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A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.


Why Confession Should Be Interrupted, Not Completed

Feeling Worship

Over the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about feeling and affect in worship. I've been pondering how our "emotional apprehension" in worship shapes, informs, propels our congregational gatherings. I used to think that if people just had enough instruction about what worship is and does, they would be more engaged in its elements. I still believe in that, but I've come to the conclusion that I can go deeper as a pastoral worship leader in pondering the participation and formation of the people of God. People are not only receiving things in worship cognitively, but emotionally. As many of us now know thanks to the re-presenting work of thinkers like James K. A. Smith, this emotional apprehension takes place in the core of us, in that place in us the ancients called "the affections."

Of course, jumping on the affections-train has me thinking about worship in a whole new way. I'm scrutinizing my own heart and emotional life along with my congregation's. I'm thinking through how our liturgical rituals (our singing, our praying, our preaching, our baptizing, etc.) can become more alive, more real to us. And right now, I'm thinking about Confession and Assurance/Absolution--that series of crucial moments in many of our worship services where the people of God cry out for forgiveness, and God offers it in His Son.

Surprised by Grace

I want to make a case that, for at least some of the time in worship, Confession should feel interrupted by the word of pardon which follows it. It's a theological case--particularly a soteriological one--that has an emotional outworking. The case is this: You and I are never "prepared" for salvation. Salvation comes to us as a gift (Eph 2:8), and a surprising one at that. The fact that God saves us "even while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8) means that we're never "ready" for salvation. The Gospel is, through and through, a surprising Word from outside of us, that breaks in at a moment we least expect it.

Our default, "Old Adam/Eve" mode of thinking is, with Pelagius, that we contribute something to our salvation. Our readiness to receive the gospel fits somewhere in this (sinful, heretical) sphere of old world thinking. Apart from God's revelation, God's breaking in, we are never ready, willing, and able to receive the Good News. We are "yet sinners," thinking our sin-y thoughts, doing our sin-y deeds. Salvation, like the incarnation, is a total surprise, a shocker. It's a megaphone so loud that, for the first time, even the deaf can hear.

A Felt Gospel (and I'm not talking flannel graphs)

I wonder whether our worship services couldn't stand to allow this theological reality to be affectively demonstrated and apprehended. What would it look like? Perhaps it would look like a time of Confession that never gets fully off the ground. Perhaps it would look like a Confession interrupted before it was completed.

What could this look like in various contexts? For sung liturgies (song-set oriented worship), perhaps we need some songs written that move from Confession to Assurance that offer a fitting musical surprise at that juncture (a key change, a sudden lift, a shift in tempo or meter). If it's a move from one song to another, perhaps it might mean a shortened outro of the Confession song and a quick move to the assurance song. For worship services that offer a silent time of Confession before the Absolution is offered, perhaps you could figure out what the "normal" amount of silence is and then lop off ten to fifteen seconds to give everyone a sense of incompleteness ("Wait, I wasn't done confessing. I still had more to say."). If your liturgy is fixed, like the Prayer Book tradition I'm now in, perhaps the liturgist fires off the word of absolution ("Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy...") during the "Amen" of the Confession. 

Will this feel odd to people? I think so. But I wonder whether the oddness is exactly the affect of salvation, rightly perceived. I'm sure Jesus in all His glory felt quite odd and interruptive to Paul on the road to Damascus. I'm sure the "neither do I condemn you" jolted the woman caught in adultery. Maybe, from time to time, Absolution should feel out of place to remind us that it is out of place.  

The reality is that, were we given all the time in the world to confess our sin, it still wouldn't be enough. Our infinite transgression is infinitely confess-able. It is only our self-righteousness that causes us to run out of things to confess. If we're being true to the theology of the liturgy, it just might be that our Confession should take the lion's share of the time. But that's the point. It doesn't because God interjects into our Confession a profession of the One who "made an end to all my sin."

Again, this will look differently depending on your liturgical flow, but it's worth pondering as we consider not only how the liturgy is understood cognitively but apprehended emotionally. 

* * * * *

Postscript: This is just another way I'm thinking though what it means to be an "Emotional Shepherd" in worship. If these thoughts resonate, consider picking up my book, with a chapter dedicated to the topic.


Two Diagrams That are Captivating My Imagination Right Now

I'm continuing to chip away at this book of mine. It's amazing to see the ways God is using the very chapters I'm working on to minister to specific and immediate needs in my life and the lives of my brothers and sisters at Coral Ridge. I'm working on a couple of diagrams that visual learners might appreciate. (Click on the diagrams for detail.)

The "Gospel-Shaped" Emotional Journey of a Worship Service

This is a kind of "schematic" of the emotional journey a worship service can take when it is shaped according to the gospel narrative of scripture. Some people call this narrative Creation-Fall-Redemption. Others call it Gathering, Confession, Assurance. I tried for a little alliteration: (1) Glory of God; (2) Gravity of Sin; (3) Grandeur of Grace. In any regard, I think the diagram is a helpful one, but I'm trying to hone the descriptors in yellow to fill out the "emotional palette." 

The Worship Pastor's Varying Roles

This is an idea I'm working on which bring together the chapter headings of Part II of my book. The final chapter in this section is on "The Worship Pastor as Liturgical Architect," and the hope is to bring home all the preceding chapters to this point. I began to see some corollaries of the way some of the Worship Pastor's roles are analogous to the three offices of Christ--prophet, priest, and king. So this serves as a kind of visual guide into Part II of my book. I want to stare at it a while to see what I think about it.

I'd be curious if either of these diagrams elicit thoughts, ideas, or comments. 


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. 


Is it Okay to be Singing in Worship about Feelings I Don't Have?

I'm Singing It, But I'm Not Feeling It

A recent, edifying Facebook exchange I had with a friend this week about a lyric of mine got me thinking about the "dishonesty" we all feel when songs and prayers are sung and prayed corporately which DON'T reflect our current emotional frame.

It brought me back to the early conversations I had years ago with several rehymn movement pioneers. We all collectively said, "I just can't do it anymore. I can't sing these happy worship songs when I don't feel happy. I can't sing about living for Jesus every day when I know I don't live for Jesus every day." In reaction, we abandoned ship and found solace in the church's rich hymn tradition. It gave us language for sung prayer that we never had access to before--lamentation, fear, longing, delayed hope, eschatological angst. And so we all embarked on a collective, not terribly organized quest to re-give these songs to the church in our own ways.

What I describe in the above paragraph isn't really what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about emotive, evocative language that speaks very specifically to a certain moment of feeling. Should we write and sing worship songs that dabble in this very subjective reality? Or should we, away from our fleeting feelings, sing only of the unchanging Truth which is the the bedrocked lighthouse amidst the ever ebbing and flowing tides of our emotional state? 

I used to think the latter, not the former. Perhaps in reaction to the hyper-emotionalism of contemporary worship (which is increasingly a caricature more than a reality, despite its current detractors' insistence on saying the same old straw man-y thing they've been saying for well over three decades now), where it seemed like one worship song after the other was nothing more than a gush of subjective feeling devoid of any objective truth, I was throwing the baby out with the bath water in insisting upon a pure singing of Truth with a precision removal of all emotional prattle. Worship didn't need a feeling-ectomy.

A Friend Comes to the Rescue

But then a mentor came along. He immediately caught my attention because, first, he was a Grade-A intellect with all the theological pedigree of which I could only dream, and, second, the kind of worship content he was writing and the kind of worship he was leading was FULL of (maybe even over-saturated with) gushy, sappy, emotionally charged rhetoric. When I studied the worship services that this guy planned and led, I noticed that he was beating the hyper-emotionalists at their own game. My mentor's name is Thomas Cranmer, 16th Century Archbishop of Canterbury. 

What? An Anglican out-emotionalizing contemporary worship?!? I think so. Check out the charged language of this prayer of confession, penned by Cranmer:

Almighty God...we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we...most grievously have committed...The remembrance of them is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable: have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.

This might sound stately and "Elizabethan" to our ears. For Cranmer and his original audience, it was quite the opposite. Its evocative language, its repetitious use of synonyms, its sensual words, its melodrama were all meant to drive the pray-er to desperation. Cranmer's liturgy is saturated with this kind of stuff.

My Conversation with Cranny

Therefore, this week I started having a little dialogue in my head with Cranmer. "So, Cranny [that's what I call him...I know, disrespectful...I bewail it], you've got to believe that there are going to be some Sundays when some folks are actually not feeling all that sorrowful about their sin. You know, those 'meh' weeks we all have? Why in the world would you put words in people's mouths that were so specific that they would inevitably alienate some who aren't feeling the feelings your portraying?" Cranmer gave me a few answers in this imaginary dialogue:

1) Look at the Psalms.

The more I read Cranmer's 1549 and 1552 liturgies, the more I'm noticing that his affective prayers and readings are often nothing more than allusions to and expansions of the Psalms. I'm probably just dense, and perhaps tried and true Anglicans have known this for years, but the extremist and quite desperate phrase "there is no health in us" from another one of his confessions, for instance, is nothing more than a quote from Psalm 38. Psalms like 13, 42, and 51 are great examples of "hyper-emotionalism." They grant us permission to experience God and life--and then sing about it--in an emotionally-charged way.

2) Remember the formation that happens even when you're saying things you don't really feel.

Just because some voiced feeling isn't actually felt doesn't make it unprofitable to say it. It just might be that it's setting up some training wheels on you so that when the waves of joy or difficulty hit, you're not whipped over on your side. It just might be that the repetitious voicing of joy might best prepare you to experience true moments of joy in the most deeply human and most fully Christian fashion. It just might be that "going through the motions" of sorrow will prepare you to repent in the best fashion in the moment when you actually blow it big. Emotional formation is a complex thing. We shouldn't discount the "numb" or disjunctive moments as being inconsequential. They are perhaps just not, in those moments, simultaneous in their experience of the verbalized word and the affect it's describing.

3) Objective truth might just be most deeply known when it is subjectively felt, not just intellectually assented to.

I was also hearing Cranmer tell me to remember what I read in James K. A. Smith's landmark, Desiring the Kingdom. (Though Cranmer obviously never read Smith, both of them were big fans of Augustine, who, distilled through the other 16th century Reformers [particularly Melanchthon], championed this anthropology.) If human beings at their core aren't so much heads on sticks but desire-based creatures, then it changes the game a bit on what "knowledge" and "understanding" are from the human perspective. Emotions devoid of objective truth might seem vapid, but emotions tethered to Truth might just be the deepest kind of full-orbed "knowing" there is. One of the reasons we want worship to be emotionally charged is simply because it's more honest with the way humans experience the world and its truths. When your loved one dies, there is a sense in which you experience that death most deeply not when you're informed of their passing (intellectual assent, a transfer of facts from one party to another), but when you're huddled up in a ball on floor, weeping your guts out. Worship needs to be emotionally charged because it is the most deeply human way to experience all of life. 

4) Not everything is for everyone at every time, but that's not a sufficient reason to dial down the emotional language.

Still, this is all going to mean that some folks just "ain't feelin' it." For all the above reasons and more, this simply isn't a sufficient enough reason to jettison the project. Life is messy, and emotions are complicated. Perhaps all this will be resolved when all our emotional, hormonal, and chemical disorders are rightly aligned and balanced with our new resurrection bodies on the other side of this very confused existence. But for now, things are just messed up, and so are we. I guess another way to answer this issue is to ask, "What's the alternative?" Do we strip our worship of all its emotional language? It sounds noble at first, because perhaps you're allowing people to feel purely what they're going to feel without any coercion. But what if people, this side of heaven, need more emotional guidance than that? It seems more pastoral to help people along by gently (or not so gently) encouraging, "Hey, this is what you should feel in this moment." You're confessing sin. You should feel pretty despondent. You're hearing the gospel. You should feel pretty relieved. You're lamenting. You should ache. This idea of emotional formation, then, actually becomes a positive reason to jam-pack our worship, not with aimless, nebulous, "feelings," but with intentional, pastorally-motivated language that provides appropriate emotional tethers to the various ups and downs of worship's narrative.

Well, thanks, Tom. Great points. It was nice talking with you. Stop by anytime. 


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.  



Was Early Church Worship Reserved and Stoic?

Lunette with Orante. From early Christian fresco, second half of the third century. Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.Traditionalist critics of modern worship often point to the hyper-emotionalism associated with the movement as evidence of its imbalance toward expressiveness over and against theological depth, biblical accuracy, and historical connectivity.  Sometimes, these critics will point to "how the church has historically worshipped" to advocate for more reserved, "reverential" forms of worship expression.  They will admonish the church that, unless people reserved and somber in worship, they will be downplaying the fact that in worship we do indeed encounter a holy God who should inspire fear, silence, and meekness.  

Many, many folks have pointed out that the Psalms give us a bigger picture.  They don't necessarily subtract from the above, but add to it.  The Psalms give us a picture of reverence and jubilation, being reserved and being expressive, both physically and emotionally.  

So what about those arguments about "historic Christian worship?"  Perhaps when we look to post-Reformational Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian worship we see a more stoic model of corporate worship expression.  But if we go back earlier...much earlier...we see a different picture which may surprise us.  If, in our minds, we picture the early church at worship in homes and church buildings engaging in liturgy in formal, reverential postures with solemn faces and expression-less bodies, our picture is wrong.

The above picture is taken from an early Christian fresco, painted in the late third century.  It depicts a worshiper in prayer.  Contrary to our postures of folded hands, closed eyes, and sitting or kneeling, this early Christian was standing, head covered, with eyes open and hands lifted toward heaven.  (It's interesting that modern worship hand-raising, especially when we realize that singing is a form of prayer, is actually a more ancient, historic worship-posture than the still-bodied, stoic-faced, hymnal holding that characterizes some of traditional worship today!)

If this reality of early church worship is as surprising to you as it was to me, perhaps you, too, should check out Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.1 Along with brief commentary on the above picture, here's what they had to say as they observed the documents and art produced in and around fourth-century Jerusalem:

[Commenting on the picture:] Although this portrayal dates from the late third century and from a different place than Jerusalem, such portrayals can help one imagine what it would have been like forJerusalem's buildings to have been filled with worshipers. Envision, for example, hundreds with hands upraised, gathered around the tomb of Christ.2

Early Christian nun Egeria, from her diary, wrote this in describing a portion of a worship service in fourth-century Jerusalem, as the people traveled from site to site surrounding the story of Jesus' death:

When everyone arrives at Gethsemane, they have an appropriate prayer,  hymn, and then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord's arrest.  By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loud that people even across in the city can probably hear it all.3

Here's the sidebar comment by the authors:

The loudness of the people's reaction to the acount of Jesus' arrest is another reminder of how demonstrative late patristic worship could be. Congregations were not quiet and passive at this time.4

The authors summarize Jerusalem worship in the fourth century in this way:

Jerusalem worshipers were moved emotionally by their worship, mirrored by how they moved outwardly in its rhythms of time and space. Egeria depicted how deeply people's affections could be touched in worship, thereby dispelling any notion we might have that the early church's worship was staid and stuffy because it involved a great deal of ceremony. Egeria drew a picture of worship in which people wept, shouted, called back to the preacher, and applauded with delight.5

And here we see that more formalized and ceremony-oriented worship doesn't necessarily have to be "staid and stuffy."  Our doxological ancestors gave us a different picture.  It seems, then, if we want to talk about getting back to the worship of the early church, we need to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  With traditionalists and formalists, we can prize "ceremony," liturgy, and even high levels of structure and content in our worship.  With modern worship, we can appreciate and incorporate the fullness of physical and emotional expressiveness.  It doesn't seem that, from a biblical and historical perspective, either needs to be encouraged to the exclusion of the other.  

So we would do well to celebrate and incorporate the ideals of early Christian worship, even as we find new ways of expressing our ancient Christian doxology.


1 Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
2 Ibid., 31.
3 Ibid., 54.
Ibid., 28.