A Multi-Sensory Worship Experience – Really?!?!
My guess is, if you were to to describe a multi-sensory worship experience you would likely give some variation of the following description.
You might picture a convention hall or auditorium with a stage large enough to accommodate a drummer with a full drum kit, a bass player, two electric guitar players, possibly a saxophone player, two pianists and six vocalists each with their own mic. I also see multiple projectors displaying lyrics against a video background. Oh, and there are over a thousand seats filled with enthusiastic worshipper raising their voices, singing from the heart and giving further expression through the rhythmic waving of their arms while dancing at their seat or in the aisle.
This is my description. We have one pianist and one song leader who leads the singing for about 120 worshippers. The lyrics are projected on a 20 foot section of wall, usually with still backgrounds. The singing is a combination of young and old creating rich harmony.
Dissecting My Realty
Despite the apparent contrast between the two worship venue descriptions, the church I attend causes me to experience sensory overload. In the first couple months after acquiring a brain injury I would reach my threshold within 10 to 15 minutes. This would hardly allow me to take in even the first part of the service. Other times I would intentionally wait and come in part way through the worship service.
In addition to experiencing sensory overload during the worship service, it would take me a day or two to recover from the immediate effects. Needless to say, after a few attempts I decided it was best to stay away. I did not relish the predictable setbacks. The irony of not finding healing in a sanctuary was not lost on me.
After absenting myself for several months I thought I would see if I had experienced enough natural healing to more fully participate in worship. Having been absent for several months, I felt I had abandoned the community of worshippers who have shown me love, care, and support. This community, which I have been part of for thirty years, showed a desire to understand my struggles.
Sensory loading: Music
I now come armed with musician ear plugs. These are designed to reduce the intensity of the sound by about 15 decibels. This created the opportunity to participate in worship for an extra ten to fifteen minutes. It partially mitigates one aspect of my struggle with sensory loading.
The down side of wearing earplugs is that it makes me feel like a spectator. It puts me at a distance from the worship experience. The sense of feeling like a spectator is exacerbated by my choice of taking a back row seat so I can make an inconspicuous exit when needed.
Needless to say, the accommodations I’ve made makes for a worship experience that leaves much to be desired. To partially counter that, I will remove my ear plugs for one or two songs during the service just to remind me what it’s like to experience the full impact of the lyrics and music.
The sensory load is not only influenced by the intensity of the sound. Live music has a much greater impact than recorded music. Recorded music is flat. It lacks depth, resonance and emotion. Live music conveys a heart response to how the spirit is moving.
There are times when I don’t make it past the annex of the building. Those are times when, in simply approaching the sanctuary the music will hit me like a wall. It will stop me short in my tracks. I’ll immediately retreat from the sanctuary and need ten or fifteen minutes to recover from the immediate impact.
Sensory loading: cognitive
The sensory loading during worship is not limited to the music. It also builds while listening to the sermon. The cognitive demands add to the sensory load. I know I’m reaching my threshold when I start to lose focus. I find myself getting restless and can no longer follow the story line or the message that is being shared.
Sensory loading: empathy
The sharing of prayer requests also contributes to the sensory load. The sharing of requests can bring out a range of emotions. It’s the sharing of situations in which people are asking for prayer and support due to hurts and loss that are particularly difficult. Interestingly, prayer requests in which people share about healing of relationships and miraculous recovery, I find creates similar sensory loading. At times, following the sharing of prayer requests, I need several minutes to recover. This creates a break in my participation in the worship.
Each part of worship, the lyrics of a song, the text of a responsive reading, the message of the sermon, the petitions of a prayer, the confession, the giving of alms for specific ministries, each is meant to put us in touch with who we are and give expression to our life purpose. Each part of worship contributes in different ways to my sensory loading.
Managing my Time
To manage my sensory load, my strategy is to exit from the auditorium during some of the singing and selective parts of the service. At times it begins to feel more like a smorgasbord, rather than a wholesome worship experience.
Following the worship service I enjoy mingling with others over refreshments. At times the worship time puts me at the threshold of sensory overload. I will then look for a quiet place to give myself ten or fifteen minutes before joining others.
Even when I think I’m doing quite well by the end of a worship service, friends have noticed that I look tired, or my complexion lacks colour. For me Monday is my recuperation day. I generally will not schedule anything significant.
Worship is still part of my life. Worship is not confined to a building with a structured set of activities. Life provides many other times and places to experience God’s presence. The presence of God and the fellowship of Christians can be experienced when two or three people meet.