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Are Emotions in Worship Wrong?

I decided not to post my full paper on emotion in contemporary worship at just in case significant sections of it end up in my final dissertation. (My dissertation must be an original contribution to the field and cannot have been previously published.) But because several of you asked about it, I thought it may be helpful to post a few highlights, if for no other reason than to give us some talking points and places for more critical reflection.

I. A Paradigm of Encounter

Contemporary worship is framed within a paradigm of encounter: we gather to sing and to meet with God. In fact, many scholars have remarked that singing is the place of encounter in charismatic worship, going so far as to compare it to the place of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass. (This is not a theological claim but rather a sociological observation.) In other words, where Catholics or high church Anglicans may see the Eucharist as a place of ‘encounter’, and where the Reformed tradition and its offshoots may see the preaching of the Word of God as the place of ‘encounter’, the Charismatic tradition sees the singing of praise and worship as the place of encounter. John Witvliet and others have referred to this as the ‘sacramentalization of singing’—worship singing is the new sacrament.

This paradigm of encounter in contemporary worship singing is significant because encounter involves emotion. Drawing on Pete Ward and others, we might conclude that encounter = expression + experience. What we mean we say that we ‘encountered God’ is that we were able to truly express our hearts to Him and that we are somehow in a mysterious way able to experience His presence. Both expression and experience have emotional qualities to them. This is not to see that they are solely emotional; only that they include and perhaps even rely upon emotion in order to occur. What are we expressing if not something that includes emotion? What do we mean by an experience if it not something that has an emotional component to it?

Thus a worship paradigm of encounter places emotion as a key player in the process. The question is not whether or not worship ought to be emotional. Of course it does; and worship—as a way of meeting God—has always involved emotion. The question is whether the emotional component of worship is appropriate or not. But how do we answer that?

II. Emotion as Perception and Motivation

First we explore, briefly, what emotions are. We are trained to think that emotions bad. We casually say a worship service was ‘too emotional’ or that we don’t care for all that ‘touchy feely’ stuff.

And yet emotions are a part of being human. In fact, Bob Roberts argues that emotion is a kind of perception—it is a way of seeing the world. Based on a concern, we construe a situation in a particular way. If you had hoped to go on a picnic (your ‘concern’), you will see the rain (your ‘construal’) as a negative thing. But if you were nervous (your ‘concern’) about wildfires in the summer, you will see the rain (your ‘construal’) as a blessing. The emotion—either of disappointment in the first example, or of relief in the second—is a clue to your construal and, deeper down, to your grounding or orienting concern. So emotions are ‘interpretative perceptions’; they help make sense of a situation. However, emotions also have a kind of ‘perceptual immediacy’—they happen some times before we realize why, pre-reflectively.

Emotions are not just a way of seeing; they are a reason for doing. They are not simply perceptional; they are motivational. Because they are concern-based, they are affected by what the subject cares about and can move the subject to ‘action in a way that is suggested by the concern that is basic to the emotion’ and ‘along the particular way of construing the situation that the emotion involves’ (Roberts). Cranmer, the English Reformer said it this way: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.’ There is little doubt Cranmer himself was drawing on Augustine who saw the call of Christian living as a call to have rightly ordered desires, to learn to love rightly.

III. Emotion and Formation

We return to our question, then, about what it means for emotions in worship to be appropriate. There are two dimensions of this—one which is theological, and one which is sociological.

Theologically speaking, emotions are ‘rightly ordered’ when they are appropriately directed. In order for an emotion to be considered ‘a full fledged emotion’—as opposed to, say, a ‘mood’—it needs an object: something to be directed toward. To have our emotions rightly ordered, then, is to have them appropriately directed toward the right objects. As Augustine would say, love ‘first things’ most. Of course, this was actually what Jesus said when asked to name the greatest commandment—and He was re-framing the Torah: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second thing is just like it: love your neighbor as yourself. Our deepest affection—emotional and otherwise—must be directed toward God Himself.

The sociological dimension is a bit different. It is context specific. For example, we might all agree that we need to have reverence in worship. But each church context—from denominational tradition to congregational identity—has its way of determining what ‘reverence’ looks like. For some, it’s organs and choirs, for others, it might be a rock band playing its sonic layers on the keyboards and guitars; for still others, it might be complete silence.

Context doesn’t only determine how an emotion is conveyed; it also affects which emotions are fitting. Jeremy Begbie argues that emotions can be inappropriate if the wrong emotion is aroused in a particular setting that ought to have a different one. His example is of a cheery song when singing about the crucifixion. But while that might be inappropriate in, say, an Anglican Tennebrae service, it would certainly be appropriate in an Evangelical Sunday worship service. Why shouldn’t the cross be ‘good news’? Context of tradition, time, and place all matter in determining whether or not a particular expression of emotion is appropriate.

III. Music and Emotion

Music has a particularly powerful relationship to emotion, and can be summarized in the following three ways:

A. Music embodies emotion.

Much of the vocal and bodily gesture features of an emotion are found in music. For example, when you’re sad, you tend to walk slowly, perhaps slumped low; you speak in low tones, managing not as many words per minute. In a similar way, music that we call ‘sad’ tends to have melodies on the lower register, have fewer beats per minute, and includes more minor key motifs to reflect the harmonic dissonance or tension.

B. Music evokes emotion.

By mimicking our vocal and bodily gestures of emotion, music provokes the brain to trigger the same sorts of responses. This phenomenon of ‘proprioceptive feedback’ is so strong, that we can actually generate a mood (or something like it) by going through the motions of an emotion. If you’re sad, take a brisk walk, speak in bright tones and upper registers—or better yet, sing a happy song and then you won’t feel so bad (cue: Maria and the Sound of Music).

C. Music educates emotion.

Finally, music has the power to ‘educate’ our emotions by adding to the range of emotions in our repertoire of expression. Because of music’s power to evoke emotion, it can introduce us to new emotions, things we may have never felt or expressed before.

IV. Worship and Emotion

Where does this leave us? There are, I suggest, a few conclusions and a few places for further reflection:

A. Conclusions:

  1. Emotions in worship must be aimed chiefly at the Triune God, and secondarily at our neighbor.

  2. Emotions cannot be an end in themselves. The trouble is, Pete Ward has discovered a disturbing trend in contemporary worship toward songs that are ‘reflexive’: they point back toward themselves. If an ‘objective’ song is about a particularly truth about God or us, and a ‘subjective’ song is a song about how we feel about God or our relationship with Him, then a ‘reflexive’ song is a song about our act of worship. Rightly used, reflexive songs can give worship a ‘sense of urgency and significance’ (Ward). But they are inadequate as the main course because of its substitution of ‘Gospel content’ for metaphors of intimacy.

  3. Music has the power to evoke emotion; lyrics have the potential to direct them. We cannot rush through the lyric-writing phase. Cranmer was the Reformer who focused most, perhaps, on the emotional power of words. His prayers and the sequence of words in the liturgy were designed to move people, and to move them toward a particular Object.

B. Reflection

  1. How can we harness the power of emotion in worship to direct people toward loving God?

  2. How can we harness the power of emotion in worship to direct people toward loving their neighbor?

  3. How can we write songs that evoke a broader spectrum of emotion in order to ‘educate’ worshippers emotionally?



Abernethy, Alexis D. and Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, ‘A Study of Transformation in Worship: Psychological, Cultural, and Psychophysiological Perspectives’, in Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation, ed. by Alexis D. Abernethy(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

Adnams, Gordon, “ ‘Really Worshipping’ not ‘Just Singing’ ”, in Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience, ed. by Monique Ingalls, Carolyn Landau, and Tom Wagner(Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

Begbie, Jeremy S., ‘Faithful Feelings: Music and Emotion in Worship’, in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, ed. by Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011).

Hood, Ralph. Handbook of Religious Experience (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995).

Pelser, Adam. ‘Reasons of the Heart: Emotions in Apologetics’, Christian Research Journal, 38, (2015), pp. 32-39.

Roberts, Robert C., Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007).

Ruth, Lester. ‘Some Similarities and Differences between Historic Evangelical Hymns and Contemporary Worship Songs’, Artistic Theologian, 3, (2015), pp. 68-86.

Smith, James K. A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

Ward, Pete, Selling Worship: How What We Sing Has Changed the Church (Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 2005).

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