Conveying our emotions and God’s truth in our praise
Daniel Potter Kim | JULY 4, 2019 | 4 MIN READ
One of the most common questions I’ve received as a worship pastor is, “How do you avoid the emotional manipulation that comes with worship leading?”
The underlying assumption to that question is that any powerful emotion that music evokes is bad. But that’s just not true.
I’m not denying that hyper-emotionalized praise has been harmful to the church. People have been led to believe their faith is only genuine or that God is only present when they “feel” it. And if they don’t, they must not be in God’s favor or they’re falling short of God’s expectations.
So in an attempt to counter this false theological idea, many worship leaders and pastors, including me, have stormed up to that podium or music stand and ordered their congregations like this: “Don’t get carried away in how you feel! What matters more is what you know!” This is especially common in youth ministries, in which emotions can seem to get “carried away.”
But in saying that, what we have unintentionally conveyed to our students (and perhaps the rest of the congregation) is that they’re meant to separate their emotions from this particular time of worship. That our praise time should only, solely “focus on the lyrics” and not the emotions.
Fast forward 6 months later, that same youth pastor might come back up and yell at the kids before praise and ask, “Why aren’t you passionate about the Lord?” He’s unaware that the students are just following what he taught them to do one retreat ago -- to separate their emotions from their praise. I would even argue that this pastor is just as emotionally manipulative, only in a very different way: He’s still telling the students how they’re meant to feel by telling them not to feel.
Music inherently creates an emotional response in us. We’ve all felt pumped up during an anthemic song and melancholic yearning during a ballad.
I believe God gave us the gift of music so that we could fully convey the emotions of our hearts. This is because music helps us to express what our words alone cannot. Or more precisely, music allows us to color our words to more accurately convey the emotions behind them.
For example, when the psalmists celebrate the greatness, goodness, and the might and majesty of our God, they don’t just shout words. Instead, their praise explodes into song. The last five chapters of the Psalms end in a crescendo of jubilant worship to God. And it concludes in Psalm 150:
“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise Him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
The psalmist, in an attempt to praise the God he’s been describing, calls all the instruments to create a tumultuous roar of sound. It’s as if he were attempting to more accurately capture the magnificence of God through music, instruments, and sound in a way that words alone could not.
In the same way, we use praise music to convey what emotions are meant to be associated with the verses we read, the doctrines that we study, and the God that we see in scripture. The music is there to display more clearly, the beauty or the gravity or the power of the truth that we’re learning about.
For example, the band Shane and Shane plays “In Christ Alone” in a 3/4 time signature, but switches to triplets (9/8 time signature) in the third verse about the resurrection to convey the gravity and the weight of the fact that Christ has risen.
Hillsong has released two renditions of” O Holy Night” with nearly identical tempos, but while the first seems to emphasize the gentle and simple manner in which Christ arrived, the latter captures how monumental and glorious his coming was.
In another example, Latifah Phillips of Page CXVI recorded the normally upbeat song “Joy” to an incredibly somber melody after her father died battling cancer. Through the contrast between the lyrics and the melody, we get a glimpse into what she’s feeling.
Despite having this unshakable living hope (1 Peter 1:3) down in her heart, she is still experiencing a deep, profound sadness. The words, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” take on a completely different meaning with the minor chords and slow tempo.
Phillips’ journey to reconcile her sadness and her hope in Christ helps us to realize that being sad and being a Christian isn’t a contradiction. It reminds us that we too must choose joy and remember that Christ is our portion. The disagreement between the lyrics and the melody helps us to fully understand both our emotions and this truth.
Worship leaders are in a powerful position. With the songs we choose, we decide what kind of words will come out of the mouths of our congregations. And with the music we play, we will convey how they’re meant to feel about those words. That doesn’t mean we’re coercing people to feel a certain way. Manipulation only occurs when you try to artificially generate an emotional response.
We need to remember that worship leaders aren’t there to create emotional responses in the people they’re leading. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict and transform our hearts to love and cherish God.
Our goal as worship leaders is the same as any other believers worshipping God: Put the gospel on display for all the world to see, and use all means available to make that message clear to them. Music is one of those means. So we need to make sure our songs reflect Him in all that He is -- glorious and full of emotion.
As for the rest of the congregation, we need to remember that music is a powerful tool that can provide words and clarity to what goes on in our hearts. Our emotions often feel like a tangled mess, like deciphering code. We don’t know what we’re feeling or why we’re feeling it. It doesn’t help that we’re always so caught up in thinking about or finishing the tasks that are bombarding us that we never stop to figure them out.
But every so often, we’ll hear a song that gives us pause. It could be a new song that finally puts words to our nameless emotion or an old children’s song reminds us of a simple truth that we’ve long forgotten. Singing those songs allow us to process and give glory to God. It’s moments like this we need to remember that music and our emotions, like all things, are a good gift from God that He intends to have us experience fully.
Daniel Potter Kim is a youth pastor at Church Everyday in Northridge, CA. Born and raised in San Francisco, Daniel moved down to Southern California to attend UC Riverside. After graduating, he started seminary school at Talbot and served as a worship pastor for six years in the South Bay before moving to the valley. In his free time, he loves playing and listening to music, late night taco runs with friends, watching movies, rock climbing and doing anything at all with his wife Esther.