It is saddening and surprising how divisive music can be in a local church. While difference in preferences over styles and arrangements do arise, one commonplace area of contention is the place of emotions in corporate singing. While some churches unhealthily elevate emotions and others unhealthily demonise emotions, the Bible instructs us to pursue a healthy, nuanced expression of emotion as we meet, worship and sing together.
1. The place of emotion in corporate worship
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” – Romans 12:10-12
Romans 12 may initially seem like an obscure place to think about emotion and singing but it is in many respects an important foundation for how we are to see the relationship between the two. Moving from Paul’s famous words on spiritual worship in verse 1-2, he goes on to illustrate the nature of this worship as we serve other believers as members of one body. Here, the Biblical definition of corporate worship is much greater than merely singing; in verses 6-8 we see that it encompasses prophesy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and acts of mercy.
It is important to note two things here: the inherent place of emotions in our corporate worship, and the broad spectrum of emotion in our corporate worship. In verses 10-12 we see that we are not just to be devoted to one another but devoted to one another in brotherly love. We are not just to serve the Lord but to serve the Lord with spiritual fervour. We are not only to hope but to be joyful in our hope. The expression of emotions in corporate worship is necessary and good.
2. The place of emotions in corporate music
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.” – Psalm 95:1-2
One of the amazing things about the Psalms (a songbook) is the raw expression of emotions, ranging from joy to grief to despair to reverence and fear. The great reformer Martin Luther wrote:
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions…which control men or more often overwhelm them… Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate…what more effective means than music could you find.”
Music is a powerful medium. Through it we learn God’s word. Through it we can express our emotions. Music has been peculiarly and particularly appointed by God as a means by which he implants his word in us and a means by which we can corporately rejoice, weep and plead.
3. The dangers of ‘emotionalism’
Given the power of music to evoke emotion it is not surprising that there are also some dangers. The foremost danger of course is that the emotional experience of the music becomes the focus, rather than the subject of the music. The danger is that we begin to worship our feelings rather than God. John Calvin warned, “We should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words.” Likewise, Augustine wrote in the 4th century, “Yet when it happens to me that the music moves me more than the subject of the song, I confess myself to commit a sin deserving of punishment, and then I would prefer not to have heard the singer.”
A central criticism of Pentecostal models of corporate music worship is their perceived emotional excess. Yet, more conservative Evangelical churches generally have a shallow and inadequate doctrine and practice when it comes to the corporate music and the place of emotions (as well as in the Christian life more generally). If there is anything that they have reacted too far against, it is the expression of emotion in church. However, the problem is not emotions per se. Bob Kauflin, director of Sovereign Grace Music, provides a helpful distinction between emotions and emotionalism:
Some Christians repress their emotions as they sing. They fear feeling anything too strongly and think maturity means holding back. But the problem is emotionalism, not emotions. Emotionalism pursues feelings as an end in themselves. It’s wanting to feel something with no regard for how that feeling is produced or its ultimate purpose. Emotionalism can also view heightened emotions as the infallible sign that God is present. In contrast, the emotions that singing is meant to evoke are a response to who God is and what He’s done. Vibrant singing enables us to combine truth about God seamlessly with passion for God. Doctrine and devotion. Mind and heart.
Is emotionalism a danger? Absolutely. Is ignoring the emotional dimension of corporate music the answer? Absolutely not. Emotions are not the problem; emotionalism is. This means that rather than rejecting emotional expression we ought to engage in developing a robust theology and practice of emotional expression in corporate worship.
4. Rethinking how we sing
As music coordinator one constant challenge I face is encouraging my congregation to Biblically and practically think through the place and purpose of emotions in singing. Often I find it discouraging that our wariness of encouraging emotionalism has led us to ignore the place of emotions all together. But often it is more of a reflection of our cultural inclinations and traditional partialities than of Biblical thought. Often we overcorrect to the point that we become routine in our attitude and nonchalant in our singing. We risk entering into a sort of pious stoicism.
Could it be that in our justified rush to anti-emotionalism we have hastily become anti-emotion? Could it be that our right fear of emotionalism has degenerated into an unhealthy fear of any emotional expression?
We need to rethink how we sing.
I am not suggesting that we awkwardly force ourselves to be outwardly emotional if we are not inclined that way. However, I think a lot of the time we lack normal, genuine, emotional expression when we sing. A good song – and indeed God’s word – should move us to respond appropriately, as we hear of God’s greatness, our wretched sin and the truth of salvation in Jesus. It is sad and discouraging to see brothers and sisters in Christ sing about the most profound truths without engaging their hearts. After all, we are emotionally expressive in almost every other area of our life: during a sports game, at a concert, spending a night out with friends. How much greater reverence, sadness and joy should we feel when singing of the gospel that saves sinners!
Another way of rethinking how we sing is to consider how we can encourage one another by expressing emotions while singing. At my home church we like to speak of corporate music in both vertical and horizontal terms: we seek to both praise God and encourage one another in our singing. Often, however, I suspect that when we speak about emotions we exclusively speak about them in the former (i.e. emotional expression reflects my praise of God). While true, such a view of the purpose of emotion is incomplete and can be unhelpful.
What if we viewed emotion in more holistic terms? What if we viewed expressing emotions in corporate singing as both as an appropriate response to who God is and what he has done and a means by which we can encourage one another?
The expression of emotion (or lack thereof) is not a private, individual matter when it comes to corporate singing. How we sing effects those with whom we sing. Let us therefore serve one another as we join our voices with those of the hosts of heaven, and prepare ourselves for that day when we will see our Lord face to face and serve and sing his praises gladly forever.
“The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections” – Jonathan Edwards