On Emotion and Worship

I figured our discussion on last week’s podcast, in which we proclaimed that the most important part of a hymn or worship song is the doctrinal content and that emotional expression can be misleading and dangerous, would raise some controversy. And so it has. There’s a raging debate going on in the comments section for the show notes, and even our friends at CWC: The Radio Show seem to have taken offense at our assertions.

Since I’m the one who came down most strongly on this point, I’ve taken it upon myself to further explain my reasoning. It should go without saying that what I write in this post does not necessarily reflect the opinions of either David or Nathan; obviously, they are free to disagree with me or to add to what I’m saying.

The CWC folks pointed to my stance for doctrine and against emotion as evidence of the difference between Calvinism and Pietism, the tradition to which the three of them all more or less belong. (Bethel University is itself a Pietist institution.) They are correct. My two major theological and philosophical influences are Calvinism and Existentialism. Combine these two, and you have a person who doesn’t particularly trust emotional responses. I will admit my bias.

But it’s not as though I’m unemotional or that I don’t listen to music that moves me. Absolutely I do. That’s why it’s important to differentiate between private responses to art (even private worship of God) and corporate worship. It’s the latter for which I demand doctrinal rather than emotional content. As I mentioned in the show itself, my views on the subject are heavily influenced by Robert Wetmore’s book Worship the Way It Was Meant to Be. It turns out that this book is rather drastically out of print, and used copies are expensive, so I’ll try to quote it enough here for our readers to get a good idea of what it says.

Wetmore’s thesis—and I agree with him—is that “The cross of Jesus Christ is at the heart of all worship.” He is therefore irked that “fewer and fewer churches sing hymns and choruses that mention Him” and that “The hymns and choruses they do sing seldom glory in His cross.” Without that doctrinal content, all we’re left with is “sentimental drivel.”

Wetmore himself is too generous to call out specific hymns and praise choruses for being empty—though he certainly had a good time doing just that in the class I took on the subject—so I’ll give two examples, both of which I mentioned in the show itself. First we have “In the Secret,” also known as “I Want to Know You,” first popularized by the rock worship band Sonicflood when I was in high school:

In the secret
In the quiet place
In the stillness you are there
In the secret
In the quiet hour I wait only for you
‘Cos I want to know you more

I want to know you
I want to hear your voice
I want to know you more
I want to touch you
I want to see your face
I want to know you more

I am reaching for the highest goals
That I might receive the prize
Pressing onward
Pressing every hindrance aside
Out of my way
‘Cos I want to know you more


Joe Futral points out in the comments section that he “can find nothing theologically suspect” in the song. Of course he can’t—there’s no theology at all. Christ’s name isn’t even mentioned, let alone His cross. If they played this song on a Top 40 station instead of a Christian station, you’d think it was about having sex in a garden, not about a religious experience. As an expression of Christian worship, “In the Secret” falls flat—it is so vague that it could just as easily be sung in a mosque or a temple.

Lest I give the impression that I’m just against contemporary worship, let’s take a look at the classic hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Hail Thee as the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness,
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!


If this hymn lacks the borderline-sexual content of “In the Secret,” it doesn’t replace it with much specific praise of God. All in all, this may as well refer to the pagan gods Beethoven was probably thinking of when he wrote the music.

These aren’t terrible songs, I suppose. (At least “Joyful, Joyful” isn’t; “In the Secret” grosses me out.) If someone wants to sing them in his or her car, pray, and convene with God, that’s just fine with me. But they’re misused in corporate worship because of their nearly total lack of doctrinal content.

My evidence for the centrality of doctrine in worship comes from Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The word teaching likely speaks for itself; admonishing in this case seems to be a translation of the Greek word noutheteo, which also suggests instruction in the right way of living. (I will confess here that I don’t speak a word of Greek and am relying on Wetmore and his sources; if Nathan or someone else who knows the language wishes to correct me, I will accept it gratefully.)

If I may draw what may well be a shaky analogy, I’m going to suggest that emotional vs. doctrinal worship may fall down on the same lines as speaking in tongues and prophesying, which St. Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 14. Speaking in tongues is great, says Paul, but the problem is that it is entirely interior: “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries” (14:2). Likewise, the primarily emotional song can speak only to an individual–and does so in a mysterious way, as I’m sure we can all agree.

But Paul has a better way, as he usually does: “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (14:3). That word edify is key here. Joe asks, “Would not people need to be edified emotionally as much as intellectually?” According to Wetmore, anyway, the answer is no; otherwise, you wouldn’t need someone to interpet the gift of tongues in order to make it edifying:

Notice that Paul said edification can occur only when the mind is instructed. An electric thrill may run through the congregation as everyone begins to speak in tongues, but this thrill is not edification. People are edified only when words are spoken to their minds, so that they can think about these words and be transformed by them.

Now, one objection to this assertion is that the New Testament says in several places that we should worship both in “spirit” and in “truth” (or “understanding”). People who make this objection suggest that spirit means emotion and truth means doctrine. I’m going to suggest it’s far more likely that spirit refers to the Holy Spirit, who doesn’t seem in the New Testament to manifest Itself primarily through stirring up emotions. Indeed, we are all promised the Holy Spirit upon accepting Christ (or whatever phrase your confession prefers). As Wetmore points out,

In a worship service, the Spirit of God is uniquely working with each individual believer, and we cannot see what He is doing. He may be giving one believer an experience of emotional exultation while bringing grief into the heart of another. All we can see are the results of what He does, but while He is doing it, His work remains a mystery.

To worship in the Spirit means not having an experience of passion through the music—frankly, Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” carries me to far greater heights of “spiritual” ecstasy than any worship song I’ve ever heard—but our worshipping in the fruits of the Spirit delineated in Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Of these nine, only joy even sounds like an emotion, and I’ve always understood it to mean a stubborn joy that perseveres no matter the emotion of the moment. (In the New Testament, by the way, peace almost always refers to an interpersonal peace rather than the calmness we typically use the word to mean these days.)

Likewise, when Paul says in Ephesians 5:18-19 that we should “not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,” I don’t think he’s promoting a deep emotional experience—he’s telling us to live with the fruits of the Spirit. How could we speak to one another in songs composed mostly of emotion, which is, after all, an individual and individualizing experience?

Another objection—this one was raised by both Chris Gehrz and Joe Futral—is that the Psalms are full of emotions rather than doctrinal content. They do display emotions; so does “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Nathan points out one difference between the Psalms and “In the Secret” in the comment section—the Psalms give specific historical detail—but that’s not the only difference.

The modern worship song is a romance song with God, and since modern American romance is typically shallow and based on emotion, so are our worship songs. Wetmore contrasts this attitude with that of the Psalmists:

The psalmists, on the other hand, praised God for specific characteristics. God is righteous, just, kind, loving, wise, powerful, good, avenging, protecting, and compassionate. They also praised Him for what God had done. In so doing, they moved the focus away from how they felt to who God is and what He has done.

So even at their most emotional, the Psalms are not primarily about emotion—they’re about who God is and what God has done and will do for the Psalmist. In the end, I think we should follow the model of the Psalms as read through the theology of Paul: Emotion is fine if you’d like to have it, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient, and a proper song (or perhaps set of songs, if your congregation is attached to “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs like “In the Secret”) needs to make actual and specific statements about our actual and specific God.

One other thing I wanted to say in the podcast but didn’t–though I did hint at it when answering Grubbsy’s first question–is that it’s a big mistake to consider only the music portion of a church service as worship. You’ll hear a music minister say this sometimes: “First we’ll worship, then we’ll pray and hear the sermon.” In fact, everything about a service–the music, the prayer, the sermon, even the “Big Howdy” where everyone shakes hands (or hugs, if you’re a Baptist)–is worship. Indeed, our entire lives are to be acts of worship, as St. Paul makes clear in Romans 12.

I hope I’ve made the evidence for my argument at least a little clearer. As we all agreed in the podcast, these issues are important, but they are not worth splitting a church over—they’re not even worth having an uncivil argument over. I doubt I’ve convinced many people who love “Trading My Sorrows” that they need to incorporate more doctrine into their worship music—but I hope I’ve at least demonstrated that my side has a point.

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