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Worship in the Modern World

Praising God with the Best of the Past and the Present

Getting Messy: What to do with emotions in worship

Maybe those Vulcans were on to something: Emotion is a messy thing. It makes people do all sorts of weird, illogical things. Those of you familiar with Star Trek know that there’s this race known as the Vulcans (remember Spock?) who long ago decided that all those emotions were more trouble than they were worth so they purged themselves of emotion and embraced logic. That conflict between Vulcan logic and Human emotion definitely made for some good entertainment and some wacky situations.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments against contemporary/modern worship, and one that comes up often is that it’s all about emotions. I’ve heard it said by people who haven’t embraced modern worship styles that modern worship is all about manipulating people’s emotions. It’s implied that these emotions have no place in worship.

Emotion is a tricky thing. Does it have a place in worship? Let’s see…

We’re emotional beings.

Emotion is a part of our being. Along with the physical, mental and spiritual parts, it makes us complete. The Bible even describes God as having emotion. God is love, and love is, after all, an emotion.

Scripture talks a great deal about emotions in worship.

When the Ark of the Covenant came back to Jerusalem, David danced with such intensity, most of his clothes fell off. David’s wife criticized him for having too much emotion in worship, and God defended David. Worship is also described as a celebration – something to approach with joy.

Music and emotion are inseparable

Imagine the movies in this video without the music. You don’t even need to see the actors or know what the movie was about – just listening to the music conveys the emotions of the film. (and FYI, one of my favorite pieces starts at the 2:19 mark)

Worship is full of emotions

All styles of worship elicit an emotional response. Whether in spoken word, song lyrics or style of music, emotion is present. Even the traditional liturgy of our church body has an emotional flow to it. For instance, after the confession of sins, which has phrases like “I, a poor miserable sinner…” comes the forgiveness of sins, followed soon after by the hymn of praise. The music is stirring and upbeat, lifting our spirit after the time of confession. Even around the time of communion, there is the triumphant and rousing Sanctus (Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”) followed by the solemn and almost mournful Agnus Dei (“O Christ, thou Lamb of God, have mercy upon us.”). And don’t forget about the lyrics to the hymns, especially hymns that we associated to things such as funerals. (I can’t sing How Great Thou Art without getting a little misty-eyed – and the lyrics aren’t even all that spectacular).

And yes, emotion is also found in modern worship. From the lyrics of songs, to the melodies and moods. And yes, their placement in the service is intended to create a specific mood or experience, much as the aspects of the liturgy are arranged to help us experience the worship of God.

The Bottom Line

So were the Vulcans on to something? Does emotion have a place in worship? I think it would be pretty miserable and dull without it. Is modern worship “engineered to manipulate emotions?” No more so than any traditional-style worship. However, I think the argument isn’t whether emotion is “proper” in worship. The problem comes when we place too much priority on our emotion in worship. If we rely too much on whether or not “felt something” during a the service, we’re putting our faith in something that’s flawed. After all, our emotions aren’t flawless and can let us down.

Emotion is an important, even vital, part of worship – especially if we don’t want people bored to death. But it’s not the focus and shouldn’t be the measure we use to decide the success or validity of a style of worship. It’s a tool that helps us connect at a personal level with the elements of the worship service.

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