The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought6 Comments

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 Emotionshelpful 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.

6 Comments on “The Case for the Emotional Worship Leader”

  1. "God seems to have created us all with a kind of emotional resonating chamber that reverberates on similar frequencies to one another."

    This sentence struck a chord with me. As a biologist, I often think about the way in which our bodies are suitable for the kinds of things God wants us to do. Bob Kauflin talks about how we are able, unlike anything else in creation, to use our words to express praise and love to God. A rock praises by being a rock, a waterfall by being a waterfall, but we endowed with creativity – in the image of our maker – to come up with new ways to worship.

    Think about those time in the Bible when God speaks through a dream. If we didn't dream, if we didn't have the right brain structures to remember our dreams, this channel would be closed. Similarly, in this context, we have emotions, we are able to be moved ("Jesus wept"), we respond to music, to rhythm, to song. The world, in its cynicism, takes those aspects of our nature, given to us by God so that we might enjoy him, seek him and live for him, and uses emotionally charged music to sell us chocolate bars, or to draw us into the narrative of a film, or to get a message stuck in our heads.

    That is why I see no contradiction, when I lead worship, in attaching culturally significant sounds, melodies, word forms, musical structures to something that cannot be overhyped – the good news of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. If that's not something that people can be appropriately moved by, then what is?

    If I'm using that music to make people think well of me, or to fill a boring half hour, or simply to get people to think well of our church, then we've got some issues. If I'm using it to promote an untruthful Gospel in some way, or to cover over the cracks of bad theology, then those are serious issues.

    But our time together is supposed to help us stir each other up to good works, to let the word of God dwell in us richly, to encourage us with deep, eternal truths; then to me it seems good and right that we use these tools that God has given us, and the bodies that respond to those tools, in the way he intended them. Of course the expression might look different culturally, but if people don't leave our gatherings at all moved, then I think we've missed something important.

  2. Brilliant connection. I saw that video as well and was moved, despite and perhaps b/c of its strangeness. I don't know the answer either to where the boundary-line is (between resonance and carelessness), but my goal is to "know it when I feel it", with the Spirit as the Mover and the Scriptures as the guiding boundary. A very tricky presumption – that the Spirit can move through us and provide power and wisdom for our worship, but one I need to keep returning to and exploring. I've seen Him move too many times to place my confidence anywhere else.

  3. Excellent points so far, I would just affirm that though it is dangerous to emotionally manipulate people, it cannot be avoided. That being said, to have a sermon on The Judgment of God, which naturally draws people into a certain emotive state, and then to have a song of response of joy (rather than something that allows us to express our fear/reverence of the Lord) does not allow people to express their emotions the way they long to be expressed in response to the Word of God that has been spoken. Let it never be so!

  4. (I originally wrote this on my phone and it chose to autocorrect some things incorrectly, so I'll repost from my keyboard.)

    I was moved as well, remembering our own historical rituals like blood covenant. When God in a pillar of fire walked the symbol of infinity between two animal halves while He allowed Abraham to sleep, knowing he could not be ever-faithful. When in other covenant ceremonies, the representative heads of tribes would come together in a valley with both tribes on either side looking in, united in purpose, and the covenant representative heads would literally cut covenant, creating physical reminders with scars which became cautions to aggressive outsiders that "we are not alone" and "this will get very ugly for you if you proceed."

    The initiation into a gang, a covenant, a spiritual relationship with God Almighty… they resonate because they are deep, lasting, costly expressions with consequences associated with not living up to the terms of the agreement. This is why we sing about God's faithfulness to His Word. He cannot deny Himself. He is not a man that He should lie nor a son of man that He should repent. (After all…) Has He said and will He not do? Or has He spoken and will He not make it good? Human beings need to be assured of trustworthiness and that their friend/Friend will show up when they call. We have that in The God we worship from Whom all blessings flow, from Whom every good and perfect gift comes, from Whom there is no shadow of turning.

    In searching out wisdom and training for my own leading of a congregation in worship, I've been given this answer, which will either entirely satisfy or entirely not satisfy… "The difference between manipulation and leadership is in the heart's intent of the leader."

    Think of Jesus' assessment of Nathaneal in John 1, "Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said concerning him, See! Here is an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile nor deceit nor falsehood nor duplicity!"

    The best man at my wedding had made this comparison to me long ago, and it has stuck with me. Clearly, these people DO exist and can be recognized by their earnest lifestyles. Rick saw it in me. Jesus saw it in Nathanael and I believe every worship leader must be(come) one as well. All I want is for the people to truly and fully engage with God so they can enjoy each other's company in unity, according to His purpose. I'm nearly disinterested in the music because I prefer the pursuit of His Presence by such great margin. And it's weird for me, a musician, to say that.

    So, what is your intent, emotional worship leader, when you stand to lead? Emotionalism or honest emotion overflowing from a true worshiper's heart? As difficult as it is to defend a position like this, it simply comes down to it. #intent

  5. It's a matter of finding a balance between emotion, will and reason I guess.

    When something works, we tend to reduce it to a method / technique. That's when the Holy Spirit moves away.

    Great thoughts as usual Zac!

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