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Should Worship Be Emotionally Expressive?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Should worship be physically expressive?” I thought it may be helpful to explore emotional expressiveness in worship, drawing on some of my research reading from earlier this year.

I. Why Do Emotions Matter?
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 in charismatic worship, singing is the place of encounter. It ought to be noted, however, that Christian worship has in one sense always been about an encounter, which historically was God meeting us in the bread and wine.

The paradigm of encounter is significant because encounter involves emotion. What we mean in modern worship when 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 say that they are solely emotional; only that they include and perhaps even rely upon emotion in order to occur.

Thus a worship paradigm of encounter places emotion as a key player in the process. The question, then, is not so much whether or not worship ought to be emotionally expressive, but rather, what sort of emotional expression is appropriate—and, furthermore, who decides?

II. Emotion as Perception and Motivation
First, we briefly explore what emotions are, beginning with what emotions are not. Emotions are not moods. Moods have no object; they are undirected feelings. Emotions are aimed at something.

That’s why Bob Roberts (Baylor) 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).