My Facebook feed blew up this morning with this intense and quite moving footage from a New Zealand wedding. They’re engaging in a sincere and powerful Haka ritual, and though I don’t understand a word of it, I think I get it…and I think you do, too.
Our Love-Hate Relationship with Emotions
Let’s face it. We evangelicals have a checkered past when it comes to emotions and worship. The Second Great Awakening–that early nineteenth century movement of westward-sweeping revivals–polarized the various Reformational and evangelical traditions. The wild reports of mass conversions following emotionally-charged revival meetings elicited usually one of two responses. On the one hand, the movement was greeted with great success, and its accompanying methods were championed as the way forward for evangelicals. On the other hand, emotionalism was looked on with great suspicion. Charges of false conversions and manipulation abounded.
And we evangelicals today have inherited this schizophrenic relationship with emotions and worship. With a very broad brush, we can say that it tends to be (just as it was then) the more “thoughtful” traditions (i.e. the ones that place high emphasis on biblical fidelity and theological precision) that are more skeptical of dragging that clumsy bag of emotionalism into the worship service. Out of these traditions today, one can hear in their criticisms of today’s worship the echoes of the tracts put out against the “enthusiasm” of the Second Great Awakening some two hundred years ago: “it’s all just sappy emotionalism;” “they’re just brainwashing congregations;” “they’re encouraging you to turn your brains off and ‘just feel’.”
Because our suspicion of emotions is buried deep in our historical psyche, even a post like this, entitled, “The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader,” is greeted with at least a raised eyebrow.
Emotions and Worship’s Punchline
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about the nature of emotions and their relationship to worship. One of my best friends, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Baylor specializing in the philosophy of emotions, has been a mentor from afar…occasional dialogues, texts, emails, and book-exchanges. I’ve read books like Robert Roberts’ insighful Spiritual Emotions, helpful sections in Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie’s Resonant Witness, and key portions of Brian Wren’s Praying Twice. I’ve studied Reformational worship leaders and liturgical architects like Thomas Cranmer, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, who all pre-dated the Second Great Awakening, in hopes of learning from what responsible emotional worship leading looked like before we developed some of our hangups. And I’ve certainly done a lot of prayerful “practition-ing” on the local level, in dialogue with the pastors, musicians, choir, and worship leaders at Coral Ridge.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve got a lot of ground to plow when it comes to emotions and worship. I don’t really know what it looks like on the other side, but I do know that our historical PTSD over the abuses of the Second Great Awakening have had the residual effect on many of us of stunting our emotional engagement in worship. I have explored these things in the most succinctly systematic fashion I can in my book, The Worship Pastor, in the chapter entitled “The Worship Pastor as Emotional Shepherd”…which will be released (thankfully) mid-October of 2016 (updates of the book’s progress here).
Now that I’ve raised these issues, I want to ask a few questions about the above video. I’ll first tell you about my reaction: I was deeply moved. I was deeply moved because on this sacred day, there was enacted an historic ritual, and this ritual was performed with intense amounts of sincerity and heart. The ritual may have been foreign to us, but if you’re like me, you found yourself nearly weeping at the end.
God seems to have created us all with a kind of emotional resonating chamber that reverberates on similar frequencies to one another. A ritual from a culture half a world away from me echoes in my heart simply because emotions are a human, trans-cultural reality, and when they are on display in an intense and authentic way, they immediately begin to ring in my soul. Emotions, surrounded in ritual, are a powerful thing. This bride, groom, and these other men were doing something that led the other people in the room (and you and me). They took us somewhere. They took us on a journey of tension and release, whose punchline was, “Welcome to the family…we are for you, not against you.”
Worship has a punchline. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And what if we worship leaders could wisely, responsibly, and faithfully tap into our own emotions so that that punchline has a greater opportunity to resonate with others? What if our rituals can surround (and appropriately safeguard) our emotions while nonetheless setting them free? What if, in our leadership, our emotions could be so appropriately deep and sincere that they cannot help but resonate?
I’m not talking about hyper-emotionalism and breakdowns on the platform. I’m talking about something that’s very context-specific, but nevertheless bold. From the stateliest liturgical setting to the freest charismatic moment, what if we could find a way to emotionally lead that was faithful to the ritual and excited all the best frequencies of the emotional resonating chambers in the room?
How do we go about it? How do we toe the line between faithful shepherding and careless manipulation? Where’s the boundary past “emotional resonance” to emotionalistic carelessness? These are all very important questions, and we need to answer them. For now, I just want to try to blow open the issue so that we can continue faithfully and pastorally responding to these questions, and a wonderful New Zealand wedding ritual moved me to do so.