Chasing Emotional Experiences in Worship

Sunday mornings were usually pretty routine – arrive early to practice the music, go off to Sunday School, and then the service begins. This particular Sunday we had just opened the hymnal to sing this classic hymn:

All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all,
All to Thee, my blessèd Savior,
I surr …

“Wait! Stop the music! This morning, these words they just cut me to the heart. It’s just, I don’t really surrender all to Jesus – there’s a lot that I hold back. Well, here on out I’m going to give him absolutely everything.” A member stood up and confessed with tears streaming down his face. The woman who was praying at the altar looked up with a puzzled look on her face. All eyes were now forward. The pastor decided to capitalize on the moment to say something spiritual-sounding and that seemed to help the bizarre situation sightly.

I could see that the musicians were frozen on stage. “What are we supposed to do?” They thought as they glanced at each other.

The members in the audience clapped politely and said a few encouragements – but there remained the question of how to get back on track. Should they start over with the same song? Should they continue where they left off? Should they just skip it? This disruption changed everything – for one, that song was never sung again. In the second place, one of musicians saw it as the last straw and left the praise brand.

Most of the time, people tell me that contemporary music is bad because it’s chasing an emotional high. The problem is that I’ve seen how hymns are the gateway emotional experience in worship. The difference is that nine times out of ten, the emotions related to hymns are containable. They play your favorite hymn, you sing a little more joyfully and have a smile. They play a hymn you can’t stand, you muddle through it quietly and frown. They play a hymn you don’t know and you mask your confusion by muddling quietly through it and frowning some more. So outbursts like the one we had witnessed are few and far in-between.

Music is amazing. Various studies have shown that classical music can improve your ability to judge distances. Some songs will pull on your heart strings- maybe it’s the violins. And doesn’t Spanish guitar riff always indicate something exciting? So it should be no surprise that both hymns and contemporary songs do allow for emotional manipulation. They just represent two different schools of thought.

Hymns represent organic emotional expression, but that’s restrained by a silent emphasis on emotional control. People have done the same hymns to a degree that they don’t really react to them. Hymns are also a hundred years or so out of date – they were written when the tastes that people had for music were of another time. Because of copy-right, they’re free to print hundreds of times over. That’s why a hymnal can have six hundred and sixty six songs, but the vast majority of them will not be played on any given Sunday.

Contemporary music represents modern tastes, and that’s probably why it feels more emotional. It’s written in everyday words and is is naturally singable. Take a song like ‘Hallelujah’ from Shrek – an artist enjoyed the melody, but used Bible verses to alter the lyrics. Now the music and the words match into a beautiful hymn. There’s also no doubt that ‘Take Me to Church’ is a powerful melody – but it’s words in the original aren’t exactly what you’d sing at a church. Should we wait a hundred years for their respective copy rights to end so that they can be copied and altered for church use? Will they be relevant a hundred years from now? Some say that new ones are constantly being taught so the old ones don’t really get learned. I find that some churches are always after the brand new hits – but one of my churches seemed to prefer music from 2002-2006 and very rarely diverged into more modern songs. In a way, they were holding onto what they considered to be the best of the best and letting the not so great songs go – just as hymnals tend to do. (Have you ever thought about what songs were too theologically unsound, too musically awkward, or too long forgotten to make it into a hymnal? There are probably thousands of them.)

Which is why it’s pretty difficult for me to deal with hymns in general. I know that they’re classics, but they’ve lost the ability to speak to me in that sacred way that works for others. The emotions that hymns dredge up in me aren’t easy to contain – but they are easy enough to name: frustration, boredom, resentment, and anger. It throws off my ability to praise God by singing frustrating hymns to him. I know my grandfather finds hymns to be delightful, wonderful, fantastic, and joyful – but that’s how I feel about contemporary music.

And that is why it’s even more difficult for me to hear that it’s wrong of me to want to feel something when it comes to worship. Emotions are part of being human. When people get to sing their favorite hymn or their favorite contemporary song they get a bit of emotional fulfillment out of it. When people sing a hymn or contemporary song that they don’t like, they get a bit of emotional frustration out of it. When the message is uplifting, then that’s another bit of joy. When the message is heavy and difficult, their conscience might trouble them. Then communion brings in a little relief as guilt is forgiven. Every church service is scripted to allow for a series of emotions to be expressed in a safe environment within culturally acceptable parameters – the music facilitates that.

It is manipulation – in a good way. So it seems to me that the best thing to do is to find whatever works for each person and to stick with that. Some churches have opted for blended services that are the best of both worlds. Some churches opt to have two or three different services each with a different style. If it’s done right, then there’s no harm done. But don’t tell me that it’s more holy, more self-sacrificing, more awe-inspiring to feel nothing at all for the duration of worship.

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3 thoughts on “Chasing Emotional Experiences in Worship

    • Most Christians can finish this sentence with little difficulty: “He is risen …”
      That’s what I mean by the words manipulate, to control a mechanism in a skillful manner, not to mean to control a person unfairly. Generally, in a call and response environment, it’s understood what’s expected. The same goes unsaid for the mechanism of worship in general, each song is a call for a person to respond to it emotionally. Most of the time the emphasis on restraint keeps public displays to a minimum. Sometimes our cultural preference for keeping emotion in check is quite unhealthy. The exuberance of King David dancing is a rarity in the denomination I grew up in, where there was no raising of hands or jumping or dancing. But singing these songs did let some degree of emotion to be displayed safely without everybody being caught off-guard.

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...Anyway, that's just how I feel about it ... What do you think?

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