Emotion, Music, & Worship

27 Mar

At the behest of Hans Googer, of hansgooger.com, I have been tasked with a new blog post based on an idea I had a couple months back. “Time for your quarterly blog post, Evan.” Apparently, he is not wrong. I miss the ol’ blog, and I wish I gave it more time, but it’s hard. But today, you get a new blog post from yours truly! For all the folks who wondered when I might blog about stuff and things again, this one’s for you!

The post idea started with this video:

Music & Emotion

For those that don’t know it or didn’t want to click it to watch it (Come on! Really? It’s one minute!), it is a father talking to his son who is sitting in the back seat moved to tears listening to “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera playing on the radio. He is four years old. The dad asks the son if he wants him to change the station, and the son says “no.” He just wants to sit back, listen, and cry. Again, he is four years old! Obviously, it’s really sweet and cute, and it went viral about 2 months ago and has had over 3 million views to date.

As soon as I saw it, I got the idea to write about it, because to me it is such powerful testimony to the role music can play in drawing out an emotional response. Most of us intrinsically know that music does that, at least to a degree, but we often don’t really think about it day to day, and it doesn’t (usually) affect us to the degree we see with this sweet little guy in the video. Is he moved by the tragedy in the lyrics? “Say something! I’m giving up on you!” Is he moved by the minor chord progression and swelling strings? Is he moved by Christina Aguilera’s perfect harmony? All of the above? Hard to know. He is four years old. I taught a class of over a dozen four-year-olds at a preschool for a few summers, and let me tell you, this type of emotional intelligence is not typical for the age. But he is clearly, unmistakably touched by a song meant convey sadness.

So music absolutely serves as a vehicle for emotions. Sometimes, these emotions are already present and the music just pulls them to the forefront. Sometimes, the song might actually be powerful enough to change our current “emotional climate,” so to speak. In this case, it is probably not drawing out a feeling that is already present, but the song is changing the way someone was feeling and overtaking his or her emotional state.

Obviously, this makes me think about music as a worship leader and how it is used to help convey how we think and feel as a church in relationship to who God is and what He has done for us. What role should emotion play in worship?


Emotion & Worship

I remember growing up in a church that transitioned from traditional hymns to more contemporary band-driven style in my formative years as a young believer. Youth conferences and camps had these intensely emotional altar calls on the last night where people would trust Christ or “rededicate their lives” to Christ. There would always be weeping at the apparent conviction we students were feeling. I also remember my youth pastor saying, “Worship shouldn’t just be emotional. It should be spiritual.” I totally understand what he was getting at, and I agree. At the time, however, I was probably not the hearing the “just” in that statement. Rather, I was hearing, “Worship shouldn’t be emotional. It should be spiritual.”

As a young believer and budding worship leader, however, this set up a false dichotomy in my head that took me awhile to sort out. I was under the impression that stirring up emotion was fruitless. We needed worship in Spirit and in Truth right? So, be careful you aren’t just getting people excited or happy or sad. That’s not what real worship is. After all Jesus said:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
(Matthew 15:7-9 ESV)

Anyone who knows what that verse is actually saying knows that it is the opposite of how I was taking it. John Piper does a great job of expanding on it further in an audio clip here. His point is that emotions and worship are intrinsically linked. You can’t have authentic worship and be unmoved emotionally. “Feeling” is not the point of worship, but if you aren’t feeling, then how are you worshiping? How can you be exhibiting spiritual affection without emotion? This is what Jesus is saying as he quotes Isaiah. He is after our hearts, not our intellectual assent. Not our verbal affirmation. He wants us to feel in our hearts deep affection for him.

If you talk to my wife, she will attest that one of my best times of private devotion for me is mowing the grass and putting on Andrew Peterson on my iPod and weeping and sniffling–partly because of the grass clippings and pollen, I promise–but also because the music and lyrics of his songs move me and stir my affections for Christ!


Mowing on Holy Ground

Music, Emotion, and Worship

For me, whether it’s mowing the yard and weeping at Andrew Peterson songs, hearing Louis C.K. talk about how he had to pull his car over and weep at the end of Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” when it came on the radio, or watching this four year old boy weep to “Say Something” in the back seat, they all are telling me the same thing about how important music is to us emotionally. In corporate worship, the reason God has prescribed music as one of the ways in which he has us worship him is precisely because how it serves to draw out our emotions. In His Word he gave us examples of songs of praise sung by important bible characters as well as an entire book in the Psalms.

Now, as I said earlier, music can help draw out existing emotions already present but not near the surface. For my money, this should be what happens in corporate worship in most cases. For us as believers, we already have within us the truth of the gospel, and the corresponding emotional responses to it are already there, but our hearts may not be brimming with gratitude, lament, remorse, joy, etc. Music just helps it begin bubble up.

This past Sunday, we sang the awesome All Sons and Daughters song “Great Are You Lord” and I read a passage from Ezekeil 37:4-10, from which the song draws it’s inspiration. In this case, the song had already been drawing out emotions, then the Word of God was read to illuminate the lyrics of the bridge, which we then sang. It was powerful.

Here music as well as scripture was drawing out that emotional and spiritual response and serving as a vehicle for that response. So music as a means of worship when it is used in conjunction with the word of God to draw out emotion is an amazing thing. I am thankful everyday to God for the blessing of music. This world needs it. It is a gracious gift from the Lord.

Final Thoughts and Warnings

Obviously, music is not the only prescribed method of worship, and it can be overemphasized depending on the tradition of faith. It is important to remember that emotions can be false too. One can simply like music and let the feelings songs elicit be an end unto themselves. That’s not worship. I can go to a Coldplay concert and do that (and have)! As Derek Webb wrote in one of his songs, “I Don’t Want the Spirit, I Want the Kick Drum.” I take his point to be similar to mine. I am concerned as the “praise and worship music” era matures that people will confuse the means of worship with the definition of worship. Music is not worship. Emotion is not worship, but emotion is necessary for worship. Music is a means to draw out emotion, and by all accounts, a biblical one. We just need to keep things in their proper place of understanding, and we need to be careful that music doesn’t become something more than a means. It can’t be the object in and of itself, nor can the emotions it stirs. The object behind all of it is the praise and honor of God.

To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.



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One Response to “Emotion, Music, & Worship”

  1. Steve Corn March 28, 2014 at 5:34 AM #

    Awesome post Evan! Sorry my words all those years ago sent you down such a strange path. I think my intentions in the beginning of the worship movement were the same you described for it as it matures – I was concerned that the “means of worship might be confused with the definition of worship.”

    So cool to see you all gown up as a worship leader. I remember your beginnings fondly. Miss you man.

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