What Triggers Religiously Significant Experiences?

Mainline churches traditionally emphasize a transcendent spiritual experience, meaning above and beyond the ordinary. They meet in settings very different from weekday environments. Worship happens in special buildings (sanctuaries with stained glass windows) and in special clothing (gowns and Sunday-best) with organ music now associated only with churches. Sunday is meant to be a weekly uplifting experience. Transcendent worship is “formal.” Those are highly structured triggers.

Younger Christians today look for immanent experiences closely related to their normal daily life. They respond to different triggers. They are comfortable meeting in buildings that have other uses. In our case we meet for contemporary worship in a large gym with basketball hoops that are folded up out of the way for worship. Many congregations meet in sections of a mall. Clothing is casual, including that of the leader. Music is with guitars and drums, much like what they hear in popular contemporary music. “Informal” is a very appropriate summary of the immanent style.

Triggers of traditional religious experiences are easier to identify. For someone raised with the symbols in a traditional Lutheran, Presbyterian or Baptist church sanctuary, participation in a service may bring back positive feelings, even if those are not articulated well. These could be the relaxing sense of welcome home, or the refreshing enthusiasm singing a well-loved familiar hymn, or feeling safe and secure going through familiar relaxing routines, an easing of the yoke of everyday stresses. For them spending special time there with God is good.

Insert here your personal story of positive encounters with traditional triggers for worship. I have in mind a Catholic neighbor woman with seven children who went to Mass every morning for the strength to get through the day.

Traditional transcendent triggers do not work for everyone. For many, those cues from childhood bring negative associations of boredom or oppressive guilt. They don’t work either for someone who has never been in a sanctuary. There are many young adults out there whose only exposure to a sanctuary is perhaps their involvement in a wedding, now just one of many special settings for the nuptials.

Roman Catholic theologian John Shea observes that Church and Tradition enshrined a set of triggers. The problem is they are being questioned today. “The presence that people used to find in the dark back of Gothic churches they now claim to find in the bright light of the secular world.”

He describes how this second, today more-traveled path to having religious experiences is found in the multiple life situations in which people find themselves—of sickness and vitality, of questing for truth and struggling for justice, of loving and reconciling.

Transcendent church and Immanent church are two different cultures. Most community churches start from the beginning with Immanent church. “Non-denominational” is their code word to communicate this. The roots of mainline churches are in the Transcendent (old-fashioned) culture.

These two approaches to church life often conflict in a congregation that has both styles, even when the sanctuary service continues as it was. Some of our older members still call the gym service with a praise band a “hootenanny.” These are two different church cultures. It took fifteen years, including a change of staff, for our church to get really good at contemporary. It’s like learning a new language, because it is indeed a new and different culture.

Transitioning from an old to a new church culture inevitably raises the problem that happens with second and third generations. The old triggers don’t work for them as much anymore. They may have found the old culture boring and may have no positive associations with it or maybe even negative associations they are trying to escape. When they feel the need to tend to their relationship with God, they naturally look for and gravitate to the kinds of worship young adults their age from a similar social culture are experiencing.

What is the future for formal traditional worship? Not good. Face it. That old culture is dying. A few young adults are attracted on rebound from their experiences in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Some of those are in traditional seminaries, resisting any change to what they have learned to value. What is the future for those seminaries? Not good.

Scroll to Top