d love to read your thought for and/or against the practice of worship experiences in student ministry. Leave your comments and thoughts in the conversation!

– jay

3 thoughts on “When Is The Experience No Longer An Experience?

  1. Since you asked, I’ll c and p from twitter.

    I have only had one “experiential worship” experience that I can vividly remember being meaningful. The rest fell flat. As a participant, I mean. Leading things as a counselor had a few better results doing the simple things with younger campers. But as a whole, they need to be used sparingly (three within a single event is probably three too many) and stay super special. And preferably personal, nothing anyone else can (or should) see. For me at least, no walking to the front to touch a cross.

    The one meaningful one? A foot washing halfway through a full summer of camp where my circle of friends rotated and washed each others’ feet.


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