Singing in the key of autopilot – Part Deux

Click here to read part one of this series. 


The church was a massive cathedral, constructed on a prime plat of rich farmland over 100 years ago in order to provide a house of worship for the German farmers who’d settled the area. Suburbia tried to swallow it whole, but didn’t seem to be able to digest the massive steeple, European stained glass windows and beams hewn from ancient trees that once clustered near the town’s cold, still lake.

Up in a loft is an ancient pipe organ, no doubt the pride of the folks who gave sacrificially to purchase and install it when the church was first built. This instrument serves as the worship leader for the church. At the proper moment in each scripted service, the organist pounds out an intro, readying the aging congregation to launch into every verse of each top-heavy hymn.

Well, in theory, anyway.

In actuality, the most of the congregation rises to its feet on cue, and then stands there. Few actually sing. Yes, the some of the songs are hard to sing, and others lumber on and on and on, a musical endurance test.

Is this worship?

I would contend that worship is taking place in this church…but it’s not happening during the church service.

If you keep watching the bored, tired congregation after the final note of the last hymn ends, you’ll se them come alive after the service ends. It appeared that most of them endured the service just as they had for decades in order to have those little social-glue conversations in the lobby after the service:

“How’s your granddaughter doing, Martha?”
“I heard there’s going to be snow again tomorrow afternoon.”
“It was a beautiful funeral.”

Those moments were the emotional marrow of the service – connection, communion and care happened in ways that they couldn’t during the service. The laughter and handshakes between ancient men wearing ancient blazers; a wheelchair-bound woman patting a visiting toddler on the head contained a palpable hunger for emotional connection with God and others in ways that the interminable service and that grim, soul-less music could never satisfy.

Visiting this church a few months ago got me to thinking about the role that music does (and doesn’t) play in worship. It was an extreme version of what I’ve experienced in lots of other church services.

Corporate, sung worship is our birthright as Christ-followers – song/psalm lyrics are ribboned throughout Scripture as a response to the work of God. Without exception, these songs are rooted in overflowing emotion whether their content is lament, thanksgiving, awe, joy or longing.

Though the creation of music is in part a cognitive, volitional act, if it originates solely in the domain of the brain alone, I believe it will fly like a lead balloon. When I was involved in planning chapel services at Trinity, some on campus voiced their concerns that service music might be used in some evil way to manipulate a congregation’s emotions, similar, perhaps, to the way that a movie soundtrack is meant to lead an audience to feel. Someone there once suggested to me that the ideal would be found if the congregation had a new bit of doctrine to think about in every sentence of a song.

This was in part a reaction against modern worship music, but I think it came from something more, too. I wonder if some of this was fear of tapping into the wellspring of emotion that lies beneath the surface of us all. I don’t see that fear of feeling emotion rewarded (or even expected!) anywhere in the Psalms – or anywhere else in Scripture, for that matter.

Sung worship must engage our messy, unmanageable emotions. If fear of a mess or an unhealthy commitment to nostalgia in our church services keeps us from feeling those emotions, worship becomes about us – which is the exact thing that those who default to these positions claim they’re avoiding.

Do you agree or disagree with dragging our emotions into the conversation about worship music? Why? 
Does your congregation shy away from emotional engagement in music?
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2 thoughts on “Singing in the key of autopilot – Part Deux”

  1. Michelle, I still have some thoughts percolating through my brain about your previous post. Meanwhile, this one inspired some observations:

    Worship is an emotional response to God's great goodness. Praise is talking to ourselves and each other about His goodness, which often inspires worship. Music is an important form, though by no means the only form, of both praise and worship. Naturally, some people will be drawn more to one form or another. The important thing is that we all worship the Lord, not that we all do it in the same way.

    Emotional praise and an emotional call to worship are both legitimate means to the end of encouraging the congregation to worship the Lord together, which will be an activity charged with emotion, although different people will manifest that emotion differently. I need to be careful not to judge my brother, thinking that if I were kneeling / sitting / standing / raising my hands / dancing that way, I would be thinking/feeling thus and so.

    I have, however, seen emotion misused in two ways: First, it can become an end in itself. We move from talking/singing about God (legitimate) to talking/singing about how we feel about Him (also legitimate) to talking/singing about our feelings (not wrong, but not necessarily worship) to reveling in our feelings and forgetting God (bad). I've seen both Old-Time Gospel and Up-to-the-Millisecond Contemporary preachers and music leaders gauge their success by emotional intensity they achieve, forgetting its object. People get addicted to an emotion, and no longer care why they feel that way. I once knew a woman who defined a good book as one that could make her cry. I call it emotional masturbation.

    Second, emotion can be used as a tool to manipulate people, building one's own kingdom instead of God's. The focus is on what the leader wants the people to do, usually for him. Unchecked, it can lead to cultish devotion to the organization and its leaders. I have been burned. The moment I feel I am being manipulated, my emotions shut down. I will continue to praise the Lord because he commands it, but I can't worship.

    Perhaps those people at Trinity were afraid an excess of emotion could be used to lead people away from the truth (though doctrinally shaky lyrics) or away from God's kingdom (through a charismatic leader). Rather than fear emotion, I believe we should thank God when it leads us toward Him, but be aware that it doesn't always. I don't see a fear of emotion in the Scriptures, but even in the Psalms, it is never an end itself. Emotions are like the wind, now blowing this way, now that way. Rather than praising or condemning the wind, let's note its strength and direction, and set our sails wisely.

  2. Beautifully put, Papa Bear. Your observations are spot-on and thoughtfully expressed.

    How can a worship leader (and/or pastor, and anyone else who leads a group in corporate worship) help their congregation set their sails wisely? Have you seen a church do this well? What habits and practices characterized their gatherings and their congregational life?

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