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Thinking Pastorally About Emotions in Worship

Emotions in worship are a touchy subject. They’re touchy because, first, worship is often intensely emotional, and, second, many of us have had unpleasant experiences with leaders who have abused that reality. In my opinion, there are two extremes, neither of which are healthy or biblical, and both of which should be avoided through pastoral wisdom and grace.

Extreme 1: Emotional Manipulation

The first extreme is probably what more of us are familiar with—emotional manipulation. This involves using God-given affective tools merely for the sake of creating an emotionally charged experience in worship. Perhaps we’ve all experienced those moments when it’s obvious that the worship leader is trying to get us all to “feel” something, whether it’s the comforting nearness of God’s presence, the high energy of “entering his courts with praise,” or the conviction of leaving a church deeply moved and ready to engage the world. People who feel emotionally manipulated will often critically, ironically, or even sarcastically describe the worship leader as a cheerleader who is behaving more like an aerobics instructor than a worship pastor: “One more time!” “Come on, everyone!”

Here’s an important point not to be missed: emotional manipulation often aims for emotional experiences for emotions’ sake. It can be boiled down to mere emotionalism. Likewise, worship leaders who aim for this will often too easily equate emotionalism with the genuine work of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit. In such instances, we either sense or have a full-blown philosophy: the Holy Spirit is working in me when I am having a deep or intense emotional experience.

Once this philosophy is in place—namely, that having an emotional experience is encountering God—it easily leads to conscious or unconscious attempts of the worship leader to plan and create contexts in which feelings can be stoked and conjured. The historical, theological, sociological, and psychological reasons why many of our church worship experiences have felt like this are part of a bigger discussion, but suffice to say that this philosophy often drives emotional manipulation in worship leading.

The stories of people’s experiences of emotional manipulation range from uneasy discomfort (being cajoled into feeling what one does not feel) to judgmental abuse (feeling as though one is a less mature Christian if one is not feeling what apparently everyone else is). The wounds are deep and real.

Extreme 2: Emotional Avoidance

This second extreme, avoiding emotional engagement, often comes in reaction to the first. Some churches, and even some entire Christian traditions, mark themselves and their worship particularly by their “stateliness”—their lack of engaging the fleeting, unstable, and ultimately “dangerous” world of the emotions. Worship in these kinds of settings are often identified by varying degrees of austerity, an emphasis on reverence, fear, respect, and spoken or unspoken moratoriums on physical expressiveness or outward displays of intense emotion. Worship is dignified, subdued, and serious. Emphasis will often be laid on worship “from the heart,” which is viewed in opposition to worship emotively expressed on the outside.

Why Both Extremes Must Be Avoided

A thoroughly biblical anthropology (a theology of humanity) leads us toward a holistic view of the human being. God designed us as whole creatures—mind, body, will, emotions, etc.—and pronounced all of this, in its entirety, as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). A thoroughly biblical doxology (a theology of worship) leads us toward a holistic view of how the human being worships God. God demands all of us in worship. The greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Matthew 22:36-40) is a commandment about worship. Love is, in fact, the deepest form of worship.

Emotions are a vital, good, God-given part of what it means to be truly human. This is precisely why we call emotionless people “robots” (think of Star Trek’s classic character, Data). We intuitively understand what God has engineered into our design: we are hard-wired to feel; we are by nature emotional creatures.

If this is so, we can understand why both the above extremes need to be avoided. Emotional manipulation treats emotion with too little respect and dignity. Worse, rather than thinking of the emotions as a faculty of the human being to be shepherded, pastored, guarded, and guided, emotions are treated as something less—tools. The emotions become a means to turn people into mere instruments of our wills. And whenever we make people into instruments, we treat them as something less than human.

At the same time, the extreme of emotional avoidance is also unhealthy. Not only does this approach cast a negative shadow over the emotions, perhaps creating a fear of engaging them, it teaches us that emotions are that part of us that have little or no place in our relationship with and worship of God. Emotions sit outside the camp, beyond the boundaries of Christian discipleship. And instead of a Christian anthropology (where emotional maturity is a part of wholeness in Christ), we have a view of humanity that looks more like forms of Buddhism or Stoicism, seeking some impossible transcendence above the vicissitudes of our more “basic,” animalistic, emotional selves.

The Pastoral Middle: Emotional Shepherding

Church history tells and retells the story of Christian worship swinging back and forth in reaction to these two extremes. It was present in the early church (I’m thinking of the church fathers who were combatting the negative edges of Greek mystical thought), during the Reformation (Luther vs. the “enthusiasts;” Calvin and the musical debates in Geneva), and in the American Great Awakenings, rippling to the shores of today. But what if we sought to take a pastoral approach to the issue? What if we saw emotions not as something to manipulate or avoid but to steward? What might this stewardship look like?

First, we recognize the difference between manipulation and shepherding. Manipulation is forcing with an iron fist. Shepherding is guiding with an open hand. The former is a demand. The latter is an invitation. As worship leaders, we have the opportunity to invite people to engage their emotions, properly and sincerely, in a worship service. We create contexts for engagement of what New Testament scholar Matthew Elliot calls “faithful feelings.” Whereas manipulation is emotion for emotion’s sake, shepherding is guiding people to places where they are allowed to feel the right kinds of emotions at the right times.

Second, we lead in emotionally faithful ways. Emotional shepherding in worship gatherings looks like encouraging people to feel the heights of jubilation, joy, and thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4). It looks like, during confession, inviting people to feel the pangs of remorse, sadness, and lamentation. We do this through “aesthetic ambiance” (musical settings/arrangements, lighting, sound, architecture), and we do this through our own sincere leadership of countenance, rhetoric, and tone.

Third, line up the emotional journey of worship with the narrative of the gospel. In my opinion, one of the keys to emotional shepherding in worship is found in “tethering” emotional experiences to the narrative of the gospel. The gospel tells the story of the glory of God, the gravity of our sin, and the grace of our Savior. Worship should faithfully tell that story in both its content and its structure. But then we can ask the question about what kinds of emotions would be appropriate to experience at various points in that story. And then we aim our aesthetic tools in that direction. In other words, we attempt to tether the right emotions to the appropriate liturgical moments.

A post like this certainly raises more questions than answers. It’s meant to be a starting point for more discussion. For more detail, I invite you to read my chapter, “The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd,” in my new book The Worship Pastor. Or hit me up for a conversation at an upcoming Doxology and Theology Conference!

Zac Hicks (@zachicks) is Canon for Liturgy and Worship at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL) and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He writes regularly at zachicks.com.

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