(Not so) happy-clappies

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who express their Christian worship with the musical accompaniment of a young male guitar-player, drums and a female backing singer (all the people being beautiful) are covering up their darker emotions and experiences with forced happiness and manufactured positive emotions.

Like many universally acknowledged truths there is, well, much truth in it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in large happy-clappy meetings and found myself engaged in conversation afterwards with people who felt like they were the odd one out in the room; that there a sense of exclusion from the exultation for people like them.

If only all the odd ones out could meet each other…

Anyway. The other side of universally acknowledged truths is that they are often generalisations which don’t bear the weight of the meaning read into them. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and I’ve been paid to work in and for churches for 11 years. Much of that time has been in and around the Charismatic movement so often characterised as happy-clappy. In that time I’ve also been one who has struggled with depression, as well as living with a long-term chronic illness with no sign of cure that affects my quality of life (ankylosing spondylitis, thanks for asking) and a learning disability (dysgraphia, which you probably haven’t heard of). Those things mean many things. For now what’s in my mind is that I am acutely aware of my own brokenness and fragility. People who mock Christianity say that it’s a crutch for the weak. To misquote a West Wing character, what you use as a badge of shame, I’ll take as a badge of honour. I need a crutch. It’s the ones who don’t realise they need crutch whom I pity.

Now many would say to that to live with that sense of brokenness, incompleteness, as I do is incompatible with being a charismatic Christian. Sometimes that’s felt true. I’ve sat in meetings, church services and conferences in which you’d swear no one had ever had a bad day, let alone a sense of weakness now that they’d signed on the eternal dotted line. I’ve heard charismatic Christian speakers say some stupid, ignorant, insensitive things. Many times I’ve said and hoped and prayed that the songwriters of the movement would write about a broader range of emotions and experiences.

And they have. As some of them have grown older, they have grown wiser. Songs have started to take on subtler shades. Emotions of different types are starting to find a place in worship: “You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me”; “scars and struggles on the way…”; “..the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering..”.

So, then. Whilst I’ve yet to have an experience in corporate sung worship as emotionally rich as a Radiohead album or gig, for me it makes emotional (as well as theological) sense to live with the label of ‘charismatic’ Christian, even if I don’t buy the whole package of subculture and marketing. For me – and recognising that some will not find this – at least in this way my good and bad days have emotional expression in worship. At least I find there that my emotions are allowed in the door of the worship experience.

I lead one church community, and on Sunday evenings attend another. The latter would wear the label of charismatic Christan. My experience of it, where I’ve preached a few times, is of an increasing emotional depth and maturity. People talk from the front and in conversation about dark times and difficult days, of mental illness and suicide. Recently one young man stood in front of that congregation, talking of his recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he had learned in this community, this charismatic Christian group, that it’s OK for him to have very bad days, to be barely able to see Jesus in the distance. Among the many things I pray for the community I lead is that we will become a place where that kind of thing can be said.

At the worst this expression of Christianity, like anything led by people, can be hard and painful and make you feel crushed into a mould. At the best it gives you a space to make emotional sense of your brokenness before God and with people. The Bible refers to this as the experience of having ‘this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s a way of saying we’re prone to being broken, chipped and cracked vessels of something we are not worthy of carrying, but find ourselves carrying anyway. It means that what may sometimes be, or seen to be, an emotionally toxic brand of forced happiness is in fact what Christians call joy. That, as the hymn writer says, though things may get very, very dark, it is still well with my soul.

12 thoughts on “(Not so) happy-clappies

  1. Great stuff Dave, thank you for reflecting, for writing and for sharing. I also found Sunday evening very moving and beautiful – expressions of the reality of life, not trying to cover the cracks, deepest darkest moments of people’s lives bravely shared, but also genuine stories of the hope and healing that has come from God and the community of the church.
    I particularly like what you say at the end about joy/treasure in jars of clay… not forced happiness but genuine peace and a sense that it is ‘well with my soul’ even if we walk through dark times…

    Reading this makes me think of what Miles Giljam said at Anglicans Ablaze – about the need to move from woundedness to brokenness (best session in the conference in my view). Moving from a place where we are wounded – focused on the hurt that others/the world causes us, with all the blame, self-pity, bitterness, victim mentality etc associated with that and moving to a place of brokenness – being able to able to weap with those who weap, our hearts moved by what moves the heart of God in our communities and world, able to acknowledge our weakness humbly before God and others, allowing ourselves to depend on God and others.

    To me it was a beautiful way of expressing what I deeply believe is needed. It’s good to be broken before God, and to admit that of course we all are, and yet to intentionally, with his strength and healing, move from a place of woundedness, into that brokenness.

    So good to read your reflections – keep them coming!! :0)

  2. HI Dave,
    Great to hear what you had on your heart to share. I was frankly quite nervous when I saw certain people stand up at Church on Sunday night. I know their journey. I knew what they were about to share and I feared for them. But as you say, this congregation is moving towards an emotional maturity where it is ok to not be perfectly “happy”. Thank you for keeping us real. I am reading a book called Kitchen Table Wisdom by Dr Remen who says that it is high time medical practitioners moved from being technicians of the body to being healers of the soul. And the way to the soul is to sit as it were, around the kitchen table and tell our stories to each other. It is when we tell and are heard with compassion that we heal.

  3. Hiya Dave, I’m new to your blog, I found a link on someone’s fb page. I really like what you’ve written here. Thank you for your grace and thoughtfulness in the way you express yourself. I’ve been living with chronic illness since 1996 and my experience of God and his utter 100% reliability and faithfulness and love had deepened through this time. I think I’m even more “charismatic” now than I was before, I feel like the happy clappy period was when the “charismatic” movement was in its infant stages, and that was a really important part of it’s development. But who would want to get stuck at any developmental age ? It becomes incongruous.

  4. Really interesting thoughts here that connect with what I’m presently thinking through – I had a conversation with my Dad this week which was about this very thing. He recalled the ‘outpouring of emotion and flowers’ when Princess Di was killed and the prophetic words that had predicted the revival that would as quickly come. 15 years on we reflected that perhaps the breaking of the ‘stiff upper lip’ in church was going to be part of the preparing the way for that very revivial (whatever that will look like). The sooner we acknowledge that we are one ‘big, happy dysfunctional family’ and live that out in all its messiness the sooner those outside the church walls will sit up and take notice.
    Loving each other in all our brokenness is the real thing that lets people know who and whose we are. The ‘shiny happy people’ are actually hard to love because they aren’t real…

  5. Hey Dave. As one of the lead worshippers who was one of the female backing and lead voices(maybe not as beautiful as you describe), I agree and disagree with some of what you say. Great, as it gives me some time to reflect on the other side of the stage….and yes, it does become a place of performance….of pretend happiness. I may digress on some points.
    I speak as a lead worshipper who still suffer from depression on and off and still uses meds. I sometimes find that when I take on a posture of worship, that often God gives me an insight into joy that I would not have had if I did not engage in worship corporately. I’m forced to focus on God’s character and not my own…naval gazing becomes God gazing which takes us into a place where my depression and my feelings is not as important as where God hopes for us to be. So when I sing the happy clappy songs I am singing hope and prophesying over the church and myself, rather than pretending I am what the words speak. I leave with a deeper sense of hope….maybe more should be spoken of worship from the proverbial pulpit, so that people have a better understanding about corporate worship…I think.
    Saying this, I am one of those who will hide from this weekend’s love revolution conference because I’m having a season of more conversational, reflective kind of worship with fewer people…..seasons I think require different expressions of worship for different people.
    I can’t remember my point now:), as I’m writing this chatting to my kids at the same time……Sooooo, I love your blog and would love to engage more on this topic! love Mauri

  6. Last point I think, sometimes, lead worshippers aren’t given the space to lead….given their 4 to 5 song formula, starting with a praise song, then into more reflective and then ending off with a slow number at the end….ending off quietly and reflectively….in my experience, that is. In the space I’m at now, (the recognising brokenness one) I’d rather be reflecting on a Psalm with some U2 playing the in background, or some instrumental, or, or, or. …there is much truth in pop music and other even thoug “Jesus” or “Worship” or “pRAISE” is not mentioned in the song…..my best worship session in the last two years…..going to a U2 concert.

    • Hi everybody. I’ve been slightly overwhelmed by the attention this post has been receiving – it seems to have taken on a life of its own; I’m glad it is proving helpful! Every time I speak about depression and being a Christian, a few more people seem to come out of the woodwork and talk about how freeing it is to have someone at the front talk about it.

      A couple of things. I think I should clarify that the 1st paragraph (‘it is a truth universally acknowledged…) is aimed to be something describing a popular (mis)conception of charismatic Christianity…something based on some truth, but not seeing the reality, the heart. It’s pretentiously alluding to the1st paragraph of a Jane Austen novel, which sets up a novel that does the same thing. One rhetorical flourish too many – sorry!

      I’ve had a lot of people revealing honest stuff in emails, messages, tweets etc, so thanks to all. Mauri – just to respond to what you say…it’s great that this your experience of worship and depression. As I said, what I value about charismatic worship is that at its best it gives space to the expression of all the emotions…some of them joyful! I have joyful days too and it’s good to bring those into worship. But when I, and others like me have very bad days, being in a corporate worship environment which doesn’t appear to take account of that state is often unhelpful. Sometimes it does help to take my gaze off the situation – however, when I feel like that more usually worship can just be not giving up…and I need more space. Hence, like you, I’ve found more emotional richness at Radiohead/U2 etc gigs then many culturally Christian spaces. But as I said also – the church I go to sunday evenings (christ church kenilworth) is doing a great job of working with different emotions.

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  9. Someone put linl on Twitter to this today. Helpful read – am charismatic childless married woman prayed for and whose husband had prophetic words for two other women both of them having children and knowing several other couples with miracle babies. Still call myself charismatic and found significant healing through worship in my early 20s but agree we need to be more emotionally literate and real in what we say, sing and do. Husband blogs about honest Christianity as Children’s Hospital Chaplain who lives daily with acute suffering of others

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