Music is intensely emotional, and worship leaders know it. I’ve read plenty of articles and books that outline how worship leading takes people on an “emotional journey.” At best, these writers are encouraging worship leaders to understand how the worship service is, in a sense, a story, and that our job is to help guide people into experiencing that story with every aspect of who we are, including our emotions. At worst, however, they are (sometimes unabashedly and explicitly) outlining a recipe for manipulation.
The worship leader wields an intense emotional power. From the way they present themselves (if they are viewable by the congregation) to the contour and elements of the service they plan (especially the music), they hold the ability to help mold the hearts of the people they lead, largely through the conduit of human emotion. The question is not whether they hold this power–this sacred trust–but whether they will respond to this trust faithfully. It’s the difference between manipulation and shepherding.
Manipulation vs. Shepherding
The analogy of shepherding will be helpful in parsing out the difference between manipulation and faithful leading. A good shepherd leads their sheep to places because he or she has a purpose in mind for the destination (away from predators or dangerous terrain, toward food and shelter, etc.), whose end is for the good health of the sheep. Emotional manipulation in a worship service is like a shepherd leading people to certain pastures without knowing why. Not all those pastures are necessarily the wrong place to go, but they have not fully investigated the purpose of going to that pasture. Manipulation, at its best is “purposeless shepherding,” or “partial shepherding.” A sheep-person waking up from the fog of manipulation will often first exclaim, “Wait, why am I here?” It may be important to arrive in a worship service at the pastures of, say, joy and sorrow, but the question of why is often absent from the (most likely unintentional) manipulator. This is one of the reasons that worship services, especially to postmodern, skeptic, young-adult Americans, feel like all hype and no substance.
But the answer, contrary to many reactors to the emotional hype of certain forms and styles of worship, is not to get rid of the emotional journey but to rightly orient it on a faithful, well-worn path–the “ruts of righteousness” of Psalm 23. Manipulation is about being forced. Shepherding is about being led and guided, sometimes with an enticing, wooing voice, and sometimes with a gentle but firm rod. Unfortunately, there are times where people mistake the rod as the forceful blow of a manipulator, as I’ve experienced.
Burned by Manipulation
In my short time as a worship pastor, I’ve encountered many people who have been burned by manipulative worship leading. It often gets exposed when I attempt to more faithfully shepherd their emotions in the context of worship. They respond with a lengthy, fiery email or an angry phone call. Or, worse yet, I hear second-hand from someone else how put off they are by something I did or said in worship. The defensive, idolatrous side of me wants to rail against them with a host of philosophical and theological arguments (a biblical theology of emotion in worship) about why they’re wrong and I’m right. But the best of me–the pastor God is forming in me–tells me that they need to be heard. When we do get to that place of hearing (either at a coffee shop, or in my home or theirs), and the back-story of their emotional scarring is told, I am again reminded of the gravity of my job as a worship pastor in faithfully shepherding people’s emotions in public worship.
Instead of expending negative energy exposing and crucifying what unhealthy emotional manipulation looks like in a worship service, I want to talk about how a worship leader guides people to experience and be nurtured in “faithful feelings” (as Matthew Elliott puts it in the title of his book). It’s all about what they are feeling and the content behind what made them feel that way. In short, my job as a worship pastor, with regard to people’s feelings, is that they experience the emotional contours of the gospel–the overwhelming glory of God, the crushing gravity of sin, and the greatness of grace.
The Emotional Contours of the Gospel
THE GLORY OF GOD. The Psalms are full of faithful feelings responding to God’s glory and power. “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1) displays one right emotional response to the glory of God–typified in the raucous act of shouting. When I lead worship, my hope is not only that people know that God is glorious or believe that God is majestic. I hope that they would feel it, too. Music, as a servant of the text we sing, has the ability to engender and summon those feelings. Certain rhythms, certain sonic colors, “describe” that glory and tap into our appropriate emotional response to that glory. And as a pastor, knowing that music has this power, I want to shepherd people’s feelings to rightly respond in that moment in body and soul, head and heart. Some people consider this manipulation, but the difference here is that the aim of the emotional “content” is matching the aim of the propositional content. Again, the difference between manipulation and shepherding is not about whether something led is summoning one’s emotions; it is about whether something led is summoning the proper and appropriate emotions for the content of that portion of the service. I don’t want to “pump people up” at the beginning of the service. I don’t want to do some “high energy stuff” so that people “get excited.” I don’t want to just “warm people up” to be receptive to the sermon. I want people to faithfully feel the glory of God, so they can, in turn, take the next step.
THE GRAVITY OF SIN. When the glory of God is felt, the very next natural response is sorrow, and sometimes nearly panic. When the thresholds shook, Isaiah’s first response was to cry “Woe to me!…for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). Feeling the glory of God, the next step was experiencing the gravity of His sin. In a worship service, I desperately want to not only know it; I want to feel it. And I want God’s people to feel it, too. I want them to experience the full-orbed, holistic sorrow of being a sinner in the sight of a perfect and just God. I don’t want to make people cry so that their hearts are soft and open for the go-for-the-jugular sermon. I don’t want to “get people into a certain emotional state” so that they’re vulnerable for us to go in for the kill. But I do want us to weep over our sin and feel deeply the anguish of human brokenness, so that the greatness of grace can germinate in fertile soil.
THE GREATNESS OF GRACE. The reason we ought to be brought so low is so that we can look up to see (and feel) just how high and wide the grace of God is. What descriptors bring out the emotions of grace? Relief. Joy. Gratefulness. Willing submission. I don’t want people to have an ecstatic experience for the sake of an ecstatic experience. I want them to have an ecstatic experience so that they are brought to a deeper place of knowing the truth and effectual power of the gospel–and that “knowing” includes the emotions. When you feel the gospel, you “know” and “understand” it more fully than you do when you just assent to the proposition that “Jesus died for me.”
The End Game of Faithful Emotional Shepherding
The result of a gospel-shaped emotional contour in worship is that people’s feelings are rightly formed to travel a certain path, a gospel path. And as these paths are repeatedly trodden, a Christian, in times of thirst and need, finds themselves going back to that path with instinctual swiftness, the way a deer that pants for water follows the familiar grooves in the ground toward the stream. This is the formative power of worship’s story. The effectiveness of the Christian finding that path is at least partially related to how holistically they are engaged in the worship service, which is why it is important for the emotions to be engaged. Metaphorically, a path becomes more well worn not only be how many times it is trodden, but by the heaviness of the one doing the treading. So, as I’m treading, I want as much of me on that path as possible, so that the grooves get worn deeper. I am “heavier” when my emotions are with me. I didn’t want to leave them by the side of the road several miles back because I’m scared of them getting abused. I need all of me for this journey. And the end game is that all of me becomes more familiar with walking the gospel path, so that in times of need, every part of me knows just where to go.