I have three simple questions relating to worship, though admittedly they may not have simple answers. I will begin by asking my first two questions, which are very similar, and will close by asking a third question.
1. What role should the atmosphere (energy level) of a worship service have in evoking emotions?
2. To what degree should worship leaders seek to create an emotional atmosphere?
Lets be clear of what I am not asking. I am not asking if emotions are a part of worship. Most definitely they are. Without emotions, we cannot worship. I am not asking if emotions should be a response to the Word. For it is impossible to worship in Spirit and in truth without our emotions flowing from and being rooted in a clear presentation of Biblical doctrine. Because worship is a response to divine revelation, sound doctrine and gospel centered lyrics are vital in worship.
I am not asking if we should judge the emotional authenticity of worshipers. It is evident from thousands of lost souls that raise their hands and lose themselves in worship services each week at Lakewood Church in Houston that not all who love to worship are true worshipers. Because worship is a part of the human condition, loving to worship and being overwhelmed with emotions proves nothing about our faith in Christ. Even so, I am not asking how we discern authentic worship form synthetic worship. Because all emotions, when felt, are real for those who experience them, I don’t assume that the lady dancing with the music in the corner of the sanctuary is faking.
I am not asking which is better – traditional worship or contemporary worship. I am not asking you to make a judgment call upon which worship style is best. This is an important question with many variables, but I will let someone else ask that question.
More precisely, I am not even asking if we should desire an emotional response from congregational worship. As a pastor, I want our people to have a worshipful experience. At GBC, we purposefully handle our announcements before our Call of Worship for many reasons, but one of them is to not interrupt the natural flow of the service. It does not make sense to break away from worship after we have become emotionally engaged. In fact, the Call to Worship is designed to turn our thoughts and hearts away from the secular and point us towards the Lord. We desire the congregation to actively participate in listening to the sermon and to the prayers, and being active and vocal in singing God’s praises. Emotions (such as reverence, humility, love, joy, and thankfulness) are a vital part of worship.
My questions have nothing to do with the value and importance of emotions in worship. My questions are very narrow in scope. What role should the worship style play in creating an emotional experience for worshipers and should the church have a target emotional atmosphere for their services?
As you consider how to answer these questions, here are a few things to consider. At least these things are running through my mind as I think about these questions.
It seems evident enough that the atmosphere and energy level of a worship service play a part in the level and types of emotions that are evoked within the congregation. For instance, those unfamiliar with a traditional Lutheran service may think their service is void of emotions. Because there is little room for any free and spontaneous elements, with even their prayers being prewritten and scripted, the tendency is to think that Lutheran worship is robotic, dry, and dead.
But this may not be the case at all. The Alter is fenced off as if the church is protecting something that is extremely sacred; the priest slowly and carefully conducts the service with such precision as if he is treading on holy ground. Even the motion of his hands has sacred implications. A sense of seriousness and weightiness seems to fill the room. Though this is not an environment conducive for clapping, raising hands, and dancing, it does not mean that the congregation is not worshiping God. A deep sense of God’s holiness and a feeling of awe and reverence may be overwhelming the hearts of congregants.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have worship services that resemble a multisensory concert. Rather than a solemn and reverent atmosphere, there is the feeling of excitement, freedom, and joy. There is energy – lots of it – in the air. Those leading worship are not moving slowly with calculated precision as in the Lutheran service, they are full of excitement and their movements are more spontaneous. Rather than a priest full of years and maturity conducting the service, the stage is full of young life and vitality. Stage lights are flashing rapidly, smoke is rising in the air, the beat of the music is building momentum, and the band is becoming increasingly animated.
This atmosphere would naturally provoke a different type of feeling and even a more intense level of emotions. Passionate music, a strong beat, stage lighting, and the high energy level seems to create a highly intense atmosphere that provokes a different type of an emotional response than which is experienced in the Lutheran service. Those who worship in this environment may be swept up with a joy that is unspeakable as they feel deeply moved with much passion and energy to praise the Lord.
People are like sheep – especially in large group settings. Our emotions are easily influenced, directed, and even manipulated. The environment, atmosphere, and ambiance are powerful influences upon our emotions. Music alone can move us like a boat adrift at sea. We feed off one another’s emotions. I don’t know if any of us understand the exact relationship between our physical senses and our emotions, but there is most defiantly is a link between our environment and how we feel.
Though it is impossible for our emotions not to be influenced by the tempo of the music, the style and order of the worship, and the overall atmosphere of the service, how much should our emotions be influenced by these factors and how much should they be influenced by the truth of the gospel? Not that the answer can be neatly measured, but how much attention should be given to choreographing the emotional atmosphere of a worship service? Is there a target atmosphere that worship leaders should seek to create? To what degree should the atmosphere influence our emotional experiences in worship? Knowing that the manner in which we structure our services (from the song selections and arrangement of the music to the lighting of the sanctuary) will have an impact upon our emotions, how should this knowledge affect the way we conduct and structure our congregational worship?
3. My last question is, are these even relevant questions? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, but only if you are able speak about this heated subject without getting too emotional.

One thought on “Questions about the Atmosphere and Emotions in Worship

  1. Jeff, I appreciate the way you separate announcements from worship at GBC. We do the same thing at Immanuel by placing them at the end of the service after the closing prayer. But we also have a time of congregational prayer along with the announcements — something that is a bit easier to do in a smaller church setting.

    As I think about the issues you have raised, and as I try to think afresh about the worship services at Immanuel in light of your questions ad observations, a couple of things immediately come to mind.

    1) Since our focus is on God's Word, and our desire is to allow His Word to create the emotional responses of worship, we read several Scripture passages throughout the service and focus our attention on creating a well-lighted atmosphere in which people may open their Bibles and follow along if that will help them focus their attention more fully on the Word. Thus we would avoid a platform lit by spotlights with a congregation sitting in the dark. I would also mention in this regard a couple of brief points. First, there is something unseemly about children of light gathering to sit in the dark, at least as long as they have a choice not to do so. Second, in our culture the use of a dark stage with spotlights, laser lighting, and smoke machines automatically communicates psychologically an atmosphere of entertainment rather than worship, since these are the types of venues typically associated with stage productions. However, such is not the type of atmosphere we should seek in which to worship God.

    2) Since the songs we sing should help us to worshipfully respond to what God is saying in His Word, then we are careful to choose songs with words that are compatible with this goal, and then we are careful to choose songs that have music that matches the emotional response that ought to accompany the Scriptures read and the words of the songs chosen. So, for example, we don't want to sing about sorrow for sin to a peppy tune, and we don't want to sing about the joy of forgiveness to a tune that sounds like a funeral dirge. In other words, the music ought to help us express the emotions that the Word is intending to draw out of us; it should not be chosen simply because it produces emotions whether or not the emotions it produces are appropriate. Thus, for example, if the Word read is is about the joy of our assurance of salvation, and people are listening with a desire to respond with the expression of such joy, then we don't want to sing a song with music that is sorrowful even if the words of the song are intended to express joy.

    The music should therefore serve as a handmaid to the Word and should help to express the message of the lyrics, a message that should itself help the congregation to respond appropriately to the word that has been read. These are just some thoughts that have come to mind as I am sitting here thinking about the issue. I hope I haven't rambled too much!

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