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Glenn Packiam: Is Emotional Worship Wrong?

emotional worship

I decided not to post my full paper on emotional worship in contemporary worship at academia.edu just in case significant sections of it end up in my final dissertation. (My dissertation must be an original contribution to the field and cannot have been previously published.) But because several of you asked about it, I thought it may be helpful to post a few highlights, if for no other reason than to give us some talking points and places for more critical reflection.

Emotional Worship

I. A Paradigm of Encounter

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 singing is the place of encounter in charismatic worship, going so far as to compare it to the place of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass. (This is not a theological claim but rather a sociological observation.) In other words, where Catholics or high church Anglicans may see the Eucharist as a place of ‘encounter,’ and where the Reformed tradition and its offshoots may see the preaching of the Word of God as the place of ‘encounter,’ the Charismatic tradition sees the singing of praise and worship as the place of encounter. John Witvliet and others have referred to this as the ‘sacramentalization of singing’—worship singing is the new sacrament.

This paradigm of encounter in contemporary worship singing is significant because encounter involves emotion. Emotional worship. Drawing on Pete Ward and others, we might conclude that encounter = expression + experience. What we mean 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 see that they are solely emotional; only that they include and perhaps even rely upon emotion in order to occur. What are we expressing if not something that includes emotion? What do we mean by an experience if not something that has an emotional component to it?

Thus a worship paradigm of encounter places emotion as a key player in the process. The question is not whether or not worship ought to be emotional. Of course it does; and worship—as a way of meeting God—has always involved emotion. The question is whether emotional worship is appropriate or not. But how do we answer that?

II. Emotion as Perception and Motivation

First we explore, briefly, what emotions are. We are trained to think that emotions are bad. We casually say a worship service was ‘too emotional’ or that we don’t care for all that ‘touchy feely’ stuff.