Home Worship & Creative Leaders Articles for Worship & Creative Glenn Packiam: Is Emotional Worship Wrong?

Glenn Packiam: Is Emotional Worship Wrong?

Theologically speaking, emotions are ‘rightly ordered’ when they are appropriately directed. In order for an emotion to be considered ‘a full fledged emotion’—as opposed to, say, a ‘mood’—it needs an object: something to be directed toward. To have our emotions rightly ordered, then, is to have them appropriately directed toward the right objects. As Augustine would say, love ‘first things’ most. 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.

The sociological dimension is a bit different. It is context specific. For example, we might all agree that we need to have reverence in worship. But each church context—from denominational tradition to congregational identity—has its way of determining what ‘reverence’ looks like. For some, it’s organs and choirs, for others, it might be a rock band playing its sonic layers on the keyboards and guitars; for still others, it might be complete silence.

Context doesn’t only determine how an emotion is conveyed; it also affects which emotions are fitting. Jeremy Begbie argues that emotions can be inappropriate if the wrong emotion is aroused in a particular setting that ought to have a different one. His example is of a cheery song when singing about the crucifixion. But while that might be inappropriate in, say, an Anglican Tennebrae service, it would certainly be appropriate in an Evangelical Sunday worship service. Why shouldn’t the cross be ‘good news’? Context of traditiontime and place all matter in determining whether or not a particular expression of emotion is appropriate.

III. Music and Emotion

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

A. 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.

B. 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).

C. 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.

 IV. Worship and Emotion

Where does this leave us? There are, I suggest, a few conclusions and a few places for further reflection on emotional worship:

A. Conclusions:

  1. Emotional worship must be aimed chiefly at the Triune God, and secondarily at our neighbor.
  1. Emotional worship cannot be an end in itself.
    The trouble is, Pete Ward has discovered a disturbing trend in contemporary worship toward songs that are ‘reflexive’: they point back toward themselves. If an ‘objective’ song is about a particular truth about God or us, and a ‘subjective’ song is a song about how we feel about God or our relationship with Him, then a ‘reflexive’ song is a song about our act of worship. Rightly used, reflexive songs can give worship a ‘sense of urgency and significance’ (Ward). But they are inadequate as the main course because of its substitution of ‘Gospel content’ for metaphors of intimacy.
  1. Music has the power to evoke emotion; lyrics have the potential to direct them.
    We cannot rush through the lyric-writing phase. Cranmer was the Reformer who focused most, perhaps, on the emotional power of words. His prayers and the sequence of words in the liturgy were designed to move people, and to move them toward a particular Object.

B. Reflection

  1. How can we harness the power of emotional worship to direct people toward loving God?
  1. How can we harness the power of emotional worship to direct people toward loving their neighbor?
  1. How can we write songs that evoke a broader spectrum of emotional worship in order to ‘educate’ worshippers emotionally?



Abernethy, Alexis D. and Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, ‘A Study of Transformation in Worship: Psychological, Cultural, and Psychophysiological Perspectives’, in Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation, ed. by Alexis D. Abernethy(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

Adnams, Gordon, “ ‘Really Worshipping’ not ‘Just Singing’ ”, in Christian Congregational Music: Performance, Identity and Experience, ed. by Monique Ingalls, Carolyn Landau, and Tom Wagner(Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

Begbie, Jeremy S., ‘Faithful Feelings: Music and Emotion in Worship’, in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, ed. by Jeremy S. Begbie and Steven R. Guthrie(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011).

Hood, Ralph. Handbook of Religious Experience (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1995).

Pelser, Adam. ‘Reasons of the Heart: Emotions in Apologetics’, Christian Research Journal, 38, (2015), pp. 32-39.

Roberts, Robert C., Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007).

Ruth, Lester. ‘Some Similarities and Differences between Historic Evangelical Hymns and Contemporary Worship Songs’, Artistic Theologian, 3, (2015), pp. 68-86.

Smith, James K. A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

Ward, Pete, Selling Worship: How What We Sing Has Changed the Church (Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 2005).

This article on emotional worship originally appeared here.