Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Emotions and Praise Worship

There’s no doubt that attending a contemporary “praise” worship service can be an emotional experience. The music and lyrics often lead to an emotional “high,” but to what end? It seems that in some churches, the musical goal is to manipulate your feelings, the thought being that those “feelings” are a barometer for your faith and the work of the Spirit. The more “uplifted” you feel, the more spiritual you are and the more “successful” the service was. Personally, I’ve found that I really do have an emotional response to the lyrics in these services, but that response isn’t what you might expect. Rather than feelings of rejoicing and joy, some of the time my response is one of frustration during praise services. What’s going on? Am I a praise worship washout?

To answer the above question, take a look at this line from a typical praise song ("Famous One," by Chris Tomlin): “With every breath I'm praising You.” It’s a nice thought. But unless you’re referring to the Spirit’s intercession on our behalf, this particular thought is patently false. I’ve yet to discover the day where I’ve consciously praised God with every breath I took. More often, I was worrying about finances, or thinking about changing the oil in the car, rather than praising God. I remember one of my friends commenting that he couldn’t even sit through the church service without his mind wandering – he couldn’t even properly praise God while he was sitting there in God’s house. The song line is based on an impossible premise. It’s a song line not about God and His goodness, but about me and my goodness, and in that category, we all fail.

Putting this into theological terms the line “With every breath I'm praising You” is a statement of Law. It’s talking about what I should do. The church service, and especially the sermon, should have Law in it. One of the purposes of the Law is as a mirror to show us our sin. But in the song, this line sounds more like a pharisee bragging about how he can keep the Law, rather than a poor miserable sinner despairing of his or her own condition and inability to keep the Law.

With only Law presented as in this song, a person will either become a Pharisee who’s proud of what he’s accomplished, or a sorrowful sinner afraid of God’s wrath. Neither situation leads to salvation. Without the presentation of the Gospel, a contrite sinner will be left in despair, which is where this song leaves you.

The purpose of a good hymn should not be to lead you to an emotional experience, but to lead you to Christ. The Holy Spirit comes to us only through Word and Sacrament, not through our own emotions. The measure of spiritual “success” is not based on what you “feel,” but rather on whether you trust in the objective, external promises of the Gospel – only there is found forgiveness, life, and salvation, offered by the outstretched arms of a crucified and risen Lord.

I cannot get through the second line of verse seven of "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" without shedding a tear when I sing it (He lives, and I shall conquer death), but that emotion is a response to the sure and certain work accomplished not by me, but by my Savior Jesus Christ, in whom I continue to sing. God’s blessings as you too sing His praises through His good and perfect work graciously poured out on us by His Spirit.


Kurt Onken said...

Great post, Scott. I highlighted it for the folks who read 92nd and State.

Hope all is well in the south Sound.

Anonymous said...

you have some good points, but I know for me, growing up in the Lutheran church I was never really exposed to the side of having a real relationship with Christ. Worship--aka praise music, opened the door to that at least for me, opened up my eyes to a whole new side of the faith. And adding that to the solid foundation of the core beliefs of Christianity that I was taught in the Lutheran church, it merely strengthened the faith that I had.
Also, how can you be frustrated with the emotional experience? I mean, God is a God of emotions. anger, happiness, jealous etc. man, dont put God in a box :)

Scott Diekmann said...

I'm not at all frustrated with the emotional experience Lauren. I'm frustrated with lyricists who don't know the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

Anonymous said...

lol ok then :)