Over the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about feeling and affect in worship. I’ve been pondering how our “emotional apprehension” in worship shapes, informs, propels our congregational gatherings. I used to think that if people just had enough instruction about what worship is and does, they would be more engaged in its elements. I still believe in that, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I can go deeper as a pastoral worship leader in pondering the participation and formation of the people of God. People are not only receiving things in worship cognitively, but emotionally. As many of us now know thanks to the re-presenting work of thinkers like James K. A. Smith, this emotional apprehension takes place in the core of us, in that place in us the ancients called “the affections.”
Of course, jumping on the affections-train has me thinking about worship in a whole new way. I’m scrutinizing my own heart and emotional life along with my congregation’s. I’m thinking through how our liturgical rituals (our singing, our praying, our preaching, our baptizing, etc.) can become more alive, more real to us. And right now, I’m thinking about Confession and Assurance/Absolution–that series of crucial moments in many of our worship services where the people of God cry out for forgiveness, and God offers it in His Son.
Surprised by Grace
I want to make a case that, for at least some of the time in worship, Confession should feel interrupted by the word of pardon which follows it. It’s a theological case–particularly a soteriological one–that has an emotional outworking. The case is this: You and I are never “prepared” for salvation. Salvation comes to us as a gift (Eph 2:8), and a surprising one at that. The fact that God saves us “even while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8) means that we’re never “ready” for salvation. The Gospel is, through and through, a surprising Word from outside of us, that breaks in at a moment we least expect it.
Our default, “Old Adam/Eve” mode of thinking is, with Pelagius, that we contribute something to our salvation. Our readiness to receive the gospel fits somewhere in this (sinful, heretical) sphere of old world thinking. Apart from God’s revelation, God’s breaking in, we are never ready, willing, and able to receive the Good News. We are “yet sinners,” thinking our sin-y thoughts, doing our sin-y deeds. Salvation, like the incarnation, is a total surprise, a shocker. It’s a megaphone so loud that, for the first time, even the deaf can hear.
A Felt Gospel (and I’m not talking flannel graphs)
I wonder whether our worship services couldn’t stand to allow this theological reality to be affectively demonstrated and apprehended. What would it look like? Perhaps it would look like a time of Confession that never gets fully off the ground. Perhaps it would look like a Confession interrupted before it was completed.
What could this look like in various contexts? For sung liturgies (song-set oriented worship), perhaps we need some songs written that move from Confession to Assurance that offer a fitting musical surprise at that juncture (a key change, a sudden lift, a shift in tempo or meter). If it’s a move from one song to another, perhaps it might mean a shortened outro of the Confession song and a quick move to the assurance song. For worship services that offer a silent time of Confession before the Absolution is offered, perhaps you could figure out what the “normal” amount of silence is and then lop off ten to fifteen seconds to give everyone a sense of incompleteness (“Wait, I wasn’t done confessing. I still had more to say.”). If your liturgy is fixed, like the Prayer Book tradition I’m now in, perhaps the liturgist fires off the word of absolution (“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy…”) during the “Amen” of the Confession.
Will this feel odd to people? I think so. But I wonder whether the oddness is exactly the affect of salvation, rightly perceived. I’m sure Jesus in all His glory felt quite odd and interruptive to Paul on the road to Damascus. I’m sure the “neither do I condemn you” jolted the woman caught in adultery. Maybe, from time to time, Absolution should feel out of place to remind us that it is out of place.
The reality is that, were we given all the time in the world to confess our sin, it still wouldn’t be enough. Our infinite transgression is infinitely confess-able. It is only our self-righteousness that causes us to run out of things to confess. If we’re being true to the theology of the liturgy, it just might be that our Confession should take the lion’s share of the time. But that’s the point. It doesn’t because God interjects into our Confession a profession of the One who “made an end to all my sin.”
Again, this will look differently depending on your liturgical flow, but it’s worth pondering as we consider not only how the liturgy is understood cognitively but apprehended emotionally.
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Postscript: This is just another way I’m thinking though what it means to be an “Emotional Shepherd” in worship. If these thoughts resonate, consider picking up my book, with a chapter dedicated to the topic.