Religious sensory override: our generation’s quest for unusual experience

We Californians live in a culture of religious sensory override.

We are only content with our faith when the senses that we do have (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) are overridden by an otherworldly experience. We want to feel something. I have seen college students who were at their most passionate when the Lord was speaking to them in dreams, visions, and prophetic words, only to crash and burn during the seasons when God was not present to bless in that way. They seem to judge this disappearing act solely on whether he “reveals” himself to them, not in the usual manner, such as Scripture, community, or common prayer, but in out-of-the-ordinary manifestations that override their five senses. These types of divine encounters are wonderful when they happen, and I believe they do. But we are addicted to them.

Anthropologist, Tanya Luhrman, spent years researching this spiritual trend. In a fascinating project, entitled, When God Talks Back, she points out that “the God of this evangelical church illustrates the dominant shift in American spirituality of the last forty years, towards a more intimate, personal, and supernaturally present divine” (Random House, 12). Millennials are all over this type of relational spirituality, as seen in the darkened atmospheres of gathered worship (such as the college ministry I pastor), individualized forms of communion, Jeffrey Bethke’s famous call to trade “religion” for a person, the way we always gauge “worship” by what we experienced, and countless other forms of expression that flow from our generation’s explosive passion and love for interconnected relationships, including the divine. I think these are mostly good things, until they come at the cost of necessity.

The Bible is a necessity, the essential precondition of the Christian life.

Worshippers that feast on supernatural affections may consider the Bible too archaic. It follows that those who favor supernatural encounters in prayer and worship, will sometimes do so to the neglect of reading Scripture, finding it too dry and unromantic. This gets exacerbated by any moment of felt need; prophetic visions can offer a specific answer in real-time, which seems much more suited to our fast paced, twitter-pated generation than tediously searching a dusty Bible hoping to find something relevant.

My guess, is that the times we do open the Bible, we open it without much of a plan. This simply reflects our faithless approach to those sensory overrides we cherish so much—e.g., we don’t need to plan or think when God is speaking to us directly through a prophetic word! And we don’t plan when we open up the Bible either, because we don’t view the Scriptures with the same intensity as God. Or the Hebrew believers for that matter.

Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg bring us into the world of the ancient rabbis, who “thought that study, and not prayer, was the highest form of worship…they pointed out that when we pray, we speak to God, but that when we study the Scriptures, God speaks to us” (Zondervan, L.417, emphasis mine).

Unfortunately, we want something more romantic, more sensational than what is found in books. When we do open the Scriptures, we gravitate towards the same lens we use to search for a sensory override in our prayer life and dreams. I find myself secretly hoping that when I open the Bible to a random place, an arbitrary verse will jump out and prophetically (and satisfactorily) address my specific situation. This does happens on occasion, and it is a wonderful display of God’s grace. But nine times out of ten, I’m reading something that doesn’t help me experience God at all, because I am looking for something that is not there: a sensory experience, and not the true voice of God. Paul said that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). Peter said that men “were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21, NLT). Scripture IS the voice of God speaking to you. We just have to move beyond reading an academic text-book, and listen for his voice manifesting itself in our lives.

A great way to start engaging the Scriptures beyond sensory override is to change your plan of engagement when you open the Scriptures.

Don’t read arbitrarily, cherry-picking verses, and hoping one tickles your senses. Try finding what the themes of each book, sections, and chapters are. Then when you find yourself in a specific situation that requires the voice of God, or are simply in need of being in God’s presence, go to the passages that pertain and let it all wash over you.

For example,

  • Philippians is largely a book about joy in any circumstance. Keep that one in your pocket when you are feeling downcast. Read it, and let God speak to you through the words of Paul.
  • Going on a long, difficult journey? Read the Psalm of Ascents (Psalm 120-134), which is what the Jews have done for centuries.
  • Suffering? Read Job.
  • Hopeless? Read the Gospels.
  • Feeling dirty and unwanted? Read Hosea.
  • Feel unqualified? Read Ruth.
  • Feel overwhelmed by the world? Read Romans.
  • Want to read the Cliff Notes version? Read Revelation.

You get the picture. Read with intent. Don’t just read, seek the redemptive stories that apply directly to your situation, and let them minister to you. The Scriptures are not arbitrary. For in them, God is weaving a magnificent story, and calls us to open up his Word and step into it by the present power of the Holy Spirit.  You may not feel a tingle, but you will be transformed, and you will “hear” the voice of God through the Word of God.


- Tanya LuhrmanWhen God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God(Random House, 2012) p.12

- Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith (Zondervan, 2009) l.417

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB. He is committed to spreading the worth of Jesus in Santa Barbara, through the expository preaching of God's Word, and an emphasis on our Union with Christ. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting People, Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser, or Impulsive Callings: The "What" may not include the "When"

Posted on May 21, 2012, in Culture, Missional Millennials, reading, Scripture, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this brother. I’ve had the beautiful experience of asking God a specific question and He has lead me to a certain verse. As you said though, it won’t happen every single time when my intentions are to have that experience. I have learned to study the Scriptures simply because I want to learn more.

    You’re also right about the prayer senses thing you mentioned. When on my knees in the quiet of the night as my wife sleeps soundly I seek God to give me a divine experience. I have learned that simply being able to be on my knees praying by God’s grace I am blessed.

    Again, thank you for this post brother.

  2. This is a great reminder Lazo! One of the most profound things I’ve realized in a culture longing for supernatural experience is the supernatural experience of grace. The gospel. Being taken from death to life. Being able to walk no longer enslaved to our former passions and lusts, but as obedient children of God. Amazing! It’s a shame when we belittle those truths in our pursuit of experience.

    Realizing the Bible is more about God rather than about us is also very profound. What an honor to be invited into God’s “magnificent plan” to be glorified and worshipped in all the earth.

    • Bethany, yes! Some of the most “ordinary” elements of the Christian life have, for me, been the most transforming. No wonder Peter said, ” I will always remind you about these things—even though you already know them” (2 Peter 1:12). Thanks for the comment.

  3. This is so good Laz. I think something you hit on that needs to be there is that all those unusual sensory experiences are really GOOD. Your balance was beautiful in saying that they are wonderul until they become a necessity. Now, the error that always seems to occur is that people see the error and then drop the whole thing for the sake of being “safe.” People are so afraid of the excess today that they drop the whole thing (or resort to merely theology and not practice) and then miss out on the beauties of the “supernatural.” We should want, and desire these “supernatural” experiences of hearing God, etc. Your post clearly addresses those who make God’s “supernatural” silence into a Divine dissapearance; and that is where correction needs to take place. Loved this so much, though I hope people never give up on hearing God or experiencing Him just because mistakes happen. The balance we are looking for are people who never stop thirsting for the “supernatural experience” but who 1) Understand the depth and supernatural found in the Bible, and 2) Don’t crumble to pieces just because God’s presence doens’t “feel” near. I LOVE THE BALANCE!!!!

    By the way, this part was so good:

    “Scripture IS the voice of God speaking to you. We just have to move beyond reading an academic text-book, and listen for his voice manifesting itself in our lives.”

    Come on!

    • Thanks Alex, that’s a good word. It’s good to look for balance, especially when we are speaking with two sides of something that doen’t need to be pitted against one another. I also think that in our particular circles, more people err on being infatuated with the sensational, rather the other way around. There aren’t many cessasionists at Adorn, are there? ;-)

  4. For sure. I wouldn’t have it any other way. ;)


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