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The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader

My Facebook feed blew up this morning with this intense and quite moving footage from a New Zealand wedding. They're engaging in a sincere and powerful Haka ritual, and though I don't understand a word of it, I think I get it...and I think you do, too.

Our Love-Hate Relationship with Emotions

Let's face it. We evangelicals have a checkered past when it comes to emotions and worship. The Second Great Awakening--that early nineteenth century movement of westward-sweeping revivals--polarized the various Reformational and evangelical traditions. The wild reports of mass conversions following emotionally-charged revival meetings elicited usually one of two responses. On the one hand, the movement was greeted with great success, and its accompanying methods were championed as the way forward for evangelicals. On the other hand, emotionalism was looked on with great suspicion. Charges of false conversions and manipulation abounded. 

And we evangelicals today have inherited this schizophrenic relationship with emotions and worship. With a very broad brush, we can say that it tends to be (just as it was then) the more "thoughtful" traditions (i.e. the ones that place high emphasis on biblical fidelity and theological precision) that are more skeptical of dragging that clumsy bag of emotionalism into the worship service. Out of these traditions today, one can hear in their criticisms of today's worship the echoes of the tracts put out against the "enthusiasm" of the Second Great Awakening some two hundred years ago: "it's all just sappy emotionalism;" "they're just brainwashing congregations;" "they're encouraging you to turn your brains off and 'just feel'."

Because our suspicion of emotions is buried deep in our historical psyche, even a post like this, entitled, "The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader," is greeted with at least a raised eyebrow.

Emotions and Worship's Punchline

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about the nature of emotions and their relationship to worship. One of my best friends, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Baylor specializing in the philosophy of emotions, has been a mentor from afar...occasional dialogues, texts, emails, and book-exchanges. I've read books like Robert Roberts' insighful Spiritual Emotionshelpful sections in Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie's Resonant Witness, and key portions of Brian Wren's Praying Twice. I've studied Reformational worship leaders and liturgical architects like Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, who all pre-dated the Second Great Awakening, in hopes of learning from what responsible emotional worship leading looked like before we developed some of our hangups. And I've certainly done a lot of prayerful "practition-ing" on the local level, in dialogue with the pastors, musicians, choir, and worship leaders at Coral Ridge.

I've come to the conclusion that we've got a lot of ground to plow when it comes to emotions and worship. I don't really know what it looks like on the other side, but I do know that our historical PTSD over the abuses of the Second Great Awakening have had the residual effect on many of us of stunting our emotional engagement in worship. I have explored these things in the most succinctly systematic fashion I can in my book, The Worship Pastor, in the chapter entitled "The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd"...which will be released (thankfully) mid-October of 2016 (updates of the book's progress here).

Now that I've raised these issues, I want to ask a few questions about the above video. I'll first tell you about my reaction: I was deeply moved. I was deeply moved because on this sacred day, there was enacted an historic ritual, and this ritual was performed with intense amounts of sincerity and heart. The ritual may have been foreign to us, but if you're like me, you found yourself nearly weeping at the end. 

God seems to have created us all with a kind of emotional resonating chamber that reverberates on similar frequencies to one another. A ritual from a culture half a world away from me echoes in my heart simply because emotions are a human, trans-cultural reality, and when they are on display in an intense and authentic way, they immediately begin to ring in my soul. Emotions, surrounded in ritual, are a powerful thing. This bride, groom, and these other men were doing something that led the other people in the room (and you and me). They took us somewhere. They took us on a journey of tension and release, whose punchline was, "Welcome to the family...we are for you, not against you."

Worship has a punchline. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what if we worship leaders could wisely, responsibly, and faithfully tap into our own emotions so that that punchline has a greater opportunity to resonate with others? What if our rituals can surround (and appropriately safeguard) our emotions while nonetheless setting them free? What if, in our leadership, our emotions could be so appropriately deep and sincere that they cannot help but resonate?

I'm not talking about hyper-emotionalism and breakdowns on the platform. I'm talking about something that's very context-specific, but nevertheless bold. From the stateliest liturgical setting to the freest charismatic moment, what if we could find a way to emotionally lead that was faithful to the ritual and excited all the best frequencies of the emotional resonating chambers in the room?

How do we go about it? How do we toe the line between faithful shepherding and careless manipulation? Where's the boundary past "emotional resonance" to emotionalistic carelessness? These are all very important questions, and we need to answer them. For now, I just want to try to blow open the issue so that we can continue faithfully and pastorally responding to these questions, and a wonderful New Zealand wedding ritual moved me to do so.


In Search of the Emotionally Persuasive Liturgy

Over at Reformed Worship, I wouldn't want you to miss an important post of mine that posits some very current questions I am asking. Once again, my investigation of Thomas Cranmer has proven a helpful launchpad into current worship issues and reflections. 

The questions I'm seeking Cranmer's help in answering actually have a lot to do with yesterday's post on my journey in listening better to the charismatic tradition. Maybe to encourage you to go check out the post, here are the four provocative questions I'm asking at the end:

  • What is it about charismatic worship that so captures the heart of the average person?
  • What is it about the ‘musical rhetoric’ of our brothers and sisters from these traditions that ‘works’ so well in persuading people?
  • What anthropological understandings and assumptions stand behind the emotional intuitions of charismatic worship leaders and songwriters?
  • Could it be that Pentecostal and charismatic (especially musical) techniques of persuasionare worth exploring and understanding, just as rhetorical techniques were mastered and marshaled by Cranmer in his day and age?

As weird as it sounds, something tells me that Cranmer, if he could understood our context today, would have supported the "emotional work" of the charismatic tradition and would have sought to ask similar questions along the way of trying to lead a new Reformation in worship. Please go read the post. I welcome feedback and insights. 


Even "Lead Musicians" Have a Pastoral Impact Whether They Know it or Not

Methodist camp meeting (1839)Under-appreciated by us worship leaders is the role of music in the shepherding of our emotions. Sure, plenty of ink has been spilt blasting some worship leaders for using music as a tool for emotional manipulation (and this cuts both ways in the traditional and modern spectrum). But rarely has that kind of manipulation been identified as the dark underbelly of a very positive and inevitable pastoral enterprise--music as an emotional shepherd. 

The Church has a love-hate relationship with human emotion. Perhaps it's in our American psyche because of some of the trauma, joy, fear, and excitement of periods like the Second Great Awakening. Thinkers back then, like Jonathan Edwards, were on to something with all their talk of "affections." They knew it wasn't all hype. They recognized the wholeness--the Shalom--of a human being's constitution. They knew that the same parts of us that make up our "center of feeling" weren't so much to be squelched or tamed for the sake of piety. Instead, they insisted that our emotions needed to be rightly aimed and shepherded. Modern thinkers like James K. A. Smith get at this when they speak of the "habit-forming" nature of worship (see Desiring the Kingdom).

All this leads us to how pastors tend to think about "lead musicians." Some churches, by the leading of the Spirit I believe, have created a staff structure where a lead musician (a kind of artist in residence) is overseen by a pastor/elder in the planning and leading of worship. I've seen this setup work well in many, many contexts. However, the overseeing pastors need to recognize something. They cannot think that all they need to do is oversee the theological content and not the music. It's not enough to say, "As long as I give my music guy or gal good parameters about the lyrics to the songs that we sing, I can leave the rest up to him or her." The reason it's not enough is that irrespective of lyrics music has a shaping role on people, particularly on our emotions. 

This is not a call for pastors to micro-manage the creative process. It's not a call for pastors to tell their lead musicians what to play and how to play it.  (That would be exhaustingly unproductive on so many levels.) Rather, it's a call for pastors to have open dialogues with their musicians about how music guides people emotionally through the worship service. In my years of experience working with professional musicians in a variety of worship contexts, I have seen how this can be a blind spot for gifted and talented lead musicians, music directors, and arrangers. Lead musicians can be incredibly attuned to the emotion of a given piece of music (in fact, the best ones always are), but they might still simultaneously be uniformed about what emotion is right for what liturgical moment, which is something a pastor is (or at least should be) aware of.

The question is not whether our worship services have music which is or is not emotionally charged. All music, at some capacity, shepherds our emotions in one direction or another. The question is to what end are those emotions being guided? I talked about all this in a previous post on the worship leader as emotional shepherd, but I was reminded yet again how important this is when I read a larger section of Martin Luther's oft-quoted thoughts about music. I leave you with him:

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and a governess of those human emotions [Luther used the Latin afectuum here, where we get the word "affections"]--to pass over the animals--which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found--at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate--and who could number all those masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?--what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3:15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16:23].*

*Martin Luther, "Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae Iucundae," in Luther's Works (Vol. 53): Liturgy & Hymns, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 323.

The Worship Leader as Emotional Shepherd

Music is intensely emotional, and worship leaders know it.  I've read plenty of articles and books that outline how worship leading takes people on an "emotional journey."  At best, these writers are encouraging worship leaders to understand how the worship service is, in a sense, a story, and that our job is to help guide people into experiencing that story with every aspect of who we are, including our emotions.  At worst, however, they are (sometimes unabashedly and explicitly) outlining a recipe for manipulation.  

The worship leader wields an intense emotional power.  From the way they present themselves (if they are viewable by the congregation) to the contour and elements of the service they plan (especially the music), they hold the ability to help mold the hearts of the people they lead, largely through the conduit of human emotion.  The question is not whether they hold this power--this sacred trust--but whether they will respond to this trust faithfully.  It's the difference between manipulation and shepherding.

Manipulation vs. Shepherding

The analogy of shepherding will be helpful in parsing out the difference between manipulation and faithful leading.  A good shepherd leads their sheep to places because he or she has a purpose in mind for the destination (away from predators or dangerous terrain, toward food and shelter, etc.), whose end is for the good health of the sheep.  Emotional manipulation in a worship service is like a shepherd leading people to certain pastures without knowing why.  Not all those pastures are necessarily the wrong place to go, but they have not fully investigated the purpose of going to that pasture.  Manipulation, at its best is "purposeless shepherding," or "partial shepherding."  A sheep-person waking up from the fog of manipulation will often first exclaim, "Wait, why am I here?"  It may be important to arrive in a worship service at the pastures of, say, joy and sorrow, but the question of why is often absent from the (most likely unintentional) manipulator.  This is one of the reasons that worship services, especially to postmodern, skeptic, young-adult Americans, feel like all hype and no substance.  

But the answer, contrary to many reactors to the emotional hype of certain forms and styles of worship, is not to get rid of the emotional journey but to rightly orient it on a faithful, well-worn path--the "ruts of righteousness" of Psalm 23.  Manipulation is about being forced.  Shepherding is about being led and guided, sometimes with an enticing, wooing voice, and sometimes with a gentle but firm rod.  Unfortunately, there are times where people mistake the rod as the forceful blow of a manipulator, as I've experienced.

Burned by Manipulation

In my short time as a worship pastor, I've encountered many people who have been burned by manipulative worship leading.  It often gets exposed when I attempt to more faithfully shepherd their emotions in the context of worship.  They respond with a lengthy, fiery email or an angry phone call.  Or, worse yet, I hear second-hand from someone else how put off they are by something I did or said in worship.  The defensive, idolatrous side of me wants to rail against them with a host of philosophical and theological arguments (a biblical theology of emotion in worship) about why they're wrong and I'm right.  But the best of me--the pastor God is forming in me--tells me that they need to be heard.  When we do get to that place of hearing (either at a coffee shop, or in my home or theirs), and the back-story of their emotional scarring is told, I am again reminded of the gravity of my job as a worship pastor in faithfully shepherding people's emotions in public worship.

Instead of expending negative energy exposing and crucifying what unhealthy emotional manipulation looks like in a worship service, I want to talk about how a worship leader guides people to experience and be nurtured in "faithful feelings" (as Matthew Elliott puts it in the title of his book).  It's all about what they are feeling and the content behind what made them feel that way.  In short, my job as a worship pastor, with regard to people's feelings, is that they experience the emotional contours of the gospel--the overwhelming glory of God, the crushing gravity of sin, and the greatness of grace.

The Emotional Contours of the Gospel

THE GLORY OF GOD.  The Psalms are full of faithful feelings responding to God's glory and power.  "Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth" (Psalm 100:1) displays one right emotional response to the glory of God--typified in the raucous act of shouting.  When I lead worship, my hope is not only that people know that God is glorious or believe that God is majestic.  I hope that they would feel it, too.  Music, as a servant of the text we sing, has the ability to engender and summon those feelings.  Certain rhythms, certain sonic colors, "describe" that glory and tap into our appropriate emotional response to that glory.  And as a pastor, knowing that music has this power, I want to shepherd people's feelings to rightly respond in that moment in body and soul, head and heart.  Some people consider this manipulation, but the difference here is that the aim of the emotional "content" is matching the aim of the propositional content.  Again, the difference between manipulation and shepherding is not about whether something led is summoning one's emotions; it is about whether something led is summoning the proper and appropriate emotions for the content of that portion of the service.  I don't want to "pump people up" at the beginning of the service.  I don't want to do some "high energy stuff" so that people "get excited." I don't want to just "warm people up" to be receptive to the sermon.  I want people to faithfully feel the glory of God, so they can, in turn, take the next step.

THE GRAVITY OF SIN.  When the glory of God is felt, the very next natural response is sorrow, and sometimes nearly panic.  When the thresholds shook, Isaiah's first response was to cry "Woe to me!...for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa 6:5).  Feeling the glory of God, the next step was experiencing the gravity of His sin.  In a worship service, I desperately want to not only know it; I want to feel it.  And I want God's people to feel it, too.  I want them to experience the full-orbed, holistic sorrow of being a sinner in the sight of a perfect and just God.  I don't want to make people cry so that their hearts are soft and open for the go-for-the-jugular sermon.  I don't want to "get people into a certain emotional state" so that they're vulnerable for us to go in for the kill.  But I do want us to weep over our sin and feel deeply the anguish of human brokenness, so that the greatness of grace can germinate in fertile soil.

THE GREATNESS OF GRACE.  The reason we ought to be brought so low is so that we can look up to see (and feel) just how high and wide the grace of God is.  What descriptors bring out the emotions of grace?  Relief.  Joy.  Gratefulness.  Willing submission.  I don't want people to have an ecstatic experience for the sake of an ecstatic experience.  I want them to have an ecstatic experience so that they are brought to a deeper place of knowing the truth and effectual power of the gospel--and that "knowing" includes the emotions.  When you feel the gospel, you "know" and "understand" it more fully than you do when you just assent to the proposition that "Jesus died for me." 

The End Game of Faithful Emotional Shepherding

The result of a gospel-shaped emotional contour in worship is that people's feelings are rightly formed to travel a certain path, a gospel path.  And as these paths are repeatedly trodden, a Christian, in times of thirst and need, finds themselves going back to that path with instinctual swiftness, the way a deer that pants for water follows the familiar grooves in the ground toward the stream.  This is the formative power of worship's story.  The effectiveness of the Christian finding that path is at least partially related to how holistically they are engaged in the worship service, which is why it is important for the emotions to be engaged.  Metaphorically, a path becomes more well worn not only be how many times it is trodden, but by the heaviness of the one doing the treading.  So, as I'm treading, I want as much of me on that path as possible, so that the grooves get worn deeper.  I am "heavier" when my emotions are with me.  I didn't want to leave them by the side of the road several miles back because I'm scared of them getting abused.  I need all of me for this journey.  And the end game is that all of me becomes more familiar with walking the gospel path, so that in times of need, every part of me knows just where to go.  



What Would Jonathan Edwards Think About Modern Worship? 

I used to be “us vs. them” when it came to worship.  I used to associate myself with the the thoughtful folk who were quick and clear in pointing out all the theological and pragmatic deficiencies of contemporary and modern worship.  Their voice is still heard today.  They’re quick to sniff out charismania.  They’re quick to label with words like “hype,” “emotionalism,” and “manipulation.”

A big traditionalist criticism of modern worship is that it insists upon emotional euphoria in every service and every song.  This criticism is not without warrant.  It is simply fact that much of the character of modern evangelical worship is shaped by Azusa Street-style charismatic worship habits.  The modern charismatic renewal, beginning in the early 1900s, seemed to insist upon similar pinnacles of euphoria as litmus tests for the presence, power, and movement of the Holy Spirit.   Many, many people have exposed the shortcomings of such a criterion.  However, our quickness to criticize and disassociate ourselves may be a baby/bathwater moment, and I think Jonathan Edwards’ posture toward similar happenings in his own day is instructive here.

The more I read Edwards, and the more I read about him, the more I want to be like him—at once theologically tenacious but experientially generous.  Some consider Edwards America’s greatest philosopher.  Whether or not this is true, the fact that he is even considered in the rankings tells us that he had a superior intellect and that he wasn’t merely a biblical scholar or puritanical evangelical.  Edwards is an intellectual Renaissance man—a historian, a philosopher, a theologian, a psychologist. 

When the Great Awakening unraveled in the United States, people (as we always do) picked sides.  There were the sold out bandwagon-ites who believed that these emotionally driven revivals were pure, unadulterated God-work.  There were the hard-lined skeptics who were quick to explain away the work.  Then there were those like Edwards who stood somewhere in between.  Could it be that one of the most well-versed philosopher-theologians to ever exist had anything kind to say about the ecstatic charismania of his day?  Apparently so.  Religious Affections, alongside a few other works, was the published wrestling of Edwards on this topic.  Edwards was not interested in proving that the Great Awakening was true and legitimate; he was committed to discovering, both from exegeting culture and the Bible, just what was true and legitimate about America's "new birth."  Contra traditionalists, Edwards was not willing to label all the emotionalism as hype, because Edwards understood biblical anthropology—we are whole creatures.  Nor, therefore, was the stirring of emotion a necessary evil.

Can we even stop right there and learn a few things from one of the most learned Americans about our own analysis of modern worship’s emotionalism?  I’ll leave that question largely rhetorical while pointing out something about the traditionalist thought-pattern I encounter in my church (I am using “traditionalist” not necessarily in terms of worship style but worship approach…I know several people who are fine with contemporary worship who approach worship from a “traditionalist” view).  I observe them, sometimes, to be terribly conflicted people.  I observe that some tend to overly compartmentalize their lives.  It says something to me when, in another context, they are full of emotion and bodily energy (such as when they're watching a football game), but when corporate worship rolls around, they're Narnian statues.  It further says something to me when they develop theological constructs to defend their stone-iness: “I worship from my heart,” or “Outward expression does not befit the reverence God demands in worship.”

Edwards would remind us that not all emotionalism is bad and that emotions can be a sign of heart-affections spilling forth.  In short, I think Jonathan Edwards would approach processing modern worship similarly to how he handled the Great Awakening—with some sympathy and support and some careful theological analysis and clarification.  Can modern worship be overly ecstatic?  Yes.  Does emotional manipulation exist in modern worship contexts?  Sure.  Can these experiences lead people to develop an unhealthy appetite for emotional euphoria, leading them to crave the experience more than long for God?  Certainly.  But a reaction to bag it all would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.