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Should Worship Be Emotionally Expressive?

Ashley Null summed up Thomas Cranmer’s (and indeed, many of the Reformers’) anthropology this way: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”

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

• 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.

• 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). 

• 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. Music can also articulate emotions we have not yet been able to express in words.

IV. Emotion and the Congregation
So far, so good. But the trick with emotions in worship is that we are neither experiencing nor expressing in isolation; worship takes place in a communal setting. Because of that, we need to use a sociological lens and explore two facets of emotion: “feeling rules” and collective behavior.

“Feeling rules”
According to Hochschild (UC, Berkeley), “feeling rules” are emotional standards that pressure people to display the ‘situationally “correct” emotion (what she calls “surface acting”), motivate people to try to “experience appropriate emotions,” and that motivate people to try to “suppress inappropriate emotions” (what she calls “deep acting”).

Collective Behavior
Collective behavior is like a feedback loop. Performers use the above resources of music and language to evoke a response from the congregation. The response “increases in intensity and quality of the performer’s actions, which in turn evoke a greater congregational response.” This circular reaction is a hallmark of “collective behavior,” and involves an “oscillating movement toward higher levels of intensity and participation.”

Collective behavior also requires the transfer of control. The key dynamic which makes all collective behaviors possible is the individual’s willingness to ‘transfer control’ to the group. The emotional service becomes a “joint creation” produced by the performer and the congregation.

Much of my understanding of collective behavior in worship comes from Timothy Nelson’s work studying African-American congregations. He sums up this way:

“The emotional service is a ‘religious ritual guided by collectively recognized norms of emotive and expressive behavior. These norms provide participants the means of attaining a desired end—the experience of God within the worship service—and also to bolster congregational … identity.”

V. Emotion and Formation
Is there a way to determine whether or not particular emotions in worship are appropriate? Theologically speaking, emotions are “rightly ordered” when they are appropriately directed toward the right objects. As Augustine would say, love “first things” first. 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.

VI. Worship and Emotion
Where does this leave us? Here are five big take-aways:

• Emotions cannot be an end in themselves. Feeling hopeful is not the same as having the virtue or character quality of hope. Roberts develops an argument, however, that emotions can be instrumental in the cultivation of a virtue. But we must not mistake them for a virtue. Still, emotions are better than moods (moods have no object), and emotions, when tested in the world, can grow into virtues.

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Glenn Packiam is one of the associate senior pastors at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of New Life Downtown, a congregation of New Life Church. Glenn earned a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Durham University in the UK. He also holds BA in Theological/Historical Studies and Masters in Management from Oral Roberts University, and a Graduate Certificate in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Glenn and his wife, Holly, have four children.