February 5, 2019 Michael Steiner

Is Auto-Pilot Dominating Our Liturgy?

Your brain accounts for almost twenty percent of all the calories you burn in a given day. That is more than any other individual organ in the body, even when doing vigorous exercise.

Here’s what that tells us—thinking is hard work. Consciously engaging with any kind of activity requires a tremendous amount of your energy. Your mental energy is limited, and the more you use the less you have. Your mind is constantly looking for ways to shortcut having to consciously engage with anything in order to conserve mental energy for important issues.

Your mind is constantly looking for ways to shortcut having to consciously engage with anything in order to conserve mental energy for important issues.

One of the basic theories of behavioral economics is called the dual-system theory and looks specifically at this issue. Essentially, what behavioral economists have found is that your mind runs on two systems. System 1 is a series of automatic processes governed by the limbic system, which is the smallest part of your brain. System 1 thinking requires very little energy, and is based on instinctual reactions to a common occurrence.

A great example of this is when you casually see someone on the street that you kind of know, and they ask “how are you?” and you automatically respond with “I’m great how are you?” In this interaction, very little conscious thought, and therefore mental energy, has been exerted saving your energy for whatever else your mind was thinking about during the whole brief conversation.

In contrast, System 2 thinking is your conscious active thinking, like when you are solving a puzzle, or when you are really enjoying the conversation on a first date. System 2 is based in the prefrontal cortex and requires a tremendous amount of energy, so you reserve this kind of thinking for things that you actually enjoy doing.

What we’ve discovered is that the vast majority of all decision making is made with System 1—you wouldn’t make it through your morning routine if you had to consciously think about every little thing you were doing. Your mind is constantly delegating tasks to System 1, and the more consistently you do something, the easier it becomes to do it automatically without thinking about it.

I think that dual-system theory has many implications for both the theology and practice of our faith, especially as it relates to our Sunday services. One area in particular can be examined in our worship through music.

It seems like every week, another church or another group is putting out a new album. We are frequently being flooded with new worship music; yet, when you go into a typical church on a normal Sunday, more often than not they are still singing Oceans. Don’t get me wrong, I love Oceans! But isn’t weird that our churches often get stuck singing the same songs for decades?

We are frequently being flooded with new worship music; yet, when you go into a typical church on a normal Sunday, more often than not they are still singing Oceans.

Something that I’ve always found hilarious is how frustrated your average congregant gets when the worship team sings a new song on a Sunday morning. Anyone who has been a part of putting together worship services knows the headache of trying to introduce the congregation to a new worship song.

For me, both the lack of change in church worship culture and the complaints from congregants bring me to a profoundly theological question –“Why does the church even bother to write new music?”

While there are myriad of great answers to this question, I think the one most pertinent to this discussion is that, if we don’t write new music, we run the risk of allowing our congregations to slip into worship on auto-pilot.

Our minds are very, very good at automating our actions. You can have a congregant whose arms are lifted, eyes closed, swaying to the music and singing every word aloud and yet be completely thinking about something else. The more familiar they are with the song, the more likely they are to be worshiping in a System 1 mode.

This is one reason why we need new music in the church. A new song forces us to engage in System 2, to consciously think about the words we are singing and allow the music to begin to form us spiritually. Not only that, but at its core, true worship must involve some form of sacrifice—it has to cost us something. David says this in 2 Samuel 24:24 when he says, “I will not present burnt offerings to the Lord my God that have cost me nothing.”

If we don’t write new music, we run the risk of allowing our congregations to slip into worship on auto-pilot.

Singing a new song costs people something—it costs them the mental energy it takes to engage with it. That’s one of the main reasons they complain about singing new songs, because the determined act demands them to be fully present in the moment of worship. A new song doesn’t allow for your mind to wander and your worship to slip into auto-pilot.

There is also a message in this to writers of new music. It can be just as easy for them to “write on auto-pilot”—to let system 1 thinking affect their ability to engage with the act of coming up with new ways of worshiping our Creator. Writers of music have to critically examine the lyrics they are writing, and they have to push themselves to ask “have we sung this before?” or even the more radical question: “will this song be easy for my congregation to sing or will it cost them something?”

There is nothing inherently wrong with System 1 thinking—it is an amazing feature of the human mind and it makes all of our lives so much easier. But our worship does not belong on auto-pilot. Our worship should be a System 2 experience where the whole of our mind, soul and spirit is fully engaged with bringing glory to our Creator.

Worship leaders have been given the gift of creativity—to create new experiences with God that move us into a closer union with the Divine. Without that creativity we would all slip into auto-worship and miss the opportunity to be transformed and renewed again by the presence of God.

If you are worship leader who hasn’t flexed that creativity muscle in a while, please be encouraged to get out the guitar and a notepad to start writing.

Your church desperately needs that new song. It is time to let it out.

PS: Shameless plug – If you need a little inspiration, then check out SEU Worship’s latest album, Heaven Life. I dare you to try and listen to it on auto-pilot.

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About the Author

Michael Steiner Michael Steiner is the Chief of Staff for the Office of the President of Southeastern University. He is also a licensed minister of the Assemblies of God and a Ph.D candidate in Business Psychology. He is passionate about equipping and empowering ministry leaders with the tools to create thriving organizations.